8 steps toward ungardening

wild garden
© iravgustin

It's time to rewild the manicured garden – here's how to start.

Way back when, nature was a wild thing – it was gorgeously unruly, thriving, going about its business all over the planet. In that context, early manicured gardens kind of makes sense – they were a way of taming nature, of creating controlled beauty out of the chaos of wilderness.

Fast forward to now and we have slashed, burned, chopped, logged, paved over, and built over so much nature that less than a quarter of the planet's land remains as wilderness. Natural habitats and whole ecosystems have been wiped out for agriculture (which now comprises 40 percent of land on Earth) and other assorted development.

At this point, the least we can do is allow our lawns and tidy gardens to return to a more natural state. We often talk about this as "rewilding," but I've been seeing the term "ungardening" as well – and I like it because it puts the emphasis on the "gardening" part. We don't have to stop gardening, per se – something that so many of us love – we just need to do it with a new mindset. Rather than striving for such a controlled environment, the ungarden can work to reverse ecological decline and become a much-needed haven for native flora and fauna.

There are many ways to revert a prim plot to an artfully frowsy place that makes nature feel welcome; here are a few places to start.

1. Know your local heros

If you don't already know, do some research and find out which plant species are native to your area – these are the ones that will do the best in your climate with the least amount of help, and that will get along the best with your local wildlife. Look for plants that will be generous to pollinators; avoid non-native species.

2. Swap the grass; embrace clover

Time is up for the manicured lawn. Their voracious appetite for water and chemicals are simply unsustainable; meanwhile, they deprive all kinds of organisms the space to thrive. We are firm believers in the clover lawn. Read more here:
12 reasons to plant a clover lawn
Use this instead of grass for your lawn
How to plant a clover lawn

3. Grow things that you (and wildlife) can eat

You may not want to go full "forest garden" – but at the very least, plant things that are lovely to look at and lovely for humans and other creatures to eat. Some ideas:

Forest garden with 500 edible plants takes a few hours of work a month
Please eat the dandelions: 9 edible garden weeds
6 edible ground cover plants for backyards and gardens

4. Refrain from using toxic pesticides

Ideally, one's garden would be a harmonious ecosystem where everything is working in concert. In general, staying away from pesticides is a good idea, because you may be killing something that would otherwise be food for another creature. But if things are out of whack and you have an abundance of pests, consider an all-natural pesticide so that there is no collateral damage along the way.

See more: 8 natural & homemade insecticides: Save your garden without killing the Earth

5. Use natural herbicides

Innocent weeds are so unjustly maligned – what did they ever do, aside from just being a plant that someone doesn't want? That said, weeds of the invasive species types are unwelcome, as they crowd out native plant species and don't always get along as well with native fauna. Regardless of what kind of weeds you may want to tackle, steer clear of strong herbicides that are indiscriminate in their destruction.

Instead, opt for one of these: 6 homemade herbicides: Kill the weeds without killing the Earth

6. Ponder a pond

All creatures great and small enjoy a little water; and offering some in your un-garden is a lovely idea. Wildlife gardening expert Jenny Steel tells The Guardian, “Birds need to drink and keep their feathers clean, so if you have room for a small wetland area, like a little pond, that’s a fantastic habitat. It’s somewhere not only birds and mammals will come to drink, but you’ll also get dragonflies, and frogs will spawn there.” If a pond is prohibitive, any small water feature will do, even a birdbath.

7. Tear down the fence, create a wildlife hedge

Walls and fences restrict the natural roaming of animals, but a wildlife hedge not only serves the same purpose as a fence, but allows creature to pass while also providing natural habitat for birds and insects. A wildlife hedge is much like the hedgerows of the UK, and includes a variety of plants – a mix of taller and shorter species, filled with fruit for eating, and nooks and crannies for cover and nesting. And it is way prettier.

I am smitten with wildlife hedges and wrote all about them here: Plant a wildlife hedge instead of building a fence

8. Stop raking

The leaves fall, the rakes come out. But nature got along very well before humans started raking up leaves – and in fact, leaves should absolutely be left on the ground. They form a natural mulch that helps fertilizes the soil as it breaks down and importantly, leaf litter is a thriving habitat for insects and small creatures. Plus, no bags ... and no raking! You're welcome.

Skip the rake and leave the leaves for a healthier, greener yard
A very important reason not to rake the leaves on your lawn

For more, see related stories below.

8 steps toward ungardening
It's time to rewild the manicured garden – here's how to start.

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