Wildscaping: Landscape for healthy habitat

Transforming Landscapes is a new series of blog posts to introduce fresh, new ideas for upgrading your lawn to a more water-efficient and aesthetically pleasing oasis. Changes don’t need to be extreme, or even happen all at once, but it is never too early to start planning for what solution works best for you. We hope this series helps you think outside the box when it comes to planning what your landscape can transform into next spring and beyond.

Susan Tweit

Susan Tweit

Wildscaping: Landscape for healthy habitat

Susan Tweit is a plant biologist and award-winning author, speaker and teacher. She is the winner of the Colorado Book Award, the EDDIE and the Colorado Author’s League Award, and is past chair of the National Writing Panel for YoungArts. The author of 12 books, she serves as Communications Director for the Be A Habitat Hero project.   

What if you could save water, energy and money, provide a habitat that would help songbirds and pollinators thrive and still have a beautiful yard?

You can.

A suburban wildscape that echoes Colorado’s diverse habitats, from prairie to mountain forest. Photo courtesy Susan Tweit.

A suburban wildscape that echoes Colorado’s diverse habitats, from prairie to mountain forest. Photo courtesy Susan Tweit.

How? By “wildscaping,” landscaping for wildlife. Wildscaping does not mean letting your yard or landscape go untended; it means landscaping designed as healthy habitat for people and wildlife.

What is Wildscaping?

As it turns out, what’s good for birds, butterflies and other wildlife also is good for people. Transforming a yard from turfgrass lawns to more diverse landscapes not only saves water – the EPA estimates that Americans pour 9 billion gallons of water every day on our lawns during the growing season – it can also reduce maintenance costs and time, while creating opportunities for our families and friends to enjoy and learn about nature.

And we can do all this while maintaining a landscape that is attractive, fun and beautiful.

Close-up of a front-yard wildflower meadow. Photo courtesy of Susan Tweit

Close-up of a front-yard wildflower meadow. Photo courtesy of Susan Tweit.

Wildscaping Basics

■            Shrink the lawn – grow turfgrass only where you’ll really use it; replace with edibles, perennials, trees and shrubs.

■            Use less water and fertilizer by planting natives and plants adapted to our Rocky Mountain region.

■            Plant bird- and butterfly-friendly species that provide year-round food, cover and shelter.

■            Reduce or eliminate yard-chemical use.

■            Control invasive plants that degrade habitat in and beyond our yards.

Hummingbird visits native ‘Mexican Bluffs’ Vermillion sage at the City of Westminster’s Legacy Ridge Golf Course. Photo courtesy of Shalene Hiller.

Hummingbird visits native ‘Mexican Bluffs’ Vermillion sage at the City of Westminster’s Legacy Ridge Golf Course. Photo courtesy of Shalene Hiller.

Your landscape can add critical habitat

Residential lawns (not including parks, commercial landscapes or industrial areas) cover more than 20 million acres in the United States. If all those yards were transformed into small habitat patches, the additional wildlife habitat would be comparable to increasing the area of the entire National Wildlife Refuge system by 20 percent! The wildlife benefits would be enormous, and we’d all experience the joy of doing something positive for our environment.

Even small patches of wildscape can provide oases for wildlife-like butterflies and native bees by creating green corridors that link your wildscape to larger wild lands.

Be A Habitat Hero is a project of Audubon Rockies, the Terra Foundation, Plant Select® and High Country Gardens.

Be A Habitat Hero is a project of Audubon Rockies, the Terra Foundation, Plant Select® and High Country Gardens.

What Does A Wildscape Look Like?

They’re as varied as the people who create them, whether formal gardens or extended borders enclosing lawn areas, whole-yard habitats or wild islands, big swaths or tiny refuges. Here are some examples from the 2013 Habitat Hero Awards, a program honoring gardens in Colorado and Wyoming that exemplify wildscaping principles. (All of the photos in this post are from Habitat Hero gardens.)

Formal Garden

Native penstemon attract hummingbirds and butterflies to this formal wildscape. Photo courtesy SE Colorado Water Conservation District.

Native penstemon attract hummingbirds and butterflies to this formal wildscape. Photo courtesy SE Colorado Water Conservation District.

Here’s a formal wildscape, complete with classic paths, radiating beds and a traditional bird bath – using native Colorado plants that require no fertilizer or other chemicals, and very little water. This is part of a 3-acre demonstration garden in Pueblo established to inspire gardeners to use water-wise techniques. It also includes prairie areas, and attracts wildlife from hummingbirds and butterflies to native lizards.

Borders Go Wild

An exuberant border that attracts songbirds and butterflies galore. Photo courtesy of Tanya Fisher, Colorado Vista Landscape Design.

An exuberant border that attracts songbirds and butterflies galore. Photo courtesy of Tanya Fisher, Colorado Vista Landscape Design.

This front-yard wildscape is an enlarged perennial border, complete with recirculating stream. It features a diversity of native and regionally adapted plants that offer nectar, fruits and shelter, and is an example of integrating a wildscape into a traditional yard, while shrinking the lawn and increasing diversity.

Tiny City Refuge

A brand-new habitat garden replaces a postage-stamp-sized patch of lawn. Photo courtesy of Crystal Reser.

A brand-new habitat garden replaces a postage-stamp-sized patch of lawn. Photo courtesy of Crystal Reser.

How do you find sanctuary in a tiny, unshaded city backyard barely big enough to turn the lawnmower around in? For these homeowners, the answer was to rip out the lawn and plant a sanctuary, selecting trees, shrubs, vines, wildflowers and grasses that will provide food and shelter for birds and butterflies, and beauty for people. A habitat garden does not have to be big; only a few weeks after planting, this one is already inviting.

Yard-scape: Formal Prairie with Woodland Edges

Glorious Colorado-centric woodland border completely conceals the neighboring yard and provides food and cover for an abundance of wildlife. Photo courtesy Lauren Springer Ogden.

Glorious Colorado-centric woodland border completely conceals the neighboring yard and provides food and cover for an abundance of wildlife. Photo courtesy Lauren Springer Ogden.

This once-exposed half-acre suburban yard has been completely transformed into water-wise, healthy habitat for critters and people, including areas of prairie, woodland and cactus and succulent garden, plus a front yard “pollinator jungle.” Watered only occasionally by hand, this yard is a true refuge, and an inspiring example of melding horticultural art and habitat.

Get inspired. Transform your yard with a wildscape. Whether only a small amount, or the whole landscape, you’ll be making a healthy, water-wise change. Join the movement – be a Habitat Hero!

Contributed by Be A Habitat Hero, a project of Audubon Rockies, Terra Foundation, Plant Select® and High Country Gardens.

2 responses to this post.

  1. I need help, I have no idea how to wild scape our yard and it’s very big and full of goats heads. I don’t where to begin and honestly don’t have the money to do a lot. Is there someone related to this article who can help me get the assistance that I need in order to wildscape my yards?

    Reply

    • Posted by Denver Water on November 20, 2015 at 10:43 am

      Great question!

      Denver Water offers a program, in partnership with the Center for ReSource Conservation, that offers help implementing simple, step-by-step xeriscapes at an affordable rate. It’s called the Garden In A Box program, and a wildscape-type garden is typically offered every year. If you would like to sign up to be notified when the gardens goes on sale in the spring, you can do so here.

      If you would like to speak with someone directly before then, your best bet will be to reach out to the CSU Extension Office: http://www.colostate.edu/Depts/CoopExt/4DMG/gard-help/gard-help.shtml. Please let us know if you have any other questions!

      Reply

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