NC State University
House with native plants and animalsGoing Native: Urban Landscaping for Wildlife with Native Plants
Home > How to Go Native > Step Three - Design a Native Plant Landscape > Developing a Plant Plan

Develop a Planting Plan

Begin this exciting phase of the process by referring back to your map of existing vegetation.  Hopefully, you have many useful plants that will remain in the native landscape.  Especially plan to retain plants that have proven attractive according to observations and records.  Locate these plants on a fresh copy of your base map.

Canopy Planting Plan
Canopy Planting Plan. Larger version.

Review the bubble diagrams you drew to designate spaces for human and wildlife requirements in the landscape.  On your map, lightly draw an outline of all planting areas that were identified by these requirements.  Be willing to compromise some human needs to meet wildlife needs, and vice versa.

Canopy Planting Plan

Identify the locations for the tallest plants and focal points in the garden first.  Select appropriate native plants considering ultimate size and aesthetics of the plant and conditions of the site, e.g., sunlight exposure, soil moisture.  Think about the effects of evergreen or deciduous trees in each location.  At this point you are defining the “bones” of the garden.

Shrub Planting Plan
Shrub Planting Plan. Larger version.

Shrub Planting Plan

Proceed to the next vertical layers, the mid-story and shrub layers.  Again, select native plants with consideration of the plant’s and the site’s characteristics.  Remember to account for the effects of canopy plants you might have added.

As you continue to successively lower vertical layers in the habitat, you may wish to design each layer on a separate clear overlay.  Although you want the entire design to be integrated, this technique will make the planting plan easier to read.

Ground Planting Plan

Ground Planting Plan
Ground Planting Plan. Larger version.

The groundcover layer offers the most variety in terms of plant selection and availability at local nurseries.  Don’t be overwhelmed.  When you combine plants, remember to apply good design principles:

• Use appropriate scale and proportion.

• Consider the shape and forms of the plants.

• Choose complementary or contrasting textures and colors, depending on your desired effect.

• Repeat plants, or at least aesthetic characteristics like texture and color, to create unity in the garden.

Last, but not least, have fun!  Following guidelines doesn’t mean that all native landscapes must look alike.  There is plenty of room for creativity.  Your yard can be as unique as you are!

Many great resources are available to provide more information about the design process and combining plants.  Visit your local library, bookstore, or garden center for inspiration.  The following list of books will get you started:
The Essential Garden Design Workbook. Rosemary Alexander. 2004. Portland, OR: Timber Press.
Ortho’s All About Landscaping. Michael McKinley, editor. 1999. Des Moines, IA: Meredith Books.

Things to Avoid – Often, as homeowners and gardeners attempt to take actions that benefit wildlife, they instead create conditions that are detrimental to the animals or to themselves.  There are several mistakes frequently made during landscape design, leading to problems once the native plants are in place.

Eastern Tailed-Blue
Eastern tailed-blue butterflies lay their eggs on legumes.

• Ignoring Wildlife Needs – The specific needs of target wildlife species are not considered, so the animals are absent or uncommon in the landscape.

Not Addressing Limiting Factor – The least abundant habitat component, or limiting factor, is not addressed, so the number of target wildlife remains the same after habitat improvements.

Not Having Blooms Year-Round – The landscape contains only plants that fruit or bloom during one season, so wildlife use is low during most of the year.  Year-round animal needs should be addressed in a native plant landscape.

Planting Too Close to Windows – American holly and other fruit-producing plants are placed near reflective glass or windows and feeding birds are killed as they accidentally strike the windows.  The best solution is to reduce the reflectivity of windows through the use of screens or other material.

Attracting Undesirable Species – The actions taken to improve habitat for desirable wildlife species like birds and butterflies might attract undesirable, pest species.  For example, brush piles, dense hedge plantings, and fallow areas are great feeding and roosting spots for wintertime birds.  However, these areas are attractive to mice, rabbits, and snakes. Find out how to cope with undesirable species.

Cats Kill Wildlife
House cats kill millions of songbirds in the United States each year.

Having Outdoor Cats – Outdoor pet cats and feral cats (those able to live in the wild) kill tens of millions of songbirds and other wildlife each year in the United States.  Almost all house cats will kill wildlife, whether the cats are well-fed or not. It’s a natural instinct for cats to kill prey species, including the wildlife in your backyard.  Research indicates that even cats with bells on their collars can kill birds and other small animals.  Birds and other animals face many dangers each day, so keeping cats indoors helps ensure the long-term conservation of wildlife.

Upsetting Neighbors – Consider your neighbors before making drastic changes that might upset them.  Describe your plan to them and explain why you intend to make the changes.  Check to see that your planned activities don’t violate any city or neighborhood ordinances. 

Back to top

NC Forest ServiceNC Cooperative Extension