Naturescaping

Naturescaping helps you create an attractive landscape that saves time, money, and water.
Front yard of a home designed using naturescaping principles

What is Naturescaping?

Naturescaping is using smart design and specific plants to reduce the environmental impact of your yard while still creating a beautiful, usable space.

Why Naturescape?

Plant key for naturescaping drawings (pdf)

Top view of a front yard designed using naturescaping principles

Save water

A naturescaped yard reduces your water bill while easing demand on water treatment and delivery systems.

Low maintenance

A thoughtfully naturescaped area will become very low-maintenance, usually within one or two seasons.

Maintain biodiversity

A naturescaped yard will invite a complex network of living things by providing valuable habitat for birds, bees, butterflies and more.

More resilient

A well maintained, healthy and diverse landscape is less likely to suffer from pest problems or to need pesticides or fertilizers.

Lots of plant options

Lots of plants are drought resistant, climate tolerant and adaptable to varying conditions in our area. See our list of recommended flowers, grasses, shrubs and trees for planting in Red Deer (pdf)  or the Edible trees, shrubs and vines leaflet (pdf) .

Principles of Naturescaping 

1. Planning and Design

Consider conditions such as slopes, sun and wind exposure: how will they affect water on your land? Avoid building too many surfaces that do not allow rainfall or melting snow to penetrate. Start your planting with large features such as trees, raised beds, or stonework, then move on to shrubs, flowers and ground cover.

Group plants with similar watering requirements together so that only limited portions of the landscape need extra water, and grade the garden to collect moisture and help those plants get enough water.

Remember to Click Before You Dig so you don’t sever any vital services or risk your personal safety.

2. Practical Turf Areas

Grass requires more maintenance and water. Consider replacing turf with planting beds, tiered gardens, raised beds, flowering trees, native shrubs or perennial ground cover that you won’t have to cut, especially in areas that are difficult to mow.

If you need some grass, select a drought tolerant mix. Kentucky Bluegrass, the most common grass seed used for lawns, is popular because it is long-lasting, lush and cold tolerant. However, it has a very short root system, so grass tends to brown more quickly in hot and dry weather. Remember that Alberta isn’t Kentucky. The climate here is much drier, and the winters are much colder, which puts a lot of stress on lawn grasses (even if they are grown nearby).

Because Kentucky Bluegrass turns brown, you might be tempted to apply extra fertilizer and water to your lawn. This isn’t necessary; Kentucky Bluegrass is drought-tolerant and has a natural mechanism where it goes dormant in hot weather. Once the weather cools, it will turn green again. Any monoculture lawn (only one variety of grass) is susceptible to drought, pests and disease. Instead of planting only Kentucky Bluegrass, consider planting grass seed mixes that include native varieties. Native grasses have much longer roots and can retain moisture and nutrients better. Examples of native varieties include fescue, ryegrass, and green needle grass.

Here are some tips for how to maintain a healthy lawn (referenced from Health Canada):

  • Start with healthy soil! Read the Soil Improvement section for more information.
  • Thatch: Healthy grass has thatch. Thatch helps to keep soils cool, slow water loss, insulate plant crowns from fluctuating temperatures and high foot traffic. However too much thatch can starve roots of water and air. Only de-thatch if thatch is greater than ½”.
  • Aerate: compacted, clay soil prevents water and oxygen from getting to the roots. Aerate before top dressing and fertilizing.
  • Top dress: In late summer and early fall, top dress your lawn with a thin layer of compost or garden soil, and add grass seed.
  • Mow smartly: Instead of cutting your lawn short, mow to a height of 2.5 to 3 inch. This helps encourage better root growth and prevents weeds from growing.
  • Water smartly: water your lawn in the early morning to prevent evaporation during warm weather. Lawn should be watered more deeply and less often – about 1 inch of water per week.
  • Grass cycle: don’t throw out those grass clippings! Instead, leave them on your lawn to add extra nutrients to your soil. Ensure they are dry so that they don’t run the risk of rotting.

Try something new: plant a variety of native grasses that can tolerate a range of growing conditions. Your lawn will be less susceptible to damage.

3. Soil Improvement

A Healthy Yard starts with healthy soil. Healthy soil is better at retaining moisture and nutrients, and can reduce reliance on chemical inputs and water. Red Deer’s soil can range from black loam to heavy clay. Consider adding mulch, compost, conditioners (like manure, sand, and perlite) to improve aeration, drainage and growing conditions.

You can also improve the quality of your soil by first testing your soil using a soil moisture probe and testing kit, both of which can be purchased inexpensively at most home and garden centres. A moisture probe can help you know more accurately how much water your yard needs, rather than guessing just by looking at the soil. A testing kit gives a better idea about your soil’s health (pH, nutrient levels). You’ll be able to figure out more effectively the right quantity of amendments your soil needs, as well as the types of plants that will grow more easily and thrive in your yard.

Once you have a better idea of the quality of your soil, try out some of these ideas:

  • Aerate: compacted, clayey soil prevents water and oxygen from getting to the roots.
  • Lime: If your soil is too acidic, apply lime to reduce that acidity.
  • When fertilizing, choose compost or slow-release organic fertilizers, which run less of a risk of leaching excess nutrients into water bodies and the environment. Compost has the added benefit of adding beneficial soil microbes and aerating soil.
4. Appropriate Tree Selection

Native trees are usually a good choice because they are used to the local conditions and resistant to diseases and insects. Many indigenous species of trees and shrubs will not need more water than nature provides once they have established an extensive root system, usually two growing seasons.

Be sure the selection suits the site. Leave ample room for growth. Talk to an experienced local landscaper or arborist for tree planting advice.

5. Appropriate Plant Selection

Choose flowers and shrubs that grow well in our local conditions. Consider native varieties -  plants that occur naturally here and are adapted to this region - and non-native varieties that can withstand periods of dryness and high temperatures with minimal irrigation.

Be aware of invasive plants: non-native plants that spread easily in the environment. They do not have natural predators so they survive and dominate, leading to habitat degradation.

When selecting plants and designing your yard, consider the following:

  • Location – does the location get full sun, partial shade, or lots of shade?
  • Spacing – some plants grow high or spread out wide
  • Soil conditions – what is the soil texture, pH and nutrient levels?
  • Climate – how hot and dry does it get during the growing season?
6. Efficient Irrigation

Direct downspouts into your garden or rain barrel, not onto the street.

Use a drip hose rather than a sprinkler to reduce evaporation. If you’re building a new garden or improving your existing one, look carefully at drip irrigation systems. If you have an automatic irrigation system, check and adjust it at least once a month.

7. Much More Mulch

What is mulch? Mulch is material that is put over exposed soil as a protective covering.

Why use mulch? Adding a protective covering to exposed soil will:

  • Control weed growth
  • Reduce water loss
  • Prevent erosion
  • Moderate soil temperature
  • Add nutrients to the soil

What kinds of mulch are there? Different types of mulch have different pros and cons:

  • Stone – Attractive and long-lasting. Depending on thickness, may need a layer of cardboard, newspaper or landscape fabric underneath to help prevent weed seeds from germinating. Stone will heat up on hot days so is not recommended for tender plants. Harder to keep clean-looking under trees.
  • Compost – The easiest way to add valuable nutrients and texture to the soil; perfect for flower and vegetable beds, as well as around trees and shrubs. If compost has not reached a high temperature while composting, the seeds from the original material may not be dead, resulting in unexpected plants. Replenish seasonally.
  • Wood chips, bark or strips- Won’t blow around and don’t contain weed seeds. Freshly cut wood products can rob nitrogen from the soil as it decomposes, so keep it on top of planting beds. Sometimes sold in different colours, so ask what is used to dye them and avoid poisonous compounds. Pine is more acidic which means it takes longer to decompose but also makes the soil more acidic, which not all plants love. Lasts two to three years.
  • Leaves – Enrich the soil as they decompose, and free of weed seeds so perfect for flower and vegetable beds. They are a great way to use a “waste” product from your yard. Shredding helps decompose quickly, but they can blow away if not kept moist. Using too many whole wet leaves can result in forming an impervious mat under which can develop insects and diseases. Replenish seasonally.
  • Straw – Decomposes quickly to add organics to soil. Good for use in beds and in vegetable gardens to suppress weeds and build healthy soil structure. Ensure straw is moistened to keep it from blowing away.
  • Grass clippings – Enrich the soil as they decompose; good for use in vegetable gardens and under shrubs. Another great way to use a “waste” product from your yard. Apply in a thin layer and turn it into the soil at the end of the growing season. Too thick a layer can form an impervious mat that can get stinky. Don’t use clippings that have been treated with herbicides or pesticides.
  • Newspaper and cardboard – Sheets of newspaper or plain cardboard can act as a barrier beneath other more visually pleasing mulches. Shredded newspaper can be used like grass clippings or leaves around plants. Inexpensive and easy to find, newspaper is printed with ink, is vegetable based, and will decay without harming the soil. Use only plain newsprint- not flyers made from coated paper- and plain brown cardboard. Dampen it to keep from blowing away.
  • Evergreen needles - Make excellent mulch for acid loving plants like blueberries.

How to use mulch

  • Though you can apply mulch anytime, a good time to apply new mulch is in the spring when ground has thawed but isn’t waterlogged.
  • Weed beds thoroughly before applying mulch; putting mulch over existing weeds won’t necessarily smother them. If you know the space is filled with weed seeds or perennial roots, cover it with a layer of plain cardboard, newspaper or biodegradable fabric and top it with more visually appealing mulch.
  • Apply between two and four inches of mulch. You need that much to get the benefits, but more than four inches can deprive soil of oxygen, which is bad for your plants’ roots and for the beneficial microbes living in the soil.
  • Keep mulch at least three inches away from the base of any plant, shrub or tree. “Mulch volcanoes” around the bases can lead to problems with insect and rodent infestation, and excess build-up of material and moisture around the base of the plant which can lead to rot.
  • Turn decayed mulch into the soil with a tool like a garden weasel or a pitchfork before reapplying new mulch to avoid compaction and build soil.
  • Replenish mulch as needed to keep it between two and four inches deep.
  • Dampen the mulch if it is at risk of blowing away.
  • Ensure that mulch is not applied close to the street or alleyway, as there is a risk of it entering and clogging storms drains.

The Waste Management Facility sells evergreen mulch

8. Biodiversity

Using a variety of plants and natural elements will create a biologically diverse landscape that can help prevent disease and create a sustainable and healthy ecosystem. A diverse garden also provides habitat - food and shelter - for many birds and beneficial insects such as pollinators.

A pollinator is an insect or animal that moves pollen from one flower to another. This exchange of pollen is needed to produce seeds and fruit. Examples of pollinators include bees, beetles, and hummingbirds. Without pollinators, over 1,000 varieties of plants that we depend on for food, medicine and fibre would not survive. Roughly one third of the world’s crop production relies to some extent on pollinators.

Be a pollinator pal by:

  • Providing nesting sites (e.g. pollinator hotel)
  • Planting flowers that bloom through the spring to fall
  • Avoid synthetic chemicals as they kill beneficial insects and can contribute to water pollution
  • Use plants that attract birds, butterflies, bats and bees
  • Mow less to create a natural area of your yard for pollinators

Learn more about being pollinator friendly.

9. Appropriate Maintenance

Over-watering plants contributes to rapid, weak plant growth, fertilizer leaching, insect and disease problems and weed growth. Reduce your workload by applying only as much water as your plants need. Water early in the morning or in the evening to avoid waste through evaporation.

Let lawn grow 2.5 - 3 inches (6 - 8 cm) high to shade the roots and hold soil moisture. Cutting too short too often will damage what little lawn you have left. Remember, the more you water, the more you cut. If you use sprinklers, put a Frisbee or tuna can on the lawn – when it has been filled by the sprinkler, your lawn has enough water.