“If you’ve got just lawn grass, you’ve got nothing,” said Mace Vaughan of the Xerces Society, a leading organization in insect conservation. But as soon as you create a front yard wildflower meadow you go from an occasional honeybee to a lawn that might be full of 20 or 30 species of bees and butterflies and monarchs.” New York Times, Jim Robbins, 22 November 2013
When I first moved into my home in the fall of 2005, I was excited about having a big yard, but the yard, as it was, was all mowed lawn – not very exciting at all. When I read the article, The Year the Monarch Didn’t Appear, by Jim Robbins last week, about the decline in Monarch butterfly populations, it made me think of my yard, both how it was, barren, and how, when I look out my windows now, I see variety and life, activity, beauty, nature.
The Front Yard
My housewarming present from my father was a small seedling oak that he had dug from his yard, my first planting in my yard. And so it began. During the first spring in my home, I started marking out planting beds, laid out my vegetable garden, and planted more seedling oaks and other trees native to my region. All the trees were started from seed collected on, or adjacent to, my parent’s property, a remnant of second growth oak woods.
Those small trees grew fast – I was really amazed. After a few years of putting roots deep into the ground, they started growing at two to three feet a year. The American Hophornbeams, shown below with their leaves still intact, were only thirty inches tall three years ago. When I look at photos from past years, I am amazed at how short a time is needed to transform a yard from a sterile no-man’s-land, to something that makes one breathe deep in awe – a landscape full of beauty and wonder. A classroom, a sacred place.
The narrow strip of land between my driveway and my neighbor’s driveway receives plenty of sun, why mow grass when our native prairie grasses and flowers are so incredibly beautiful and would do so well in this location? This garden has evolved quickly from a prairie flower garden with Black-eyed Susans, Pale Purple Coneflowers, Prairie Dock, Orange Milkweed, and Prairie Dropseed, to a more mature garden of mostly Midwest native grasses and trees, including Winged Sumac, Red Oak, and Hawthorn. Prairie Dropseed grass (Sporobolis heterolepis) and a young Hawthorn (Crataegus sp.) can be seen in the above photo, with a ‘Twilite Prairie Blues’ Prairie Indigo just behind. The larger scale of these plants works well for this open space.
The Back Yard
“Around the world people have replaced diverse natural habitat with the biological deserts that are roads, parking lots and bluegrass lawns. Meanwhile, the plants people choose for their yards are appealing for showy colors or shapes, not for their ecological role. Studies show that native oak trees in the mid-Atlantic states host as many as 537 species of caterpillars, which are important food for birds and other insects. Willows come in second with 456 species. Ginkgo, on the other hand, which is not native, supports three species, and zelkova, an exotic plant used to replace elm trees that died from disease, supports none. So the shelves are nearly bare for bugs and birds.” New York Times, Jim Robbins, 22 November 2013
I do still have plenty of turf grass, too much, some of my friends tell me, some of it is aesthetics, as a landscape architect, I like long views, and some of the turf is practical, including the area around the clothesline and over the septic field. But the aerial photos, shown below, hopefully help show how greatly the yard has changed over the past few years. Now its a joy to take a stroll through the gardens and explore the changes year to year, even day to day.
My Yard in March of 2006:
My Yard in September of 2013:
Found objects play a big role in the design process. The granite street pavers were salvaged by me after they were removed from an abandoned roadbed in Chicago. Knowing their history, what street they came from, makes them even more interesting as repurposed objects in the landscape.