The dos and don'ts of native gardens

The dos and don'ts of native gardens

Here’s what you need to know when working with builders to establish more sustainable designs.

November 25, 2013
Lindsey Getz

There’s no doubt it can be difficult to find contractors who utilize sustainable practices. But as more clients show interest in sustainable landscapes, it’s becoming a growing need. Asia Scudder, MLS, of Oklahoma-based Native Landscapes recently gave a presentation on working with builders on sustainable landscape design. There are some important considerations to take into account when pitching a sustainable focus to clients.

Scudder’s specialty is creating habitats for wildlife and she has a special interest in helping others succeed at establishing and growing native plant gardens. Native plant gardens provide a diverse habitat and attract many insects, butterflies, and birds. But they have many nuances that make them different.

As a result, Scudder says it’s important to be upfront with clients about what to expect. For one, native gardens do require some extra attention as they can be difficult to initially establish. Although native plants are often considered low-maintenance in the long term, they do still need some trimming and regular care over time. They can, however, thrive in unfertilized areas which is a key reason behind choosing a native design.

Education. Once the decision to go native is made, it’s important that clients are aware that maintaining a naturalized area will require specialized training of lawn and garden crews. Scudder says that it’s not uncommon for ongoing maintenance crews to pull out perennials thinking they’re weeds. Crews need to become familiarized with the native plants in the landscape. The fact is that most landscape maintenance crews are not used to working with native plant life. Scudder says that at the start of each season it may even be necessary to be on-site to re-train existing crews and to train new crews on native plant care. She always allows for extra time for training of subcontractors and crews for this reason.

Clients should also be aware upfront that there are times of the year when a natural garden can look “less than professional.” But landscape contractors can make an effort to use other plants – not necessarily purely native – to bridge the gap in times that natural plants aren’t thriving. This is a great opportunity to be flexible, which may make builders even more willing to accept a native design, Scudder says.

Landscape contractors pushing for native designs should also remember that what makes native plants unique and appealing to some – their ability to attract a variety of wildlife – can be a downside for others. It’s certainly a double-edge sword and Scudder says that unwanted animal attraction is a common complaint from builders. In one design that Scudder was a part of, the native plant life attracted everything from moles and squirrels to a range of insects like bees and wasps. This influx of wildlife made the builder uncomfortable.

But Scudder says it’s largely a matter of perspective. In another landscape design that had attracted a lot of salamanders, Scudder installed some “learning boards” along the sidewalks where passerbys could read about the salamanders and the importance of providing natural habitats for wildlife. She says the education went a long way. It made people proud of the design rather than view it as a nuisance.

Another common concern among builders is that the flowers of native plants can sometimes be smaller and “less showy,” Scudder says. But she reassures those who have expressed this concern with the fact that native blooms often tend to last longer – possibly even throughout the entire growing season. Landscape contractors can also mix the native blooms with annuals to offset the smaller size.

Cost has also been a concern expressed by builders. But Scudder says that in her experience, the cost of green materials has been relatively equal – and in some cases less expensive – to traditional materials. This is of course even truer over time when savings are generated on less water and fertilization usage, as well as less expense in mowing.

As landscape contractors aim to generate increasing interest in using native plants in their design, Scudder says it’s important to assess the client’s knowledge, understanding, and experience with sustainable materials and practices. Knowing this can help you gear your presentation to the client. It’s important to remember that a client who is new to sustainable landscape design will require more devoted time. It’s also important to recognize their expectations. Do they want to reduce water usage or save money? Do they want to avoid mowing expenses or fertilizer costs? Knowing their expectations can help you demonstrate practical solutions, Scudder says.

There’s no doubt that clients may have some concerns with the idea of a native plant design, but the potential benefits can outweigh those worries. Scudder says to remember that reputation is extremely important in the building industry and if you can prove that your native plant design will help – rather than harm – their reputation, it may be an easy win.