How to naturescape without offending the neighbors

Photo by Tom Curtis @

Photo by Tom Curtis from

I recently had a conversation with an acquaintance I met at an environmental education conference. She is a homeschooling mom and has been letting her yard go more natural to allow her kids to have a place to explore a semi-natural setting. Her neighbors have complained. Now she is facing a ticket from the city.

Since this was a passing conversation with a passing aquaintance I can’t say anything about the state of her yard. Her yard could be a perfectly lovely place and her neighbors could be the sort who complain about anything that isn’t “just so”. With that said, it isn’t uncommon for the neighbors to be a little puzzled, at best, by yards that are not perfectly manicured in the “English country estate” style. This doesn’t have to be the case.

For one thing, naturescapes can be neat and orderly. They do not have to tend to the wild. What all naturescapes have in common are hardy plantings that are native to the area, a diversity of plant types including food and cover plants, and an avoidance of chemical pesticides. How these elements are organized is up to the individual. It is possible to have a nature scape that mimics the “English country estate” or one that has the more chaotic feel of the country garden. In either case, you can plant so as to please yourself, the wildlife and even the neighbors.

It is easy to become overwhelmed with the prospect of organizing a landscape project. The yard stares back at you with all the hostility of that blank sheet of paper you were trying to write your science report on. Where do you start and how do you fill all that space? In the case of the yard you start with one small section. Ignore the rest of the yard for the moment and pick a section of the yard that you feel you can work with most easily, or that you will get the most pleasure looking at, or that already has a bit of a beginning. Start there.

Keep this area small. This makes it good for urban gardeners as well as making it simple. If you are a beginner I’d recommend beginning with a space no bigger than 24 square feet. That is, an area of  3 feet by 8 feet. Smaller is fine. Don’t go wider than 4 feet because 2 feet is as far as the average adult can reach, easily, without falling over. A child has a smaller reach so a 2 to 3 foot wide strip is better for them. It is amazing how many plants can fit in that area. Pick a place that is easy to see, access and to maintain.  If your garden is 4 feet wide, make sure you can access it from all sides. As for plants, an herb garden makes an excellent starting point. Herbs are popular nectar plants for butterflies (did you know that butterflies taste with their feet?) and make excellent additions to your kitchen. Win/Win!

If your soil is poor consider a raised bed. This saves you the headache of fixing bad soil. You don’t need much more than 6 to 8 inches of soil depth for most plants. Also, most plants get most of their nutrition and moisture from the top 6 inches. You can use cinderblocks or 2×8 boards to build your frame. Fill your box with a high quality soil that you purchase from the garden center. You can make your own if you want, a recipe is available from the Square Foot Gardener, among others, but I prefer to buy it in 40 lb bags.

Stealing an idea that I learned from the Square Foot Gardener, grid your box into 1 foot sections using lath or string. The one foot sections are your planting areas. It makes it really easy to figure out your plant spacing. If the full grown plant needs a 1 foot area, you would place one plant in the center of each square.

Quick math quiz for fun:

  • How many plants can you get into each square if the plants are spaced 6 inches apart?
  • If the plants are spaced 4 inches apart?
  • If the plants are spaced 3 inches apart?

Read the instructions on the plant tag or the seed to see how far to space the adult plant. If it is less than a one foot spacing take your finger or a pencil and draw a grid to show the appropriate spacing for the adult plants. For seeds, poke a 1/4 to 1/2 inch deep hole in the center of the grid and drop a pinch of seeds (two or three seeds) into it and push a little soil into the hole. For pot plants, put one plant into the center of each grid at the appropriate spacing. Water enough to keep the soil moist, not soggy, not bone dry. It is better to saturate the soil and then let it go nearly dry than it is to keep the roots soggy. Plants don’t like wet feet.

Planting in this way will keep the plants close enough to reduce the need to weed. It makes it easy to reach the whole garden to pull out the few weeds that do pop up. It makes it easy to reach the whole garden to change out plants as the seasons change. If your garden is up against a building remember to put the taller plants near the wall and the shorter plants outside.

7 suggested nursery plants with their butterflies.

  1. Dill, Parsley, and Cilantro: Black and Anise Swallowtail. (All of the flowers in this family)
  2. Yarrow: Painted Lady
  3. Licorice: Silver Spotted Skipper
  4. Mint: White Peacock, Painted Lady
  5. Sage: Grey Hairstreak, Painted Lady, West Coast Lady
  6. Sweet Violet: Fritillaries
  7. Nasturtium: Cabbage White (Winnie the Pooh called them Mastershalums)

7 suggested nectar Plants to attract the butterflies

  1. Yarrow
  2. Chamomile
  3. Lavender
  4. Lemon Balm
  5. Basil, Oregano, Marjoram
  6. Sage
  7. Thyme

Photo by Dan @ FreePhotos.Net

Photo by Dan from


What experience have you had with your natural garden and the neighbors? What are your favorite garden plants? How have you used this to connect yourself with nature? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

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