Natural Areas in the Landscape

— Written By and last updated by Sarah Roberson

One of the most important considerations in developing a landscape plan is maintenance. Currently, many homeowners desire a low‑maintenance landscape. When thinking about a developing a landscape around our homes, we think of a lawn first. Centipede is a low maintenance grass that requires less frequent mowing and fertilization than other grasses. The second step in many landscapes is a row of shrubs around the house or foundation planting. I know, boring. The third may be a hedge to give some privacy from neighbors. Fourth may be two trees in the front yard to frame the house and maybe one in the back to shade the deck or patio. Landscape planning includes so much more than planting grass, a row of shrubs around the house, and a few trees. It also involves managing and reshaping the landscape as it develops. One of the major problems home gardeners face is what to do when trees shade out a once sunny lawn.

A popular project to reduce maintenance is the reduction of shaded lawn areas and problem spots by creating natural areas under trees. This is easily accomplished with a 2 to 4 inch layer of organic mulch such as pine needles, pine bark (nuggets or shredded), hardwood bark or other mulch of your choice. Although the area is to appear natural, it should not detract from the overall landscape appearance. We should choose mulch not easily disturbed by wind or erosion. Also, define the area with a crisp boundary, such as a shallow trench (which I like best), plastic, wood, aluminum, or steel edging, and don’t have grass growing over into the mulch or mulch spilling over onto the grass.

When designing the area, existing trees should influence the design. Don’t be conservative with the mulch or make the area too small by cutting the boundaries too close to the tree trunks. Incorporate at least half of the drip‑line area on large trees and all of this space on smaller trees. After all, if you’re naturalizing an area because of a poor stand of grass under the trees, it’s primarily because of too much shade and tree root competition. A general rule to remember is to naturalize all areas that receive 50% shade at all times. These are areas where grass will not perform well. Keep the grass where it likes to be, in the sun.

Free flowing curves can make maintenance around these natural areas easier. Don’t make curves so sharp that they can’t be easily mowed around with your push, walk behind, or riding mower. Let your equipment decide how curves flow.

Before spreading the mulch, get rid of all grass and perennial weeds. It is true that a 3‑ to 4‑inch layer of mulch will control weeds ‑ but not by just piling it on top. Identify the weeds and eradicate physically or chemically. Several herbicides are effective for home use for most weeds or grasses. Be sure to observe label directions and avoid drifts by applying at low pressure. Alternately you can put down layers of newspaper or cardboard before mulching.

Next, decide on the type of mulch to use. The most influencing factor is existing trees. For example, under pine trees, mulch with a 2‑ to 4‑inch layer of pine needles. A typical bale of pine needles should cover approximately 25 to 50 square feet. Other recommended organic mulches are pine bark or hardwood bark. Again, the good part about these natural areas is that when the needles and leaves fall it adds to the mulch and compliments the area. By having the areas under trees mulched versus covered with grass, there is no reason to rake up the leaves and remove them from your property. As leaves and mulch break down they add valuable organic matter to the soil. This will provide a much healthier environment for trees and shrubs. Trees roots will perform better under a layer of moisture conserving organic mulch than under a layer of grass.

Many gardeners like to add plants in the natural area. Naturalized under-story trees such as dogwood, redbud, Carolina silverbell or Japanese snowbell can be added. Azaleas, hydrangeas, and other flowering shrubs also compliment these mulched areas. Shade loving perennials and low growing, shade loving annuals may be added to the outside edges to complete the design. Naturalizing can create a more attractive and lower maintenance landscape that is also more fun to be in. Speaking of fun, if you want to have fun while learning about gardening come join the Master Gardeners and I on January 25 and have Paul James, the Gardener Guy, answer all your questions. For more information call 252-902-1709 or visit http://pitt.ces.ncsu.edu. If you have gardening questions that can’t wait on Paul James call the Master Gardeners at 252-902-1705 or email pittcomgv@hotmail.com.