Landscape: Designing for Wildlife

The ebb and flow of conservationism over the last two centuries has been a violent struggle between societal advancement through industry, a return to simple sustenance and nature, and the freedom to breathe clean air as intended by that great nature spirit. From Thoreau to Whitman and Ruskin, many have called for a need to carve out special places for nature to reside, free of the interference of over eager industrialists and lovers of turf deserts. We are in an industry that creates outdoor environments for our human clientele. And although these projects are wonderous and awe-inspiring, few are more inspiring to me than the projects we design and create for nature to return.  

Over the course of my rapidly increasing years, I have been involved with many who celebrate native plants, perennials, shrubs, and the natural world. Recently, my involvement in the Oudolf Garden Detroit project has exposed me to the genius of Piet Oudolf and his love of perennials, massed to form unending waves of delight across the seasons. The textures and blooms in this style of planting offer intrigue for the senses and refuge for the forgotten creatures that share our environment. For us, the dwellers of cities and suburbia, this style of garden building offers a chance to connect with nature in an uninterrupted way. For me, building these environments has become my calling.  

I would like to highlight a few recent and ongoing projects that have woven nature back into our everyday through expansive meadow plantings and engineered rain garden biomes. Each of these projects radically transformed the acreage surrounding these homes and created many different habitats for wildlife to return in a meaningful way.  


Wet Meadow and the Vestigial Remnants of an Oak Savannah

Bloomfield Hills

Just off Lone Pine, in the heart of Bloomfield Hills, exists a three-generation family home, set amongst a native wood, river and lake ecosystem and acres of vestigial oak savannah previously overtaken by turfgrass.

Our clients, already inclined towards conservation, were enthusiastic to remove the endless needs of turf management and very open to reclaiming their acreage. We engineered and designed several sectors into a seamless wildlife refuge by planting native wet meadow shrubs and perennials on much of the property. We then augmented the areas rising above the floodplain with dryer habitat native plants. The entire canvas was seeded with a matrix of mixed plant species that would thrive in the different conditions. Our teams then planted over 16,000 perennials and shrubs into the matrix!  

The overall affect has been transcendent. Within a few weeks, the plants took root and grew with exuberance. One could almost hear the land rejoice as it was brought back to life. Creatures on wing and foot settled in quickly and most assuredly appreciated the refuge. Although designed to be wild, we do have an intense management program in place to ensure invasive species to not take root whilst the meadows are maturing. My sense of joy cannot be quantified from such a transformative, regenerative project.

A Wild and Loose Garden, in an Arts and Crafts Setting

Grosse Pointe

The formal spaces and gardens surrounding this home nod to the historical plan of this Arts and Crafts house on the National Register in Grosse Pointe. As one moves beyond those proximal spaces, the gardens loosen up in attitude and purpose. Nature begins to assert control. A relaxed native planting design allows the gardens and wild spaces to play refuge to wildlife. The native gardens were also engineered to help mitigate seasonal heavy rains and ponding on the property.

These beautiful biomes do double and triple duty with their design. Maintaining these areas is necessary but it’s not critical to keep them tidy. The looseness of these natural plantings has a quiet forgiveness in the aesthetics. Nature is driving the growth and plan beyond the initial plantings. Evergreen borders and hardscaping provide the scaffold and structure to these gardens. They provide food and shelter for the birds in winter months, and privacy in the everyday.

The rain gardens with two immense ponds manage all that the heavens can throw down, until the water can naturally percolate into this grand marais. The wet meadows, important to managing the water, also provide an immense amount of vegetation and bloom for insects and birds in the area. This centuries old neighborhood now has a functional two-acre island oasis nestled in amongst the surrounding turfgrass deserts.  

All creatures great and small have found this haven and are flourishing. The relaxed acreage and meandering paths allow one to discover nature as intended. When walking this property, it is easy to get lost in time and forget which century one comes from. The seamless design, as old as the primordial glades and woods, hugs the vistas of the main home and its historical facades. Theses gardens act as the lungs of this property. This holistic approach to design maintains openness in suburbia, allowing the home to exhale with space. This two-acre space amongst the surrounding properties is a refuge for the mind and for nature. The quiet can exist in the breeze.  

Although in Grosse Pointe, it is not uncommon to run into a flock of turkeys, deer or turtles. The gardens certainly promote these pilgrimages. On occasion, and early in the morning, one can always count on a visit from a Great Blue Heron trying its best to nab a frog for breakfast.  

The Beginnings of an Engineered Woodland and Rain Garden

Beverly Hills

Although most gardens take time to mature, time is especially key when establishing a functioning woodland garden. The layers of plants need time to establish. Planting the canopy trees and intermediate trees is always a first step before the carpeting perennials can easily take root and mature. This Beverly Hills garden started from ground zero and leaned heavily on a few highly trimmed deciduous trees. We relied on these mature trees to do some heavy lifting until the other canopy trees establish themselves.   

Much like the gardens in Grosse Pointe, this garden has the task of mitigating large amounts of water from time to time. Several dry ponds were dug and connected to handle seasonal rains that often occur in early spring and summer. These rain gardens are designed with woodland plants in mind. The edges and vast open areas are home to many ferns, Petasites japonicus, and other ground covering perennials. The slower growth rates of woodland plants make this garden unique with maintenance. Once established, weeding and maintaining this garden will be a breeze, for I want nature to drive the decisions.    

A cathedral of Metasequoia ‘Gold Rush’ and cedars add the structure and boundaries to keep this relatively small garden private and magical as they drink their fill. Mass plantings of spicebush and other shrubs trick the eye into believing this man-made environment just might be a natural woodland edge.    

The effectiveness of mass planting is critical when creating a naturalistic garden. Nature is never perfect nor symmetrical. Although these types of gardens are effective and necessary to harbor nature and all her creatures, they can be intimidating for some people. There is a global trend towards planting in this manner. I recently read that tens of thousands of acres are being converted to naturalistic garden islands amongst human settlement. Woodlands and meadows are sprouting up across the world, one property at a time. Although beautifully manicured turfgrass can be brilliant on occasion, it offers nothing to the environment and to those creatures that depend upon open spaces amongst people.  

The success of these designs comes from creating bones in the garden and mass planting a few types of plants. They allow areas that seem wild to be supported by consistency, with quiet moments for the eye to rest. This can be achieved in several ways. In the Grosse Pointe garden, a large turf circle lined with field stone allows the eye to rest, yet celebrates the wild meadows that rush its borders. In the Bloomfield Hills wet meadow, several swamp oaks were planted as focal points amidst the sea of blooms. The Beverly Hills garden relies on decomposed granite paths to guide the eye along the wild wood. Many techniques can be employed to make these gardens easy to live with visually.  

As I mentioned, most of our projects are exquisitely tailored for our human clientele, but when we get a chance to make way for nature, we jump quickly and confidently into action.


How To Begin

How to replicate a wild space into your garden, without feeling overwhelmed?

  1. Choose a corner of the garden and plant several native species loved by butterflies: milkweed, spicebush, ironweed.
  2. Let nature creep in along a wooded edge.  
  3. Plant a few native shrubs that can hem themselves into a more conventional landscape design. These choices depend on site conditions, sun vs shade, etc. Ideas include: Calycanthus, Myrica, Viburnum, Clethra.  
  4. If your property is larger, stop mowing large sections of turf. Surprises happen when turf is left to mature and seed. Nature begins to seed itself back into these areas. Over time, a meadowlike area will take hold. Augment by planting into the matrix of turf: milkweeds, coreopsis, goldenrods, or any number of field-loving perennials.  
  5. Small gardens can benefit from a carefully curated selection of natives that adhere to space restrictions. Choose straight species that are not cultivars.  
  6. Although management of these spaces is necessary, learn what “weeds” are good and merit space amongst the cultivated.  
  7. Decide what type of habitat is natural to your area and choose specific plants for that area. Err on the side of less variety and more mass plantings.    

Any small nod to this way of gardening adds to the greater critical mass towards regional conservation. These island meccas are critical for other species to thrive amongst us humans. I look forward to sharing these and other projects as they mature.