native plant landscaping

This is how a yard would look with native plants and reduced lawn. (Photo illustration: Doug Tallamy)

Doug Tallamy, the passionate voice and inspirational conscience of the native plant movement, is on a mission. He’s asking America’s homeowners to buy into a new definition of curb appeal.

When Tallamy, a professor of entomology and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware, thinks about curb appeal, he envisions residential yards in which lawns are reduced by 50 percent, groups of diverse native trees, shrubs and flowers line each side of the lawn, and the small grassy areas guide the eyes of passersby through the landscape to a focal point on the house, such as a door.

He knows this definition won’t be an easy sell.

“Curb appeal is a concept introduced by real estate agents,” Tallamy told the 30th annual Cullowhee Native Plant Conference in Cullowhee, N.C., in July. “In the real estate view, curb appeal seems to be a full view of the front of the house, which by default is an open lawn.

The problem with yards that are mostly grass is that they are “dead landscapes” that lack plants, specifically plants native to a homeowner’s region of the country, that support the web of plant, insect and animal life, Tallamy contends. In a survey of 66 properties in 22 suburban neighborhoods in Delaware, Pennsylvania and Maryland that he and his students conducted, they found that 92 percent of the landscapes were lawn, 79 percent of the landscape plants were introduced from Asia, Europe or elsewhere, and 9 percent were highly invasive. The study also found that the average yard contained only 10 percent of the tree biomass of a nearby woodlot.

front yard landscape with big lawn

Doug Tallamy wants homeowners to move away from this model and devote less space to lawns and more to native plants. (Photo: pics721/Shutterstock)

Tallamy’s goal is to convince homeowners to get more native plants into the landscape. His challenge is to get them to understand that they can do this without making their yards look wild and messy.

He thinks it will be relatively easy to get homeowners to change the look of their backyards because this part of the landscape isn't visible from the street. He sees the front yard, however, as a different matter. Even the term “backyard habitat,” he contends, suggests the front yard is off-limits to native plants. But his real challenge, he said, are urban legends that discourage the use of native plants in the front yard.

“Most of these urban legends are misconceptions, but some are legitimate concerns,” he said. We use these urban legends to rationalize our feelings that native plants disrupt an innate human need for neatness and order, Tallamy explained. He believes there are eight of these legends, and he has a rebuttal for each.

Urban legend No. 1: Native plants are messy

This, perhaps, is the misconception that has gained the greatest traction.

“Some people think that to share our landscapes with other species we have to stop mowing our lawns, or give up landscaping altogether,” Tallamy said. “But native landscaping is not the absence of landscaping. Barren lawn is the absence of landscaping.”

It is also important to remember, Tallamy said, that the design of the landscape is less important than the biodiversity that the design should support. He cited three landscaping principles that will get more native plants into the landscape without sacrificing curb appeal aesthetics:

1.  Reduce the lawn by 50 percent.
2.  Plant densely and in layers.
3.  Plant groups of plants (plant communities) instead of single plants (specimens).

oak tree, native plants landscapingOf these, he said reducing the size of the lawn is the major design challenge because it means reversing the landscaping paradigm for the last century. That paradigm has been to decide where plantings will go and then fill the remaining space with lawn.

Instead of thinking of trees and shrubs first, Tallamy said the first thing homeowners should decide is where they want to walk and put the lawn there. One way to make that decision, he advised, is to figure out what’s the hardest area to mow.

Once they know where the lawn will go, Tallamy said homeowners should heavily plant everything else in a way that creates outdoor rooms. The lawn will shape the rooms, and woody plants, trees and shrubs will create structure that will become the room’s walls. Ground covers can create a floor and arching limbs can even form a ceiling. The structural plants will force the view up the lawn to the most attractive aspect of the home.

In building the walls in the front yard, Tallamy says homeowners shouldn’t shy away from using oaks (that's a big one above). “They do not grow as slowly as some may think, and even while they are small they support a great diversity of life,” he said. He also prefers woody plants over herbaceous ones because they support more animal diversity. Besides, the stems of herbaceous plants die to the ground in winter while woody plants keep their stems year-round and help define outdoor rooms even in winter.

One thing he advises homeowners to avoid is bare ground, which he calls an ecological disaster. The ground should be covered by ground covers or leaves. One way to do that is to plant densely. As hard as it will be for some to accept, it’s OK, even preferable, for leaves to touch just as they do in nature, he said.

The benefit of dense plantings is that they don’t treat plants as decorations but as "functional plant communities," Tallamy said. By a functioning community, Tallamy said he means a group of plants such as white oaks, ironwood, high-bush blueberry, Virginia creeper, and arrowwood viburnum that use the sun to create food for animals, most importantly insects and birds.

“Only diverse native plant communities support complex stable food webs,” Tallamy said. “We have landscaped so much of the United States with plants from Asia and Europe that food webs and the species they support are collapsing everywhere."

By creating plant communities, homeowners will eliminate isolated specimen plants. One problem with individual plants, especially large trees, is that they are susceptible to toppling over in storms because they don’t have root systems that interlock with the roots of other trees to help them withstand occasional high winds.