Increasing Biodiversity in Historic Gardens

I’ve spent most of my career stewarding and preserving cultural institutions in some way or another. Lately its been historic properties. These are some of the most challenging typologies to work with due to their shear limitations. Historic districts, National Historic Landmarks, cultural landscape reports, wills, and other local/state/national regulations for properties designated as historic. My current property has it all! Those tasked with preserving and stewarding these properties have the added challenges of adapting and mitigating to climate change, new technological advancements, ambitious master planning from the organization, as well as the increased cost of building supplies. So when an organization starts thinking about altering or improving a landscape, all these items must be taken into consideration. For more thoughts on history property treatment, see my earlier post.

In this post i’d like to share a recent garden project that i wrapped up involving the rehabilitation of a particular area, being the front yard of our property’s admin building. This section of the property is tied into many of our historic limitations and for the sake of brevity any alterations to the property must be respectful to existing heritage plants, grading, and overall character of the existing Victorian-era farm house context. The main goals for the project included increasing biodiversity, increasing beautification, being low maintenance, and being respectful to the Victorian-influence of existing materials. Challenges included removal of invasive/aggressive prevailing groundcover, and slight regrading of the hillside and adjacent areas to control stormwater sheetflow.

2018 before_
Liriope, vinca, ivy, and pachysandra jungle
before 2018
High value white oak fell in 2018

The entire area promoted little biodiversity of native flora and fauna. Non-native Pachysandra, liriope, and vinca cover all non-grass surfaces, and most of the shrubs were Asian or European species that did not serve as host plants. A massive white oak tree fell on this area the previous year, marking a huge loss, as these oaks are one of the highest value plants for the eastern deciduous forest. Scientists such as Doug Tallamy (Bringing Nature Home; Nature’s Best Hope) have done an incredible job authoring books catered to the public to help them understand the importance of increasing biodiversity and what actions they can take as homeowners. So as the most prominent garden on the property, we also approached this project as an opportunity to demonstrate to the public that a predominantly native garden and look beautiful and also support so many of the plants and animals that are struggling in an era of climate change, globalization, and de-regulation of chemicals by our current administration.


The before and after photos show a great contrast. This project was completed in a week using mostly in-house labor. The plant list is approximately 90% native, with historical restrictions. Non-natives include a few Asian azaleas, caryopteris, and sedum. A few native change-orders not reflected on the plan include 10 Ilex glabra ‘gem box’ and 6 liatris. Additionally, its also important to define native. For our purposes, native is those plants grown in the eastern US.


concept images plan 2020
Planting plan concept. After being inspired by Doug Tallamy’s Nature’s Best Hope, more plants were switched out to native species.
plan 2020
The dwarf azalea was changed out to native Ilex glabra.

It was a fun project! Depending on the historical limitations, it can often be difficult to substitute native plants into the mix. To best approach this, I recommend messaging the urgency and sense of duty for increasing biodiversity and working with senior staff to see how this can be integrated into organization goals and planning.

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