Consider your working within the confines of about an acre. I grew up were we had one acre of manicured lawn and a few acres of woodland. We made trails, hung out, and generally just spent a lot of time in the woods. I've always found our efforts to manicure lawn and "keep a yard" kind of weird. Like a perverse sort of control freak thing in a way. Especially when you go chem lawn green.
How would you/could you emulate free form yard and nature in a suburban atmosphere with only one acre without completely freaking out your neighbors? Any links or books on the subject? Could you ditch your lawn efforts all togeather? I was just thinking plant a ton of trees and let nature take its course, but would you need to consider cultivating the undergrowth?
And of course consider wild fruit, berry and other self perpetuating vegetation would be a huge plus.
Yes, it's doable with just an acre; I've done it with much less. I used to be a landscaper specializing in 'natural', wildlife-friendly, drought-tolerant landscapes.
The woodland part, of course, probably can't be what you had when you were growing up -meaning very tall and/or wide trees, but you can use smaller trees to create a similar effect.
Important: - Yes, size is a factor with the trees. As Edward said above, be mindful of lines and pipes, blocking your neighbor's view or shading too much, branches falling in their yard, etc.
Don't plant large trees near the house, lest your insurance co raises your premium.
Maintenance: choose trees/shrubs that either don't require a lot of pruning, or be willing to prune. It's not likely that you'll totally be able to let nature take its course; nature can be messy and 'unattractive' to lawn people.
Choose native species to your area/region - this will help ensure they will thrive, require minimum care and water, and attract wildlife. If natives aren't possible, make sure they're suited to your area and are non-invasive.
Leave some "lawn" area maybe? - is there a species of grass native to your area that would be suitable? Good for birds, etc, and for walking barefoot in, rolling around, etc.
Cultivating undergrowth - you'll have to weed and maintain until the trees/ecosystem is established. Try finding native perennials and naturalizing annuals suited for the trees.
Your best bet for better info than I have given is - do you have a native plant nursery nearby (or in your region). They'll be able to give you info on trees/plants and design ideas.
At any rate, go for it! Rip up that lawn! I'll be ripping mine up in the spring :D
My family owns 2 houses on 5 city lots in a Midwestern suburban area with mature trees (about 3/4 acre). One lot is completely wooded. I've slowly added wildflowers over the years and rooted out invasive shrubs that don't add much wildlife food or cover. My wooded wildflower garden is beautiful and my neighbors love it. So do the deer and squirrels. We have two large fenced vegetable gardens, one with a small dwarf apple tree orchard (5 trees). They look nice and the neighbors think they are great, especially since we give away produce in return for pesticide-free grass clipping to add to our compost pile (contained within a wooden bin). I am slowly adding more flowering trees and wildflower beds, all with the design to provide maximum wildlife food and cover. I've got a drainage problem area which I just turned into a rain garden. Each year I take out more grass and add more trees, shrub, "natural areas" and garden space and the neighbors don't seem to mind. They like my flowers and veggies. Their kids love to come and dig and look at stuff. I think the key is that the parts that are left natural or semi-natural, are bordered by a small strip of well-manicured lawn. I read a great research report once that said, that as long as you take really good care of the "lawn" part, most people will consider you a good neighbor who takes good care of your property. I've been putting this philosophy into practice and it really works! I also think it has worked well because its been a slow project over years--not a one time get rid of all the grass project. I love having an urban homestead and wildlife refuge! (I just wish I could hunt the deer!)
I love the book Food Not Lawns, and I think you could get some great idea to started here: http://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/193339207X/ref=redir_mdp_mobile
Is there a native plant society in your region? If so, check with them for suggestions, seeds, seedlings, growing guides, etc. Check with garden groups and at the library for other resources on plants that are native to your region. Oh, and do a web search for your location plus native plant nursery or some such.
Native plants will be easy to grow, often drought-resistant, and will support native bugs, wildlife, etc.
I did this with a 5-acre plot of a farm that was being subdivided. Great fun! I should say we did, as I was married at the time.
We reserved one acre for the "yard" and used a dense planting of 750+ trees and shrubs but it was relatively normal landscaping.
The other 4 acres was our prairie. We chose not to intensively seed the whole field but we did scatter drifts of seeds for a variety of prairie grasses and a few flowers. Over a 5-year process, it was amazing to watch the evolution from 60% weeds to a young but flourishing prairie.
The second year, we had a plague of rabbits but while we were discussing if/how we should react, a great horned owl stopped by and solved the problem in about 3 nights.
Anyhow, between the heavily planted yard and a snaking mowed path around the field with a trail of tree swallow nest boxes, the birds planted a ga-zillion seeds. We burned every spring to kill the tree/shrub seedlings and the grasses and flowers exploded unbelievably fast.
There's a national org or two that have info on how to get away from 'traditional' lawns. One is Wild Ones (for-wild.org, or something like that). National Wildlife Federation has a 'backyard habitat' certification that you can get. Pretty sure that the Audubon Society does, too.
For reading, i've heard good things about tallamy's 'bringing nature home'. Also, perhaps the classic 'designing with nature's would be of interest.