The Landscape As Ecosystem

How to foster Nature’s inherent beauty— from small yards to large meadows.

By Jack Pizzo
From the April 2023 Issue

You’ve all heard the buzz about pollinators, Monarch butterflies, rain gardens, bioswales, and native plants. You might understand the concepts of pollinators pollinating, native plants being low maintenance, the circle of life that goes on in your landscape, or the complex interactions that make up ecosystems. Whether you are planting one native plant, an entire garden of native plants, or acres of native plantings, every plant and every square foot matters.

What you are doing is ecosystem restoration. To be successful you need to think on an ecosystemic level. No one individual, plant, or animal has a life outside of the ecosystem where it lives. Every plan you create must be specific to your site. You cannot have a cookie cutter approach. If you follow this premise, then you become a trusted expert and your projects succeed. Success means landscapes that are beautiful and functional ecosystems. Nature is inherently beautiful, thus easy to photograph. Good photographs mean great marketing materials and awards. Nature is good for us, good for business, and good for the planet. Let me take you through the steps to create a naturally beautiful landscape.

Landscape As Ecosystem
Project success at Pizzo & Associates means landscapes that are beautiful—and functional ecosystems—such as this colorful meadow of native wildflowers.

Observant Design

Patterns. Landscapes and nature are filled with the stories of success and failure. If you are attentive to the details, you will see things change on a daily basis. The key to understanding what you are seeing is as simple as one word: why? Why are things the way they are? What human/natural conditions put this site where it is today? What is keeping the plants/animals healthy or what is harming/killing them? Catalog this information. What you end up seeing are patterns.

Use this knowledge to guide you as you restore or create ecosystems. You must also look at your own projects in the same light. Nature is a cruel teacher. Learn from what you see. Learn from the patterns. Don’t fight nature. Nature has all day every day and unlimited resources to fight you. Nature always wins. It’s best to work with nature.

Planning. Do site specific planning for any landscape, or more simply put “the right plant in the right place.” Before you choose the plant species, you must consider all the factors that make up your site. Always start with where you are. That is the most important factor to consider.

When America was once an unbroken ecosystem, the geology and hydrology created ecology that supported the plants and animals. The geology is the parent material on which and from which your soils have been created as well as the rise and fall of the land (topography). Topography creates the hotter/drier southern slopes versus the cooler, moister north facing slopes. Topography also dictates how the water moves across or through the landscape, which is called hydrology.


Landscape As Ecosystem


Pizzo & Associates
While not photographed from the exact same perspective, these photos illustrate the restoration of an eroding streambed. The shoreline is now stabilized with a lush and dense planting of native wildflowers.

Plants and animals associate with hydrology like a key to a lock. You find cactuses on dry sites, not in the water, and waterlilies in the water, not on dry sites. Plants, animals, and insects associate with the environment and each other. Plants evolved in ecosystems such that when you find one species of plant, you will likely find associated species. For example, if you look down in a natural area and see American Cancer-root (Conopholis americana) you are standing under the canopy of an oak (Quercus spp.) tree. American Cancer-root is obligate to associate with oaks. This is the basis of understanding ecosystems. Your site has an ecology of its own. Know what it was, how it has changed, and where it is today, and you will have all the information you need to design for success.


Your site might contain intact ecosystems; I call them full remnants. The site might have partially intact ecosystems, or partial remnants. Both full and partial remnants are amazing when restored. Your site will likely have totally new planting spaces as well. It is not uncommon to have all three on a site.

Restoring Remnant Ecosystems. Intact or partially intact ecosystems are the easiest to restore and make a beautiful part of any landscape. On a simple level, the rule here is to remove non-native/invasive species, add back missing native species, and then steward the site. You steward a site. You do not maintain it. I will explain later.

Creating New Ecosystems. This is a more complex task, but still has rules to follow. They are: Know how much sun or shade the plantings will get. What is casting the shade? Other plants or buildings? What is the new soil composed of and how has it been treated? Is the soil likely to be drier or wetter the majority of the time? How large is the space? Is it square feet or acres? How will the viewing public or owner see the site— from close or far away? Who will be doing the stewardship, the owner or a contractor? Will there be a performance criteria?


Landscape As Ecosystem


Landscape As Ecosystem
The same scene before and after shoreline restoration. Former erosion issues have been addressed with a solution that holds up to drought, requires no chemical inputs, supports pollinators, and enhances the area’s beauty.

I like the rule of 360/365/ ½. If the site can be viewed from 360˚, be seen 365 days a year, and is less than ½ acre, it should be created and stewarded like a landscape planting. It must contain shorter species that bloom from Spring until Fall. The number of species designed for that area will be less than the total number it could support. The reason is that small spaces contain limited conditions. And limited conditions support a limited number of species. If the planting list is too broad, then the species best adapted to those limited conditions will take over and crowd out others. It’s an expensive mistake to lose plants.

I also like to use borders of native grasses to frame the planting. This especially helps with plantings in a traditional lawn setting. Too often lawn herbicides drift into a garden and kill the flowers. A native grass buffer can take the application of broadleaf herbicides and protect the flowers.

Decision Making

What about replanting an area for perennial establishment? Should you use seed or established plants? The simple answer is small areas (where you’re thinking in terms of square feet) should not be seeded. It takes too long for seeds to establish, and the site will look weedy to the average person. Instead, plant with plugs (2” pots) or gallons (6” pots). Density of the planting is important. The closer you can plant them, the less chance there is for weeds to establish. Small plantings can/should be mulched. Seeding does make sense, however, when the site is large enough to support a diversity of species and the establishment timeline is more than two seasons.

When it comes to trees and shrubs, do not plant too many trees and shrubs in meadow or prairie plantings. I see this a lot. The trees and shrubs shade the sun loving planting or are damaged/die with stewardship activities.

During Construction


Pizzo & Associates

Landscape As Ecosystem
This project for the Brook Forest HOA in Hinsdale, IL won a Gold Award for Ecological Restoration in the National Association of Landscape Professionals (NALP) 2022 Awards of Excellence. (PHOTOS: PIZZO & ASSOCIATES)

What species to choose? That is the million-dollar question. I will answer it in the only way that makes sense. Choose species that are native to the area. The species must: thrive in the conditions present, meet design criteria (color, height…), be commercially available, and not too aggressive for the planting. This is why all planning is site-specific. No cookie cutters. This means you need to know your plants.

As to placement, the beauty of native plants is that they can go anywhere you want. I see them in: perennial gardens; bioswales; rain gardens; shoreline stabilizations; turf conversions; xeriscapes; prairie restorations; meadows; savanna/forest restorations, pollution mitigation projects, stormwater ponds, and ecosystem restorations. They are also on green roofs and mixed in with other landscape plantings. The possibilities are endless. Plant native!


Maintenance is not what we do with ecosystems. Maintenance implies we want the planting to be static or unchanging. Yet Nature is dynamic and ever changing. Stewardship is active/dynamic on-going management of the site whether it is a landscape or restored ecosystem. We steward ecosystems.

What does this entail? It means keeping all non-native/invasive plant species out. Why? Because ecosystems evolved with a particular give-and-take between species. Native plants have other native species that keep them in check. Since non-native/ invasive species plants haven’t evolved for that same dynamic of exchange, they almost always out-compete the natives. They take over most, if not all, ecosystems. You lose everything you have designed and worked for. I tell my clients, “We don’t make native plants grow, we make non-native/invasive species not grow.” You have to know the weeds as well as the flowers to remove the right ones.

Elimination of non-native/invasive species includes: hand removal, selective use of herbicides, and mowing with brush cutters or tractors. Never let any non-native/invasive species reproduce. You want to have only a finite number of plants to remove.

We also collect the seeds of the native plants and distribute them onsite. Think of the seeds as free plants that will fill in the gaps. Dense plantings keep the weeds out. We also conduct prescribed fires. Our native ecosystems are not fire-tolerant; they are fire-dependent. They need occasional fire as a natural element of the ecosystem to maintain biodiversity. Prescribed fire is safe if conducted by trained and experienced professionals. Fire is like a fast, efficient Fall or Spring cleanup. The planting is ready for the sun to shine in. In small plantings where fire is not practical, we cut the dead stems and rake them off to simulate a fire. Stewardship never ends, just as a landscape will always need maintenance.

I have been a student of the environment for my entire life. Nature is the most amazing teacher. I have taken the lessons I have learned to create and steward some amazing ecosystems. My company has been stewarding some sites for over 20 years! I work with an amazing team of passionate and professional people. They are the reason our work has won over 170 awards. I strongly encourage you to work with Nature and create your own award-winning ecosystems. I am always available to answer questions.

Jack PizzoPizzo is founder of Pizzo & Associates Ltd., a multi-award-winning firm offering ecological restoration in Leland, IL. Established in 1988, the company originally provided landscape, design-build, and maintenance services and grew quickly to focus on naturalized landscapes and eventually ecological restoration and stewardship. Growing their own native plants for installations evolved into another company, Pizzo Native Plant Nursery LLC. The current location of the business comprises 40 acres, of which 32.5 acres are remnant prairie and wetland where Pizzo has placed a conservation easement to permanently protect it. This little slice of Nature sits among 22,000 acres of production agriculture. It has become an oasis for migratory birds and monarch butterflies. The property is a living laboratory Pizzo & Associates, Ltd. uses to understand restoration, stewardship, and propagating native plants. Pizzo also practices what he preaches. He lives on 40 acres of restored prairie and wetland that is amongst 38,000 acres of corn and beans. The site now hosts 225 species of native plants and has been used by over 160 species of birds. For more information, visit or contact Jack Pizzo at

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