Conservation Landscaping Best Practices

By: Lindsey Cline-Shrader

Conservation landscaping blends aesthetic appeal and ecological responsibility. It creates spaces that are not only visually stunning but also conserve resources and create havens for wildlife. The key to enchanting, low-maintenance gardens are also conservation landscaping best practices, such as dense planting, no-till gardening, and plug planting.

Dense Planting

The benefits of dense planting are manifold. Dense planting minimizes the space available for weeds to grow, a needed “win” in Virginia summers. A dense network of root systems enhances the soil’s ability to absorb water, reducing erosion and runoff, improving soil structure, and promoting deep infiltration. 

Dense plantings can increase the number and variety of plants, supporting a range of pollinators and beneficial insects and reducing the distance they must fly for nectar. Furthermore, dense planting provides shade and reduces temperature fluctuations in the soil. It also allows plants to signal to one another about threats from insects or diseases, creating a stable environment for growth and more successful plants. 

Dense planting may bring English cottage gardens to mind, but it can be adapted to various styles. Try a single ground cover grass species between forbs (herbaceous flowering plants) in modern gardens, or a mix of plant textures for added interest in shade gardens, or overlapping plant blocks for simplicity and artistry in Arts and Crafts style gardens.

No-Till Gardening

Another conservation landscaping practice, no-till gardening, preserves soil structure and the life within it. Traditional tilling disrupts soil microorganisms, depletes organic matter, and leads to erosion. No-till gardening maintains the natural soil structure, allowing deeper water infiltration and root growth. Undisturbed soil holds more water over time, helping plants withstand drought.

No-till also protects the habitat of beneficial soil organisms, such as earthworms and mycorrhizal fungi, which recycle soil nutrients. 

When creating new beds, use sheet mulching or cover crops. Sheet mulching involves layering organic materials (like compost, topsoil, or mulch) to suppress weeds and build fertility. The “lasagna” method uses cardboard to smother turfgrass, followed by topdressing with organic materials. Studies show cardboard slightly reduces carbon and oxygen in the soil, but those levels rebound in less than a year.

My favorite method for creating new garden beds is to mow the grass as low as possible and then compost in place by layering grass clippings and leaves in two-inch-thick layers. This builds soil and smothers most turfgrasses within several weeks. 

I recommend steering clear of solarization with plastic and landscape fabric. Solarization with plastic tarps generates microplastics and pollutes soil. Landscape fabric hampers the exchange of air and water in the soil, reducing soil health and decreasing plant vitality. Most weed seeds are wind-dispersed, allowing them to germinate on top of fabric, rendering it useless. Fabric can strangle trees and shrubs and typically becomes trash after several years.

Plug Planting

Plug planting establishes gardens efficiently, particularly perennials and native plant species. Plugs are small, young plants typically grown in deep but narrow containers—allowing strong root growth with minimal height. Plugs require smaller planting holes, minimizing soil disruption and root damage. 

Young plants adapt quickly to their environment, establishing roots more rapidly than larger, more mature plants. Plug planting allows for precise placement, enabling the intricate patterns recommended for dense plantings. Plugs often cost less than larger plants, allowing you to cover larger areas with less investment. 

Plugs are planted directly into the ground like larger plants, though a narrow spade creates less disturbance and awakens fewer weed seeds, encouraging a smoother first-year garden.

Additional Conservation Efforts

Efficient water management is essential in conservation landscaping. Although our area has an abundant water table, capturing water during rainy spells can protect our water supply during summer droughts. 

Adding rain barrels to downspouts not only provides extra water in hot, dry summers but may reduce overflow into city storm water drains. Rain gardens, beautiful spaces in their own right, reduce erosion and pollution by capturing and filtering water runoff. These gardens slowly absorb rainwater, promote groundwater recharge, and create unique micro-habitats in damp to wet soil. 

One final touch in conservation landscaping are accessories that provide food, water, and shelter to turn your garden into a habitat haven. Bird feeders, birdbaths, nesting boxes, berry-producing shrubs, and small water features support wildlife. Brush piles, logs, and dead trees provide shelter, breeding sites for reptiles and amphibians, and food sources for birds like woodpeckers. 

By implementing these practices in our own landscapes, we can support biodiversity, conserve resources, and enhance beauty. We have a role in nature, and our collective efforts can make a significant difference. 

Top 5 Native Plants for Rain Gardens

1. Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) attracts monarchs and other pollinators with clusters of pink to mauve flowers. 

• Full sun to partial shade and wet to moderate soils

2. Joe-Pye Weed
(Eutrochium purpureum) attracts pollinators and adapts to clay soils with large cluster or pink to purplish flowers.

• Full sun to partial shade and moist to wet soils

3. The Lobelias:
Cardinal Flower
(Lobelia cardinalis) & Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) attract hummingbirds and butterflies to their vibrant red and blue tubular flowers on tall spikes.

• Full sun to partial
shade and consistently moist soils

4. New York Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) provides height to borders and late-season nectar for bees and butterflies with vibrant fuchsia flowers.

• Full sun to partial
shade and moist,
well-drained soils

5. Blue Flag Iris
(Iris versicolor) provides showy blue-purple
iris flowers among
sword-like leaves.

• Full sun to partial shade and wet, boggy soils

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