• Nicolas Forestell

Designing Sanctuary Gardens

What is a sanctuary garden? A sanctuary garden provides wildlife with the food, water, and shelter they need to survive. The first step in making a sanctuary garden is the design process, and winter is the perfect time to go about it so that you’ll be ready when the growing season begins. When designing a sanctuary garden, it is important to learn how to balance the needs and desires of people and wildlife. If this isn’t done successfully, a messy garden or one that doesn’t attract much wildlife may result. This blog post presents some of the ideas put forward in the books Planting In A Post-Wild World and Nature’s Best Hope that’ll help you do anything from designing a whole sanctuary garden from scratch to making a few improvements to an existing garden.


The first step to designing a sanctuary garden is to come up with the overall vision. The authors of Planting In A Post-Wild World recommend that gardens should seek inspiration from the beauty of our wild places by trying to replicate one of three landscapes; grasslands, woodlands, or forests. When determining which landscapes to take inspiration from, we should first determine which landscapes our gardens most closely resemble. A lawn with scattered trees may evoke a woodland, while a new housing development cleared of trees may more closely resemble a grassland. But you can’t just exactly replicate what’s found in nature, as a garden needs to have the same impact in a much smaller space. By using higher densities of attractive plants in groupings and distinct layers and allowing for open views we can more accurately present the beauty of our wild places at a smaller scale. Most gardens shouldn’t seem too wild, however, as they need to fit in with their manicured settings. Small patches of lawns, pathways, fences, hedges, etcetera can all help achieve this.


Photograph by James Golden

This garden has been designed to resemble a woodland or forest opening. While the planting

is very natural in appearance, the stone wall and path add formality and order.


Once you have a vision for your spot it’s time to start working on the details. While most gardens have only one plant for one place with lots of wood chips in between, the authors of Planting In A Post-Wild World recommend a different approach to laying out plants that results in a lusher, more natural, and more ecologically friendly planting. This is done by planting in layers with each layer occupying a different space and serving a unique purpose.



Illustration from Planting In A Post-Wild World


The first and tallest layer is the structural layer, which as its name suggests adds structure to the garden. This layer should consist of well-behaved, sturdy, long-lived plants. For a woodland or forest setting trees and large shrubs are a good choice, while in a grassland setting taller wildflowers or grasses are best.


Next is the seasonal theme layer which consists of the plants that add color to the garden and are shorter and well-behaved. Per the name ‘seasonal theme,’ pick plants that have harmonious colors no matter the season like flowers. However, don’t forget that grasses and other duller plants add subtle color too.


Following that is the filler layer which should consist of short-lived, readily spreading plants that fill in gaps where disturbances occur. These plants should complement the seasonal theme layer.


Finally, we have the groundcover layer, which nurtures the soil and prevents weeds but doesn’t contribute much to the aesthetic of the site (except in spring) as these plants grow under the taller layers. Evergreen and/or deeply rooted plants that best protect the soil are ideal along with some plants with spring-interest. Diversity is also key in this layer as it allows your yard to support more wildlife without sacrificing looks.


Picking the right plants is also highly important, as aesthetic and wildlife value must be considered. Stay away from invasive plants that harm the natural balance of our local ecosystems and use a high number of native plants that have lived here since pre-colonial times. However, non-native plants are still ok as they add beauty and still provide some limited wildlife value. Pick plants that provide food and shelter. The best way to do this is to use lots of plants that support a highly diverse number of insects, as these will ensure that your yard has maximum wildlife value. To figure out what plants support the most insects, a good resource to use according to Dr. Tallamy, the author of Nature’s Best Hope, is the National Wildlife Federation's Plant Finder, which ranks plants by the number of caterpillars they support.


It is also important to pick plants that are adapted to your site conditions. Assess if your site is sunny (6 or more hours of sunlight,) partly sunny (2-6 hours,) or shady (less than 2 hours,) if the soil is wet or dry, and if it’s sand, clay, or something in between. A Bayberry bush that is adapted to growing on sunny coastal sand dunes and rocky ridges won’t grow well in clay soil next to a shady wetland. By doing this, you’ll ensure that your plants survive and thrive while also reducing maintenance from watering and fertilizing.


Overwhelmed with picking the right plants? The New England Native Plant Trust has a great resource that allows you to filter native plants by site conditions, size, and ornamental interest and gives you information on spacing, uses, and care.


Photograph taken from Wikipedia

Oaks support 473 species of caterpillars, the most of any local plant species!


Now that you have an idea of how to design a garden, it’s time to do it yourself! Get a pencil and paper (preferably graph paper) and measure out the dimensions of the space you want to design with a tape measure. Then lay out the plants you want being mindful of the tips mentioned as well as plant spacing, always keeping in mind what the garden will look like when mature. You don’t want that Oak you’re thinking of planting blocking your nice view.


In summary, designing sanctuary gardens involves taking inspiration from nature to create beautiful, layered gardens and careful plant selection to ensure your garden thrives and is attractive to both people and wildlife. If you’d like to learn more about garden design and plant selection, the aforementioned books Planting In A Post-Wild World and Nature’s Best Hope are excellent resources. The New England Native Plant Trust’s book Native Plants for New England Gardens also has great suggestions of native plants for your garden accompanied by detailed descriptions and uses.


Works Cited


“Garden Plant Finder.” Native Plant Trust, plantfinder.nativeplanttrust.org/Plant-Search.


Golden, James. “Gallery - Garden Plantings.” Federal Twist Design, federaltwistdesign.org/gardenplantings.


“Invasive Plants.” Native Plant Trust, 2010, www.nativeplanttrust.org/documents/319/Invasive_Brochure_Reduced_File_Size.pdf.


“Native Plant Finder.” National Wildlife Federation, www.nwf.org/NativePlantFinder/Plants.


“Quercus Alba.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quercus_alba.


Rainer, Thomas, and Claudia West. Planting In A Post-Wild World. Timber Press, 2015.


Richardson, Mark, and Dan Jaffe. Native Plants for New England Gardens. Globe Pequot, 2018.

Tallamy, Douglas W. Nature's Best Hope. Timber Press, 2019.


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