Conservation Landscaping in Design

Conservation Landscaping

Here we are again with our White-throated Sparrow to tell us more on Conservation Landscaping.

This type of landscaping goes beyond just planting native perennials. It encompasses a philosophy of caring for the land, reducing pollution, conserving resources, and improving the environment.


In its most basic terms, it reduces the amount of turf grass to mow. It looks at how plants grow to conserve water for instance. Deeper rooted plants means better water conservation. It looks at topography to improve drainage and avoid ponding which kills trees. It looks at maintaining healthy soil and all the life within. It creates an environment where animals create homes. Can you think of any landscaping more in need in this era of climate change and irresponsible development?


Of course, it recommends planting native plants for the benefits many are well aware. It disallows invasive species. Non-natives with value are not necessarily removed so as to maintain soil structure, abate erosion and maintain a healthy community of existing wildlife that may be using the plant.

In place of planting an isolated tree in the middle of a sea of lawn turf, it creates layers of vegetation to mimic that found in natural areas.

It includes the forest layer – canopied trees; understory plants – the various layer of smaller trees and shrubs beneath the canopy layer; and the ground layer – what you might have in the annuals and perennials that neighbor, skirt and run throughout the understory plants. These plants are installed in numbers to create compatible plant groups. This is one reason why properties are usually large.


The plants that you find in a natural setting such as this are plants that feed, house and sustain the wildlife. Included in this type of landscaping are also things you might see above like brush piles and downed trees. In the case of fallen trees, I incorporate cut logs in my own garden. These provide many uses to wildlife, like insect larvae to woodpeckers for instance.

The sparrow in this post was dining on plants on the forest floor and also caching some of what it found. I believe this behavior and site location is why the sparrow still remains in Winter.

Climate change has disrupted the food source of many creatures, not to mention keeping some animals from migrating in what would be considered normal for their species. The most apparent problem to this for a home gardener is planning. When installing plants that suit conditions for the warmer dry weather we have been having, then getting winters such as this, it makes planning to help sustain wildlife difficult. Planting native plants, although most appropriate has its own set of difficulties in areas undergoing change. It is a trying time for animals and plant life with drought affecting much of our country.


PlantingScematicYou can see how this type of landscaping generally requires acreage and why my small city property, although having elements of conservation landscaping from understory trees and shrubs to ground-hugging perennials, does not meet the needs of a large variety of wildlife like you would find in natural sites. But it does a pretty good job, none the less.

I get loads of insects, nesting birds and small mammals, but never could compete with a natural habitat for these creatures just by the size of the property. The main problem is it is an island for wildlife, not part of a larger corridor of like properties. This is key too.

The density of the landscaping with varying heights of vegetation allows for much food and shelter though. A hedge of Thuja occidentalis ‘Emerald’ is along one side and also in back, great places for birds to have protection from the elements and predators. It is native to our area, yet this is a cultivar.


The point to dense landscaping is to provide shelter, breeding and nesting habitat for a diverse number of wildlife. Again this type of landscaping uses the patterns found in nature, yet allows for changes that nature may invoke, as in succession of species. At the end of the season, you just might let some ‘weeds’ go to seed for the wildlife. I do, yet I maintain control on when to remove such plants.


So simply, it is a smart use of plants in design sympathetic to habitat formation that evolves over time, benefiting wildlife with food, safety and shelter as it might find in natural settings.


As you might know, most of my design work is large-scale. I have designed for banks, schools, businesses, corporate sites, TV stations, parks, and other public lands such as preservation of wetlands. I also design for large residential estates.


Each of these properties is an opportunity to create natural scapes on a large portion of the property. The key is not to try to mimic plant combinations researched for habitat restoration, but make design choices to mirror plant communities already established in an area. I can’t stress this enough.

Copying what one finds in books is NOT the prudent way to create a habitat conducive to what is already present in plant and wildlife communities. Just because it may be native, does NOT mean that it is native to your locale. This means you are putting in plants that are not necessarily going to encourage the wildlife already present.


Here are simple things to consider. Although simple, they encompass quite a bit of understanding, research, experience, and documentation. Many people only superficially understand a site.


  • Really know your site and plant to those conditions. Conserve water and control runoff. Reduce hard surfaces in your landscape and create surfaces to allow water to percolate into the soil and not run off to storm sewers. Locate trees to help shade and cool your home in the summer to reduce energy costs and enjoy the benefit of the wildlife that use them too. Plant a windbreak to also reduce heating costs. Windbreaks also benefit wildlife in the same way. Be part of a movement that creates corridors of native plants in your area. This is the only way wildlife can make gardens a home. Isolated properties, unless very large, do not generally provide homes to a wildlife community other than some nesting birds and some insects.
  • Choose a habitat to create and stick with it unless you have many, many acres of land. This is important because it is better for the compatible wildlife that will be making their homes on the property, especially mammals needing acreage. It is not necessary to get every creature in your environmental community. You want to establish places the wildlife make their homes. A small quarter or half-acre property is not a place for a multitude of tiny habitats. Bogs and ponds should be large enough to work as they would in nature. Meadows and forested areas are the same way. If one has the property, include areas that offer wildlife variety. Otherwise, it is more of aesthetics for the homeowner.
  • Choose plants native to your community. Not the country, not even your State. Keep local. Serve the existing flora and fauna communities already making their homes there. And be thoughtful on removal projects. Not every non-native plant needs culling. Take the advice of your Cooperative Extension office or independent nurseries, not from information gathered outside your area. Have the plants work for the environment, not just be for appearance sake.

White-throated-Sparrow-8Other considerations on conservation landscaping look more closely at the understory plants. This is an area with generally more wildlife activity in our region. There are habitats where the canopy or ground layer has more, but they are very specific, like rainforests and deserts. Birds have a lot to teach us in our landscaping.

About Garden Walk Garden Talk

I love to photograph, paint, draw, design, garden, travel the world, and pass on a few tips and ideas that I learned through experience as a Master Gardener and architect. I am highly trained in my field and enjoy my work each and every day. I garden in Niagara Falls, NY in zone 6-B. Find me at:
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20 Responses to Conservation Landscaping in Design

  1. Interesting article and great photography!

  2. Always always with great advice, my dear Donna – and what’s more: accompanied by the most wonderful images.
    Happy Thursday, my friend. 🙂

  3. acuriousgal says:

    Just excellent advice, Donna!!

  4. Great advice, I really hope that more and more homeowners will go this route. Sort of the Think global, act local of gardening.

  5. Annette says:

    Very thoughtful, Donna, and I hope it’ll strike a chord with many people. I don’t like lawns and have wildflowers everywhere. I always garden and design with wildlife in mind and don’t like these extreme views on exotic plants as a lot of our most treasured plants come from others countries. Lovely images too 🙂

  6. Phil Lanoue says:

    Great photos and excellent information, thanks!

  7. Love your sparrow. I live in an apartment and have little to do with gardening, but your photos and post are inspiring.

  8. I love the photos but also your philosophy. My ultimate goal would be to live in what we call a lifestyle block here in New Zealand with a self sustaining garden and eco friendly house. We are encouraged to plant native bushes and trees to encourage native wildlife. But we have a huge problem with wild cats, rats and opossums killing of the native fauna. Especially in the outer suburbs. 😀

  9. alesiablogs says:

    I live with a native growth protective zone in my back yard. We are told to only have native plants etc. I have seen some neighbors completely destroy their yards when they know not to just so they can put a “lawn” in. I allow my back yard to be natural, but I will be honest with you. Sometimes it is out of laziness. : ) This past year though was different! I clocked in the month of July, August, and September probably 40 hours a week. The garden has been a help to me while going through some tough times as you know. Alesia

  10. janechese says:

    This is so thoughtfully written and studied . Thank you for bringing my attention to this topic of conservation for the good of the planet and its inhabitants..

  11. Love this post! I had always used the phrase “wildlife gardening”, but I like “conservation landscaping”. Of course you are right about the limitations of a single urban or suburban plot. I have seen in my own garden, as small as it is, an increase in the number of bird species present. However, this probably just means I am attracting the few individuals of less common birds that are already in the area – but at least I am giving them some additional support. I still share the dream that some day enough people in urban or suburban communities will change the way they landscape so that there really is a significant impact on the diversity of wildlife in their area.

  12. A lot of good information here. Thanks, Donna.

  13. Ree says:

    Awesome photos and write-up!

  14. Karen says:

    Very informative article with a lot of food for thought. Loved your photos and the companion sparrow helping out with the story!

  15. Pat says:

    Love the little sparrow throughout this interesting post.

  16. Rose says:

    Great advice, Donna. You mention some points that I had never thought about before. Too often I’ve looked at books and magazines for ideas for my own garden that just won’t work here. But I’m learning what does and trying to plant accordingly. Such a sweet little sparrow!

  17. Great post I will be adding a few more things here as I recover from surgeries and can hardly wait to see how they will like the additions.

  18. alderandash says:

    Really interesting post (lovely photos too!) I love your comment about not just conserving, but even trying to improve the health of your local environment. My family and I have a little 3.5 acre plot in the UK, we love growing and gardening – and hope we can leave our patch of land in a healthier, more biodiverse state than we found it! (I blog at if you ever feel like stopping by…) Thanks again!

  19. Fabulous post Donna. It has been a lot of work trying to reclaim the land here when it was mostly cleared and the rich topsoil from the trees scraped away and the dense clay left to invite the invasive weeds. All you talk about here are what I am looking at this year to redo, add and create. I will be mindful of these elements especially the understory.

  20. Tony says:

    The “bigger picture” is oh so important. It is often stated by targeting one species, you can actually help to conserve many others by using sound conservation practice. Hear, Hear to Conservation Landscaping.

    Best Wishes


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