Garden Design

Gardens That Give Back

Nearly 20 years ago in her book, Noah’s Garden, Sara Stein urged gardeners to abandon conventional landscaping with its constant need for “feeding, watering, planting, cultivating and pest control,” and to “think of the little land they tend as an ecosystem” with the “ability to run itself and sustain its inhabitants.”

While Stein’s call to ‘loosen the land’s aesthetic corset’ failed to incite an overnight revolution, over the decades public awareness of sustainability has grown significantly. Now an increasing number of people are considering the impact their landscape choices have on the conservation of both resources and existing natural communities.

Amy Mackintosh, a landscape architect who organizes the annual Conservation Gardens Tour, calls this approach “gardening lightly.” For those who want to learn more about conservation gardening and how to go about it, she suggests visiting the North Carolina Botanical Garden’s website ( Another resource for gardeners interested in conservation is the H. L. Blomquist Garden of Southeastern Native Plants at Duke Gardens ( The Blomquist includes a display of plants and features for attracting wildlife and the “Steve Church Endangered Species Garden” which showcases 24 endangered plants and the efforts underway to restore them.

Sustainable practices such as composting, collecting rainwater, managing runoff, and reducing the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers are often components of conservation gardens.  Equally important, according to Mackintosh, is placing value on “what was here before” and conserving some part of it by using native plants and providing habitat for birds and other wildlife.

Many Triangle residents are using sustainable gardening methods. Meadowsweet Creek runs through one of the two adjoining city lots that comprise the home and gardens of Jonathan Nyberg and Rebecca Wellborn.  Nyberg says, “The gardens are more sculpted than planted.”  While the couple has added many trees, shrubs, and perennials to the property, it has always been with attention to preserving or enhancing existing plant communities including mosses, ferns, and sedges on the creek bank and a discovered grove of Downy Arrowwood (Viburnum rafinesquianum). Nyberg directs run off from his roof to create spots for water loving plants and uses “urbanite,” his term for recycled concrete, to build retaining walls and other features.

Frank Hyman uses a spot in his side yard and an electric lawnmower to shred the leaves dropped by trees on his property.  Accomplishing the task in a few weekends each winter, he both avoids sending debris to the landfill and produces his own mulch.  Hyman’s garden, which includes a lawnlet, demonstrates that food and flowers for humans and plants that benefit wildlife can all coexist in even the tiniest of urban settings.

Dale Batchelor is the founder of Gardener by Nature LLC, a company offering garden consultation, design, management services, and gardening classes. Her display garden, co-created with her husband, John L. Thomas, is a certified National Wildlife Federation Backyard Habitat and a native plant habitat recognized by the North Carolina Native Plant Society.

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