How can you establish a natural yard faster?

As explained in the last two posts, natural yards take a long time to establish, and attempts to speed up the process often backfire. There are, however, a few ways to help nature happen a little more quickly.

Inexperienced gardeners – natural and otherwise – often think that the short route to a well-established yard is to bring home the biggest plants they can fit in their cars, and put those plants in the ground.

In a sense, this works. By following this strategy, the homeowner may be able to enjoy trees as tall as a person, fully leafed-out shrubs, and blooming flowers on day one of their gardening efforts. But what happens after that?

It comes as no surprise that plants don’t like to be moved. Plants have spent millions of years evolving to make the best of whatever spot they germinate in. They have no evolutionary experience of moving to a new spot and getting resettled. Plus, transplants typically have spent the first part of their lives being coddled in a greenhouse, and don’t appreciate being relocated to an outdoor spot, where they suddenly have to put up with wind, irregular watering, less-than-perfect soil, and all the other challenges associated with life as a plant.

The older and bigger a plant is when it gets relocated, the more trouble it has dealing with the unexpected event and all its related challenges.

Experienced gardeners have noticed that if they plant two trees – one older and larger, one younger and smaller – at the same time, by a few years later, the tree that was initially smaller will have grown bigger than its partner. This is because the originally-larger tree struggles more to re-establish itself, and so takes longer to resume investing its energy in growth. The smaller transplant, in contrast, will settle into its new home more easily, and will soon return to vigorously putting on height, width, and foliage.

It’s also worth noting that smaller plants are generally cheaper. Given a limited budget, there is a certain satisfaction in bringing home one sizable tree and planting it in the yard. But buying three smaller trees – or several dozen flower seedlings – will result in a complete, healthy planting, as opposed to the gardener being left with one lonely tree surrounded by lawn.

For those gardeners equipped with patience and foresight, seeds may be an even better choice than small plants. Given that seeds can be installed in the yard by the simple expedient of throwing them on the ground, and given that seeds will turn themselves into plants that provide a host of benefits and then go on to create more of themselves, it is astonishing how inexpensive seeds are. Reputable dealers will sell their product in terms of pure live seed – that is, if you want one ounce of seed, and the dealer knows that this species has a germination rate of 50%, they will sell you two ounces for the price of one. This way, you know you are always getting your money’s worth.

By taking our time, we can establish our yards more easily, more cheaply, and more quickly. Gardening is an endeavor in which slow and steady does, indeed, win the race.

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How can you establish a natural yard faster?

What are some common natural gardening mistakes?

When natural gardeners are asked about their biggest gardening mistake, one answer is heard over and over: trying to do everything at once.

Their enthusiasm is commendable. After all, natural yards are beautiful and peaceful, they provide habitat for wildlife, they take less work in the long run, they are good for the environment, and they benefit our health in countless ways. Who wouldn’t want one right now?

One of the biggest obstacles to establishing a natural yard, however, is the amount of work they require upfront. The aspiring natural gardener has to learn about native plants and the site conditions they prefer, survey their own site conditions, make a garden plan, eliminate existing non-natives, bring in the new plantings, discourage the invasives that try to move back in, and many other tasks. In many natural yards, all of this work is done personally and by hand, rather than by hiring other people or fossil-fuel-powered machines to help with the labor.

Thus, for any but the tiniest of yards, the gardener can quickly become overwhelmed by the amount of work that needs to be done all at the same time. Aspects of the planting begin to fail. (In a natural yard, it’s accepted that some things will fail, but trying to rush through the establishment phase tends to lead to more failure than necessary.) The gardener has run out of money, resources, and energy to do the project over again. Pretty soon, they’re left with a big mess.

For this reason, experienced natural gardeners advise newcomers to make an overall plan, then tackle one aspect at a time. It’s generally wise to start with trees and shrubs, which take the longest to become established, and add smaller plants later. Or, the beginning gardener could begin with the areas closest to the house, and work outwards. As each piece of the plan becomes self-sustaining, the gardener becomes free to devote their energy to the next stage of the process.

Another mistake worth mentioning is declaring failure too soon. As mentioned in the previous post, new plantings may take several years to start looking good. Seeds may not germinate in the first year. Seeds that do germinate may look like weeds. Transplants may appear to have not survived their relocation.

All of these are normal parts of the establishment process. Seeds will germinate when they are ready, seedlings will mature into beautiful plants, and transplants will jettison their leaves, focus on getting their roots settled, and grow back the next year. By patiently waiting out these awkward stages, a gardener can avoid unnecessary rework.

Part of the joy of having a natural yard is the satisfaction of learning about native plants through hands-on experience. It’s not necessary to be an expert on natural gardening before beginning to establish plantings in our own yards. But by arming ourselves with a little awareness of others’ mistakes, we can increase our own chances of speedy success.

What are some common natural gardening mistakes?

How long does it take to establish a natural yard?

Many of us today want things as fast as possible. We like high-speed travel, instant coffee, and websites that load in a millisecond. Maybe this is part of why natural yards have been slow to catch on in America.

Unlike lawns, which can go from bare soil to goal state in a few weeks, or annual flowers, which come home from the garden store already blooming, natural yards take a long time to look like we envision. Experienced natural gardeners say that it takes about three years for a natural yard to “come together” and begin resembling what the gardener had in mind.

Why so long? First, because in a natural yard, the gardener is strongly encouraged to wait a year before even beginning to do anything. And second, because natural yards tend to focus on plants that expect to stick around for the long term – and long-lived plants take the slow and steady route, rather than rushing to flower in their first summer.

The native prairie plants of the American Midwest, for example, spend their first few years investing all their energy into the root systems that will sustain them over the coming decades. They grow just enough leaves to photosynthesize a little, and often don’t attempt to bloom until about their third year. People who aren’t familiar with prairie plants and their life cycles think that these baby perennials look like weeds. Well-intentioned gardeners who don’t adequately prepare themselves for the establishment phase think that their plants are failing, tear out the seedlings, and start over. The wise gardener waits patiently, and is ultimately rewarded with beautiful, thriving plants that are ready to take care of all their own needs.

How long does it take to establish a real prairie – a prairie that is indistinguishable from the few undisturbed remnants that remain in the Midwest? Scientists estimate that the answer is somewhere between 100 years and never.

The oldest prairie restoration in the world is located at Madison’s Arboretum. The planting was established about 80 years ago by the best experts available at the time (with hundreds of people helping to do the physical labor), and to a trained eye, it is still not the same as a remnant prairie. If a small army of the most dedicated, most knowledgeable people cannot truly restore a prairie in eight decades, it is unsurprising that the efforts of a home gardener take at least a few years to even begin looking like a prairie.

It’s similar with other types of ecosystems. A forest is not really restored until at least the second generation of trees has reached maturity, a process that can take decades to over a century. The Holy Wisdom Monastery (located in Middleton, a suburb of Madison) has started to restore 30 acres of its property to oak savanna – a type of ecosystem found across southern Wisconsin before European settlement – but will not even begin to plant understory species until the trees have matured, 20 years from now.

Even a desert takes a long time to restore. You can plant a Saguaro cactus, but it will take fifty years or more to grow its distinctive arms.

Natural yards teach us patience. There is not much a gardener can do to hurry up the process. In the next two posts, That Blog will look at some strategies that don’t work, and then some that do.

How long does it take to establish a natural yard?

What is the difference between a native plant garden and a natural yard?

Natural yards typically incorporate native plants. After all, natural yards seek to emulate nature, which generally means using the plant species that nature put in that spot.

What really defines a natural yard, though, is not the species used, but the way they are arranged and maintained.

For example, nature doesn’t plant in straight rows. Nature doesn’t pile hills of mulch around trees. Nature doesn’t put taller plants in the back. Nature doesn’t prevent pollinated flowers from turning into seedheads, and nature never thinks that plants are too big. Thus, in a natural yard, different species are mingled together, plants are allowed to complete their life cycles, and the gardener otherwise strives to replicate the way nature does things.

All the horticultural practices associated with conventional yards, however, can be used with native plants. A gardener could plant native perennials in flower beds, sort them by color, spray them with pesticides, and cut them down in the fall. This may be just the right approach for some gardeners – but it is not a natural yard. It is a native plant garden.

The idea that “natural yard” means “a conventional garden, just with native plants” leads some people to be surprised and unhappy when a neighbor’s natural yard resembles a wild landscape more than the tidy flower beds that many suburbanites are used to. Understanding that a true natural yard incorporates fundamentally different maintenance practices aimed at a fundamentally different goal can help people understand that those exuberantly-growing native plants look just as they’re supposed to.

What is the difference between a native plant garden and a natural yard?

How do push mowers compare to motorized mowers?

The homeowner who wants a lawn (a conventional lawn, that is; not the lawn-like alternatives described in a recent post) has two basic choices: a motorized mower, or an unmotorized mower. How do these options stack up? Let’s look at a few categories.

Cost. Unmotorized mowers – also called push mowers or reel mowers – cost less upfront than a motorized (or “rotary”) mower. Menards, a popular Midwest hardware store, offers push mowers for as little as $71. A gas-powered mower at the same store will set you back over $100. Push mowers also have a lower cost of ownership: you never need to put gas in them and, being simpler machines, they are less expensive to maintain.

Noise. Rotary mowers are loud enough to cause hearing damage with repeated exposure. Certainly they are loud enough to disturb the neighbors. Reel mowers are virtually silent.

Safety. Tens of thousands of Americans every year seriously injure themselves while using – or just being near – motorized mowers. It’s virtually impossible to hurt yourself with a push mower.

Health benefits. Using a reel mower burns approximately 340 calories per hour – similar to alternately walking and jogging, or to riding a bicycle at a leisurely pace. Operating a power mower burns less than 300 calories per hour, while driving a ride-on mower burns barely 100 calories per hour.

Environmental friendliness. The EPA estimates that Americans collectively spill over 17 million gallons of fuel each year in the course of refilling their lawn equipment. (The Exxon Valdez spilled “only” 10.8 million gallons.) Unmotorized mowers don’t contribute to this problem. In addition, push mowers produce no emissions and are less likely to accidentally dismember small animals that may be taking refuge in the grass.

Effectiveness. As explained in a recent post, motorized mowers tear the tops off of grass blades, causing severe damage to the plants and leaving them in an unhealthy state. Push mowers, in contrast, actually cut the grass, leaving a clean edge that makes it easier for the plants to recover.

Speed. When it comes to actually mowing the grass, motorized mowers are generally faster. But think of all the ways you save time with a push mower: You never have to buy gas for it. You never have to drain its tank for the winter. You never have to fight with it to get it to start. And you can use it at any time of day, since no one will hear you.

Whether you care about wildlife, your wallet, or your waistline, there are lots of reasons to trade in a motorized mower for one that runs just on people power.

How do push mowers compare to motorized mowers?

Why are lawnmowers so loud?

Strictly speaking, lawnmowers are loud because they work by creating a vacuum, and vacuums make a lot of noise.

Looked at more broadly, however, it could be said that lawnmowers are loud because the purpose of mowing a lawn is to make as much noise as possible, so everyone will know that someone is mowing their lawn.

It’s possible to have a lawn without making a lot of noise. A homeowner could plant low-growing or slow-growing grasses, which stay at a lawn-like height while being mowed rarely to never. Homeowners could landscape with moss gardens, which are visually similar to lawns but don’t require any loud maintenance. Homeowners could install astroturf. They could use a virtually-silent reel mower. Or they could employ an automatic lawnmower, a small and quiet device which has been commercially available since the 1950s but which has never achieved widespread popularity.

Why have these quieter, simpler alternatives never caught on? In short, it is because the historical purpose of lawns is to be maintenance-intensive, in order to show off that the property owner can afford to spend their money and leisure time preventing grass from growing. This message is conveyed when neighbors see naturally-tall grasses staying perpetually short – but it is conveyed more effectively when everyone can see and hear the property owner actively maintaining their short grass.

Oddly enough, when some homeowners tried out automatic lawnmowers, their neighbors did not say, “Look at that smart guy enjoying a nice day while a robot does his yard work.” Instead, they said, “Look at that lazy guy lying in the hammock while a robot does his yard work.” For many people, what matters is not that the yard work is done; it’s that the homeowner does the yard work personally (or hires other humans to do it at obvious expense), and is observed to be doing it.

Noise harms neighbors. Lawns do not benefit neighbors. Those who care about their communities are increasingly embracing low-maintenance natural yards, or at least switching to quieter, less damaging ways of managing their turf.

Why are lawnmowers so loud?

What do lawnmowers do?

Many may remember the frightening scene from the 1971 version of Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory in which Charlie and his grandfather are pulled towards a huge fan which they fear will chop them to bits.

This is essentially what lawnmowers do.

The rapidly-spinning blades of a powered lawnmower create a vacuum that pulls grass plants in, only to chop off their vital body parts. And, contrary to common belief, the lawnmower does not quickly and cleanly cut the grass. Rather, the fast-moving but not-especially-sharp blades tear the grass, resulting in more severe damage to the plants.

As an earlier post described, grass plants may be aware that this danger is approaching – but, having no effective defense against it, they are subjected to this harmful experience over and over again.

Lawnmowers indiscriminately shred everything they come in contact with – including grass plants, baby trees, small animals, and people’s toes. As we learn about how tall grass causes no identifiable hazards and short grass provides few, if any, benefits, we might also consider how an act of lawnmowing is terrifying and painful for those who have no control over it and no protection against it. Nowadays, awareness is growing that our own survival and wellbeing depend upon having flourishing nature around us, and more and more people believe that they are not entitled to harm other beings simply to satisfy their own aesthetic preferences.

What do lawnmowers do?