Naturalized Landscaping - A Horticultural Expert's Advice

Naturalized Landscaping: Create Your Own Naturescape, Naturally!

There is something beautiful and mystical about a naturally growing green space to admire and enjoy. Imagine such a place in your own front, side or backyard! Naturalized landscaping incorporates native plants, seeds, and groundcover to create a beautiful, natural oasis on your property. It’s one of my favorite approaches to landscaping and gardening, and today I’ll tell you why.

The short answer is that it’s sustainable. In my view, sustainability is the ultimate goal for a garden that could last for many years.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

First, let’s define what we’re talking about for those who ask what a naturalized garden is.

Using seeds, native ground covers, plants, shrubs/bushes and trees to installed in the ground with the existing soil, is the definition of a naturalized garden.

In addition, the use of hardscapes such as pebbles, rocks, boulders, dead wood, drift wood and whole tree trunks found in your particular area will enhance the natural landscape.

The design is totally up to your tastes and ideas. You may choose to apply hardscapes after your plantings have established and grown.

The benefit of these combined materials will improve the environment in your particular area. The ecosystem will improve by not applying chemical fertilizer, chemical pesticides, extra irrigation and any other synthetic substances.

The area where native plants and materials are used to transform to a natural haven will flourish where a lawn cannot.  A lawn often needs improvements in soil, irrigation, fertilizers, pesticides and possible synthetic amendments that natural areas emphatically do not.

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Let’s Get Started!

Please start on a small plot of ground to familiarize yourself with the process. We don’t want to get overwhelmed!

Clearing the Area

Clearing an area of existing lawn or vegetation is the first step in transition from lawn to a natural wonder. In keeping with this purpose, use mechanical means to remove all vegetation.

Clearing the Area

You have options here – this could be a rototiller, power spade, tractor, spading fork, iron rake or even a garden hoe! Depending on conditions, a decent amount of physical labor may be necessary.

But before you dig on your property, remember — it’s important to check for buried utility lines which may be present. In many cases it’s the law to do so. This is an easy step for homeowners, as many municipalities have a number you call, and the utility companies will come to your property and mark any buried lines with flags so you can dig safely.

A final thought on this step in the process: save the vegetation you remove and compost the material for later use.

Remember, the purpose is to improve and enhance the environment.  Here is your opportunity to either totally level your plot or partially berm (mounded areas) to fit your design.

Once you have accomplished this task, you’re ready for the next step.

Native Plants

Most people are not aware what constitutes native plants.

I recommend that you get in touch with your local cooperative extension service, local plant nurseries, and seed companies to find reliable natively grown plant or seed sources. Look for sources that supply organic, non GMO (genetically modified organisms) plant and seed materials.

Use Native Plants

You might find plants locally grown in your area. Craig’s List, Facebook , and other online sources could also be of help. 

And before you run to the box store, how about purchasing your natural materials from local Farmers Markets or individuals who sell from their front yard or greenhouse?

You get the point.

Placement of Plants and Materials in Naturalized Landscaping

We now have our ground prepared; let’s get to the placement of plants and materials. The art and science of placement is fundamental to the process of naturalization.

How does nature plant any given area? RANDOMLY! You’re going to love this idea.

Take some pond pebbles or potatoes and casually throw them onto the plot and plant or place your materials where the stones or potatoes land!

I know it sounds insane, but that is exactly how nature plants.

Planting a Naturalized Garden

Some of you are going to plant it your own way. That’s fine. Just remember, the goal is for your planted area to look natural.

There are naturalized planting guides online and in publications. Study what they recommend and advise. The most important aspect; Have Fun!

Take Care and Maintain

With naturalized landscaping on your property, the issue of maintenance is much simpler than a lawn!

You are planting in unimproved soil. The purpose for using soil that has not been enhanced is to improve the soil biome using compost, shredded leaves, compost tea and local organic matter.

Think of it this way; imagine you are in a local forest. How are those trees and natural foliage fertilized and watered? Leaves and dead branches fall continually, birds and forest animals supply their waste, rain, snow, sleet, frozen rain, hail and dew falls from the sky and air, dry periods and droughts come and go. This is how nature takes care of its’ own!

Obviously, you have to be the supplier of the things your planting will need.

Minimal irrigation and composted materials should be applied during the active growing season for your area. Actually less is better for your sustainable area. Here is why:

Natural plantings need stress to harden the plants to continue to grow.

Naturalized Xeriscape

Some plants may actually decline, but other of the plantings will thrive and take their place!

What About Pest Management?

Pest management is also simplistic. Can you wrap your mind around the concept of insects or an animal chewing on your plantings?

Embrace it!

This is natures’ way of pruning the plants which will stimulate the growth to renew.

All plants have growth points called meristems. When the growing point is cut off, the plant receives a chemical message to produce new growth. Often this natural pruning will stimulate flowering above and beyond normal flowering. When a plant is pruned, a chemical message “tells the plant” it may die. The natural response is to produce seed because it might die.

With naturalized landscaping you will have to decide, do I intervene and spray some natural insecticide like insecticidal soap? Will I use the pressure of a hose to knock the insects off?

Our grandparents and great grandparents would toss their used dishwater on plants to reduce pests and fungus. (by the way, it worked!)

I Did It My Way. Learning is Fun!

My first adventure into naturalization was planting native live oak seedlings, in my front yard.

I went to the South Florida Fair, where I found the seedlings in bundles of 10. The Florida Cooperative Extension was giving the seedlings away for FREE!

When I got home I put those seedlings in pots and planted them as singles, doubles and one triple. Months later, I placed the pots out randomly in the front yard.

I planted the trees in native soil (sandy soil). I watered them in with a garden hose. For a month, the seedling just sat there. Finally the trees started to take off. Fast forward five years and the trees were big and beautiful.

This provided shade and coolness to the east side of the house, which reduced my electric bill by one third.

In addition the trees buffered street noise and protected the house from potential strong winds.

By now I was planting Florida native plants in the front yard as an understory with fabulous results. Plus, I was using less water which saved funds needed for irrigation. To think, this all started with free live oak seedlings. That’s a Win Win!

In case you are wondering why I planted single, double and triple pots of trees. In nature it is rare to see singularly planted trees. Usually the trees come up as multiples. When the trees grow to a larger size, the full canopy (top half of the trees) merge, creating one single canopy. This practice is consistent with all natural plantings.

You can see, by starting small I could add native plantings to complete the understory of my xeriscape (native plantings that require less water and are more resistant to drought).

Final Thoughts and Considerations

Starting out with a small naturalized garden area is the best way to visualize a native garden.

On Moderation

The beauty of this form of planting and gardening is to see the naturalized area grow and flourish in its own way.

It is easy to get discouraged and want to give up, but I hope you don’t.

Instead of going wild at the buffet, use moderation and embrace the simplicity of naturalized landscaping. Put less on your plate and you will know what you can accomplish.

Nature can create beautiful things if you get out of the way.

Be Creative When Planting a Naturalized Garden and Let Nature Take its Course

My live oak seedlings turned into something special. Not only was it beautiful, but look how much I saved by providing shade for my house!

On Tools and Equipment

I also want to encourage you not to go out and buy extra tools and supplies until you look at what you already have. You’ll probably find that you can make do with what you already have, and borrow what you need.

I have very old shovels, rakes and a hoe I have used for over twenty years. I have old wheelbarrows repaired over and over again.

Especially in these times, it is imperative to save as much money as possible.

On Selecting Plants

When I see a tree or shrubs, I want to know what the roots look like. Most folks look at the top only, and this can be a mistake.

When trees and shrubs are grown in pots, they will develop circling, girdling roots. Girdling roots wrap around the roots of a tree or shrub and cut off the crown roots by cutting through the cambial layer beneath the bark.

To me those plants are fit for the trash because they are slowly dying of chronic issues.

Say, you go to a store with a parking lot and you see mulch piled up on the trunks of trees. Those trees are slowly dying because of lack of oxygen for the roots. Plus the roots move up into the mulch to get air and moisture. The roots dry out because they are not growing in the soil.

The same thing can happen if you put too much soil above the crown of the trees and shrubs. I would rather plant ½ inch to 1 inch above grade in your soil because the trees and plants will settle to grade eventually.

Get Creative

It is time to reiterate my suggestions for finding plant materials.

First, look for and find sources for seed and seedling plants to use in your natural garden.

In my opinion companies such as Prairie Moon Nursery (, American Meadows (, and Missouri Wildflowers Nursery ( are good places to start. Look online and you will find many more.

To me, the information provided in the catalogs is invaluable.  

On a budget? Instead of buying plants at the nursery, try starting your own plants from seed. The catalogs tell you how to treat and plant your seeds.

The most important thing I want to encourage is for you to use your imagination!

Naturalized Garden

Take a decent amount of time to think all things through. Some of my greatest ideas have come from mistakes I made in gardening.

Before you take on a naturalized landscaping project in your yard, walk around in a forest. See with an open mind. See the realities of life; the dead trees, the leaning trees, the squirrel and woodpecker holes, branches naturally pruned and not trimmed. What is on the ground around the trunks? What does the topsoil around the trees look like.

Naturally grown trees, started in native soil usually have good root systems, because mother nature is one of the best gardeners you’ll ever meet.

See what nature is doing in your area, understand why it works, and you can have a successful naturalized planting area of your own.


Arthur Davidson is a seasoned horticulturist with over five decades of hands-on experience. Holding an A.S. in Horticulture, Arthur’s expertise spans landscape design, organic gardening, soil science, and more. A former ISA Arborist and Master Gardener, he’s been a guiding light in the horticultural community, sharing his wisdom through talks, seminars, and his blog, Papas Gardens. Today, even in retirement, Arthur’s commitment to the world of plants remains unwavering. We're pleased to have him as a member of Lawn Chick's expert panel.

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