The Loma Prietan - November/December 2011

Gardening Green

Why Visual Appeal Matters

by Arvind Kumar

This well-maintained San Jose backyard contains a flagstone path, a stacked urbanite raised bed with a water feature, and well-chosen shrubs, perennials, and annuals that serve as both a bird magnet and a place of relaxation for humans. Photo: Stephen Rosenthal
This well-maintained San Jose backyard contains a flagstone path, a stacked urbanite raised bed with a water feature, and well-chosen shrubs, perennials, and annuals that serve as both a bird magnet and a place of relaxation for humans. Photo: Stephen Rosenthal

If you are like me, you see yourself as an environmentally conscious citizen. In the home garden in particular, you conserve water, conserve energy, reduce chemical use, and promote wildlife habitat—by planting plenty of native plants, in front and back.

Are your practices catching on? Are the neighbors paying attention? Is your garden influencing others to make similarly wise choices about the environment? In short, is your garden an effective showcase for environmentally friendly gardening? I am asking this of myself as much as you.

Your time may be limited in terms of how many people you can interact with personally. However, your garden influences people every time someone walks by or drives by. People form impressions and opinions based on what they see; they are much more likely to emulate you if their impression is favorable.

I have seen many well-tended and attractive native plant gardens, both private and public, and they continue to inspire me. But I have also seen some not-so-attractive native plant gardens: poorly maintained, overgrown, disheveled. Seeing such a garden, many people might conclude—incorrectly—that native plants are not attractive.

To be an effective advocate for the environment, it is not enough to plant native plants in your garden. It is just as important to maintain the garden and keep it presentable and appealing at all times. Indeed, if a native garden looks unkempt and forgotten, it torpedoes the larger environmental cause it intended to support.

The message of native plants being “low maintenance” is sometimes misinterpreted to mean “no maintenance.” No garden, native or otherwise, looks appealing without maintenance. When you go native, expect to continue to devote time to garden maintenance.

Joan Nassauer, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Michigan, has been studying the factors that affect public acceptance of environmentally friendly landscaping. Her research shows that people respond more favorably to native plant landscaping when they can discern human intention behind it. Humans are deeply influenced, she says, by cultural norms of beauty such as color and neatness. A landscape that exhibits “cues to care”—visible signs that it is being maintained by humans—is more likely to meet with public approval, support, and adoption.

Cues to Care

Nassauer articulates several cues to care in a given landscape. These may to be no-brainers in traditional gardens, but they bear repeating in an environmental context. When you go native, basic rules of aesthetics still apply. A garden that exhibits one or more of these cues is more likely to be viewed favorably and hence will have the power to influence others.

1. Neatness and Order. The garden looks inviting when the paths are well swept and free of debris. When the paths are clean, people are more apt to tolerate some untidiness in the beds. Shrubs pruned aesthetically to highlight natural shape and structure draw admiring eyes without losing habitat value.

2. Visible, Crisp Edges. Maintain a neat edge between the path and beds, and between beds of different types. Trim the plantings along the walkway and paths; don’t allow plants to grow over or into the path. If native plant god David Fross can use a string trimmer to maintain his native garden, so can you.

3. Mown Turf/Mulched Beds. A California garden is best without a lawn, but if you have turf grass, keep it mowed, especially portions with high visibility. If you have replaced the lawn with native groundcover, prune and edge it to maintain a neat appearance. If you have mulched beds, add a light layer of new mulch each spring to keep them looking fresh.

4. Colorful Flowers. Isn’t this why so many of us garden? With a careful choice of native shrubs, perennials, and annuals, you can have colorful flowers and fruit in the garden year-round. Remember that many flowering plants have a “down” season during which they need maintenance (like deadheading or pruning) to look attractive. If you are making time for rose and camellia maintenance, remember that native plants will benefit from the same attention.

5. Bird Baths/Boxes/Feeders. Even when a garden has plenty of natural habitat such as native trees and shrubs, those with a birdbath, bird feeder, or birdhouse resonate more with people. Who says humans are rational?

6. Structures in Good Repair. Is the fence painted? Are the benches, swings, chairs, and trellis functional and in good condition? Does the house look well maintained?

7. Signs. Signs identifying the garden owners or the garden’s ecosystem/habitat functions make a positive impression. These signs can be whimsical hand-painted “Native Garden” signs or official-looking plaques from the National Wildlife Federation or Audubon Society.

It is important to find the happy medium where the garden is inviting to humans as well as wildlife. Do what you can to keep your environmentally friendly garden neat and attractive—because then it has the power to win hearts and minds, and start doing its own form of environmental advocacy.

Sierra Club life member and California Native Plant Society director Arvind Kumar grows native plants in his Evergreen garden. He can be reached at