8 Steps Toward Ungardening

It's time to rewild the manicured garden—here's how to start.

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Way back when, nature was a wild thing—it was gorgeously unruly, thriving, going about its business all over the planet. In that context, early manicured gardens kind of make sense—they were a way of taming nature, of creating controlled beauty out of the chaos of wilderness.

Fast forward to now and we have slashed, burned, chopped, logged, paved upon, and built over so much nature that less than a quarter of the planet's land remains as wilderness. Natural habitats and whole ecosystems have been wiped out for agriculture (which now comprises 40 percent of land on Earth) and other assorted development.

What Is Ungardening?

Ungardening is a movement that eschews the tidy, manicured gardens of the past and instead embraces a more natural approach. In ungardening, native plants are favored and allowed the freedom to interact with their surroundings and become a benefit wildlife. There is also a focus away from synthetic gardening chemicals.

At this point, the least we can do is allow our lawns and tidy gardens to return to a more natural state. We often talk about this as "rewilding," but I've been seeing the term "ungardening" as well—and I like it because it puts the emphasis on the "gardening" part. We don't have to stop gardening, per se—something that so many of us love—we just need to do it with a new mindset. Rather than striving for such a controlled environment, the ungarden can work to reverse ecological decline and become a much-needed haven for native flora and fauna.

There are many ways to revert a prim plot to an artfully frowsy place that makes nature feel welcome; here are a few places to start.

1. Know Your Local Heroes

If you don't already know, do some research and find out which plant species are native to your area—these are the ones that will do the best in your climate with the least amount of help, and that will get along the best with your local wildlife. Look for plants that will be generous to pollinators; avoid non-native species.

2. Swap the Grass; Embrace Clover

A clover lawn speckled with white and purple clover blossoms

Johner Images / Getty

Time is up for the manicured lawn. Their voracious appetite for water and chemicals is simply unsustainable; meanwhile, they deprive all kinds of organisms the space to thrive. We are firm believers in the clover lawn.

3. Grow Things That You (and Wildlife) Can Eat

You may not want to go full "forest garden"—but at the very least, plant things that are lovely to look at and lovely for humans and other creatures to eat.

4. Refrain From Using Toxic Pesticides

Ideally, one's garden would be a harmonious ecosystem where everything is working in concert. In general, staying away from pesticides is a good idea, because you may be killing something that would otherwise be food for another creature. But if things are out of whack and you have an abundance of pests, consider an all-natural pesticide so that there is no collateral damage along the way.

5. Use Natural Herbicides

Innocent weeds are so unjustly maligned—what did they ever do, aside from just being a plant that someone doesn't want? That said, weeds of the invasive species types are unwelcome, as they crowd out native plant species and don't always get along as well with native fauna. Regardless of what kind of weeds you may want to tackle, steer clear of strong herbicides that are indiscriminate in their destruction.

6. Ponder a Pond

All creatures great and small enjoy a little water, and offering some in your ungarden is a lovely idea. Wildlife gardening expert Jenny Steel tells The Guardian, “Birds need to drink and keep their feathers clean, so if you have room for a small wetland area, like a little pond, that’s a fantastic habitat. It’s somewhere not only birds and mammals will come to drink, but you’ll also get dragonflies, and frogs will spawn there.” If a pond is prohibitive, any small water feature will do, even a birdbath.

7. Tear Down the Fence, Create a Wildlife hedge

A bird sits looking content in a shrub

Chris McLoughlin / Getty Images

Walls and fences restrict the natural roaming of animals, but a wildlife hedge not only serves the same purpose as a fence but allows creatures to pass while also providing natural habitat for birds and insects. A wildlife hedge is much like the hedgerows of the UK and includes a variety of plants—a mix of taller and shorter species, filled with fruit for eating, and nooks and crannies for cover and nesting. And it is way prettier.

8. Stop Raking

The leaves fall, the rakes come out. But nature got along very well before humans started raking up leaves—and in fact, leaves should absolutely be left on the ground. They form a natural mulch that helps fertilizes the soil as it breaks down and importantly, leaf litter is a thriving habitat for insects and small creatures. Plus, no bags ... and no raking! You're welcome.