Tabula Rasa: Design Challenge

Photo © Bill Bunn

Design Challenge takes photos of tricky spots in people’s yards and puts them out there for advice from the professionals at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and from our broad audience of participants, some of whom have some serious wildlife gardening credentials (just check out our Featured Sites for proof).

The Details

Location: New Paltz, New York
Eco-Region: Eastern Broadleaf Forest (Oceanic Province)
Planting Zone: 6a
Learn more about this place by reading it’s Local Resources Page.

This property owner is interested in a flagstone area for seating, a few paths through the space, and plant life that will support bees, birds, insects, and snakes. In short, they would like a little ecosystem! There is not a much time to devote to maintenance or watering during the week but they don’t mind having stems or dried seed heads throughout the season and it’s okay if plants aren’t blooming all the time especially if they can use all native species. Deer and rabbits are a problem, but would prefer not to fence the area.


Photo ©

Some back story: There was an above ground pool in this space that was 16′ wide by 24′ long. The pool was removed and the decking was salvaged to build the movable raised planters.

NewPaltz (2)

Photo ©

The “soil” is 1-3′ of fine sand on top of very compacted clay. Drainage is pretty poor and the ground holds moisture for at least 3-4 days after rain. The area is oriented north/south; the photo is taken facing south. Any ideas are welcome, from reviving the soil to supporting wildlife.

Cornell Says:
A “blank slate” is an excellent opportunity to create the garden you desire. In this case, a “little ecosystem” garden would need to provide the many resources necessary to support a diversity of wildlife. Native plants for pollinators and birds, bare ground and cover for reptiles and small mammals, and of course a water source for all the above. The existing light and soil structure would allow a number of native plants like Cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), Lanceleaf coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata), and Wild lupine (Lupinus perennis) to persist, providing nectar and host plants for butterflies. Consider adding a cover board or small pond to attract reptiles and amphibians. The raised planters offer the control to dramatically increase the garden’s plant diversity by filling them with various soil types and placing them in either sun or shade for optimum growing conditions for anything from Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) to Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum).

To our readers: What favorite combination of native plants would you like to see in one of these planters?

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