Design of our habitat garden

Native grasses and milkweed
Native grasses and milkweeds at back yard entrance

"Design" may be too strong a term for how we created our landscape. We aren't designers, and when we started this in the late '90s, there wasn't much information available on designing a habitat garden.

Our yard's design is what has evolved over the years and was designed by us—people who didn't always know what we were doing.

The good news is that even though our yard is not (and wasn't meant to be) an "ooh and aah" kind of garden, it's attractive enough, gets plenty of compliments, and is a very enjoyable place to be.

Front woodland  ©Janet Allen
Some of our front woodland garden

Most important, it provides lots of habitat for its size and helps create a healthier planet.

This page (below) describes our general design ideas, but we have the specifics of various parts of our yard on these pages:

Our design goals

Patches of flowersPatches of flowers

Our main habitat design goal was to create a three-dimensional space that was varied enough to provide for a number of creatures, but which had enough of any one thing to be actually useful.

For example, one milkweed plant is theoretically enough for a monarch to lay her eggs on, but it's less likely a monarch would notice it as easily as a whole patch.

Along the road  ©Janet Allen
Along the road

All in all, I probably have too many different kinds of plants in my small space. The most attractive designs generally have large swaths of one kind of plant.

On the other hand, I enjoy seeing how different plants grow and develop. On our smallish lot (about 80 x 180 feet), if I had large swath of one kind of plant, I'd never get to grow many of the plants I want. And you only live once.

Our screen porch(Enlarge)  ©Janet Allen
Our screen porch, with our oakleaf hydrangea blooming

Another design goal was to be able to enjoy our screen porch, which is on the corner of our house exposed to the front and side streets.

Even though we're fairly close to these roads, we feel we're in a secluded foresty environment, full of birds—drawn to the serviceberries and pagoda dogwood berries—and buzzy bees—drawn by the many flowers throughout the season.

We had rarely used this porch in the past, but it has become a favorite place—a quality habitat for people!

Basic design principles we used

Group of prairie dropseed  ©Janet AllenPrairie dropseed: more effective when planted in groups

We tried to follow these tried and true design principles:

  • Plant in groups, not just one or two.
  • Plant in odd numbers: a group of three or five plants look so much better than two or four, and plants arranged in an informal group look better than those lined up like soldiers.
  • Plant things roughly from low to high as you'll be looking at them, but this doesn't have to be in perfect order.
Side landscape
Even before our habitat garden, we had large flower beds with curving borders, though now we grow natives instead and have less lawn and more garden bed
  • Create broad curving borders. Lots of ins and outs like rick-rack isn't very pleasing, and there has to be enough of a curve to be an obvious or it will look like a straight line that isn't quite straight. Laying out a hose to see what the curve will look like can help.
  • Create one larger bed rather than lots of smaller beds.

Also, although we made a lot of changes to our yard after the derecho hit, we generally worked in smaller sections. Not only was it less costly in time and money to start small, but we learned about the plants as we went along, rather than trying to learn everything at once.

Things change

Young hemlocks  ©Janet AllenThree young hemlocks, small then, but now about 15 feet tall forming a solid mass in the back of the yard

The design is everchanging since we're dealing with living things.

I suppose the ideal would be that every plant we bought would live, thrive and be in the right place. They often aren't in the right place, they don't always thrive, and it's in the nature of plants to eventually die.

We try think in terms of the big picture, moving plants when necessary (though it does set them back), and trying not to get upset about the ones that die.

The fate of any one plant (unless it's very special in some way) isn't important as long as the landscape in general is full of healthy plants.

Hemlocks  ©Janet Allen
Our hemlocks are now much larger than when we planted them

And the ones that thrive also change the character of the original design.

We didn't always plan for enough space to accommodate plants as they grew to their mature size.

In general this isn't a problem since we aren't trying to grow perfectly formed specimen plants, but sometimes they extend too far into the path.

(Years ago when we hired one of the area's more expensive nurseries to design our front landscaping, they didn't take mature plant size into account either. I think they expect you'll "redecorate" with new plants in a few years…)

NOT one of our goals

Leaf bags  ©Janet Allen
Neighborhood leaf bags—perhaps even containing overwintering butterfly pupa—but surely robbing the soil of its nutrients


It's great to have the inside of our house neat (we're still working on that), but outside, those little bits of nature—dried grass and moss, little twigs, old flower stalks and flower heads, dead trees, and especially leaves—are important parts of our habitat.

They enrich the soil, provide essential nesting materials for birds and other creatures, provide places for insects to hide out (and birds to find them), and much more. And once you get used to that "look," it is much more interesting and (obviously) "natural."

We leave the leaves  ©Janet Allen
The leaves that fall soon decompose, nourishing the soil

The main reason people spend so much effort neatening the yard may be that they've just gotten used to that sterile look that has come to define "pretty" landscaping. Or maybe it's the fear of social disapproval.

We try to make our landscape as attractive as possible, but we're more worried about the disapproval of our grandchildren thirty years from now, when they discover that our generation has denuded the planet.

Exterior lighting

Solar light  ©Janet Allen
Our solar light in the backyard

This is our backyard at night. It's dark, as night should be.

How did we get to the point—in a warming world, no less—that people use electric lights as a way to decorate their yards and house exteriors? This harms night-flying creatures besides being another way we lose our connection to the natural world.

For security lighting, we have a light on a motion detector, which comes on only when someone comes around. This is also a convenience when we come home since it lights up so we can find our keys.

If we were to do it again …

Hemlock in front  ©Janet Allen
Years ago, a pricey landscaper planted this hemlock of all things waaaay too close to the house (since removed of course)

If we were starting over, I think we might hire a natural landscaper to provide an overall design to be implemented in phases over the years.

WARNING: Yes, we'd probably hire a natural landscaper to design our yard if we were starting over, BUT... Natural landscaping and native plants are current buzz words, and not every landscaper will really design a natural landscape using native plants even if they say they are—or even if they think they are.

Trust, but verify with your own native plant references!

The few times we had professionals design small areas of our yard, we didn't know much about habitat plants, and we later realized they didn't do any better than we could have done ourselves—and much more cheaply at that.

But a TRULY knowledgeable natural landscaper will probably save you time, effort, and even money if you end up getting what you want and don't have to repair mistakes.