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The joys of natural landscaping.

Even in cities, farsighted homeowners can restore the native ecosystem in their yards.

Early one spring morning about three years ago, we were sitting on the porch sipping coffee and reading the newspaper. A red flash riveted our attention, and we were treated to the song of the rose-breasted grosbeak.

The bird's return signified more than the onset of spring. It affirmed the yard's rebirth. Ours was probably the first rose-breasted to visit since before the house was built back in 1918, and over the years we've welcomed the return of warblers, waxwings, wood ducks, barred owls, hawks, pileated woodpeckers, wild turkeys, tree frogs, toads, and red foxes after a lengthy hiatus. All within the city limits of Cedar Rapids!

Back in 1978 we landed a new job in a new state. We were a young couple eager to shuck apartment life for a home in the country, where we could enjoy space, wildlife, and privacy. Trouble was, out-of-town places were pricey beyond our means. Reluctantly, we settled on a World War I vintage home smack dab in the middle of a city of 110,000 people.

Although we had to abandon our dream of country life, we did purchase, along with the home, more than an acre of land and a half-dozen stately white oaks that traced their lineage back to Civil War days.

Like many American neighborhoods, almost every square inch of our block was either house, driveway, trees, or mowed bluegrass lawn. City blocks looked just the same. No diversity. Limited plantlife. Not much wildlife.

We dutifully bought a lawn mower and buzzed off the bluegrass for a year or two until an encounter with a dynamic Wisconsonite convinced us that we could enjoy country living without moving from town.

"Anyone who mows their yard ought to be put in jail," declared Lorrie Otto of Milwaukee, one day in the early 1980s. "Lawn mowers make a racket, spew fumes, and waste fuel. They keep property from becoming beautiful and diverse."

Otto knows her issues. She's the woman who catalyzed the move to ban DDT in Wisconsin and, subsequently, the United States 20 years ago. After that victory, she became a champion of natural landscaping.

Although we didn't totally abandon the mower, we were sold on the concept of natural landscaping, and it's made our urban lot a joy. During the past decade, we've restored a tiny forest surrounding our home.

Aldo Leopold penned in his classic Sand County Almanac, "Every farm woodland, in addition to yielding lumber, fuel, and posts, should provide its owner a liberal education. This crop of wisdom never fails, but it is not always harvested."

How right he is. But times have changed. In Leopold's day many Americans grew up with woods a short walk from their door. Today few of us have that kind of access, and achieving Leopold's version of a liberal education often isn't possible.

Although most of us don't own a woodlot, many of us do have a yard. Perhaps it's just a quarter of an acre or even a balcony apartment in the city. Even so, it is the raw material of Leopold's liberal education.

During the past couple of years, interest in planting trees has grown. Thanks to the energy of such international programs as Global ReLeaf and similar local and state efforts, new saplings are appearing in yards, along streets, in front of schools, and even on the grounds of state capitals. All to the good. The advantages are many, and planting and caring for a tree in the yard at least scratches the surface of Leopold's liberal education.

Trees do more than clean the air, shade homes, and get people involved in improving our environment. They also provide the anchor for converting a conventional sodded yard into one that is more natural, diverse, and healthy. Trees are the canvas upon which the aesthetic yard is painted. They provide the shade and leaves that help understory shrubs and wildflowers flourish. The homeowner who plants trees has begun Leopold's process of developing a liberal education. But if he stops with trees, he limits his homegrown ecological education somewhere around the eighth-grade level.

The next step is to go beyond trees and restore a forest by adding a layer of native shrubs, grasses, and wildflowers. For many years farsighted homeowners across the country have been doing just that--restoring native ecosystems in their yards. The process has been encouraged by the Backyard Wildlife Program of the National Wildlife Federation; the Urban Wildlife Sanctuary system of the National Institute for Urban Wildlife; and a growing cadre of natural-yard activists.

It has also stirred up the wrath of uninformed neighbors and an occasional town council. Both groups have learned that natural yards are assets, not liabilities.

Lorrie Otto is the matriarch of the natural-landscaping movement in the Midwest. She began by converting her suburban Milwaukee yard into diverse forest and prairie typical of what grew there before developers leveled the woods. She shares her enthusiasm and knowledge at nature centers and conferences across the country.

Another leader in natural landscaping is Jock Ingels, owner of the LaFayette Home Nursery in tiny LaFayette, Illinois, and a true pragmatist. "You'd be amazed what is in your yard's own seed bank," he says. Long a supplier of conventional nursery trees as well as prairie grasses and forbs (herbs), Ingels explains that many native plant seeds remain in the soil for dozens of years awaiting proper conditions for germination. "Often you don't need to buy seeds or plants. Just manage your yard properly and all sorts of desirable plants will appear as if by magic," he advises.

He is right! Sometimes that management is simplicity itself: All it takes is not mowing. What springs up by itself can be both miraculous and educational.

Although our yard had large oaks and a few hickories, the shrub layer and wildflowers were absent. But lying dormant in the rich forest soil were woodland plants just waiting for an opportunity to emerge. Within three years after we stopped mowing, colonies of Solomon's seal, wild strawberries, lady fern, and several rare wood violets appeared. Their bulbs and tubers had rested dormant. By eliminating mowing, we were able to reestablish the natural process of succession

However, not all the native plants that we wanted came up by themselves. We helped nature along by planting shade-loving native shrubs, introducing other wildflowers indicative of Iowa woodlands, and planting shade-tolerant trees--basswoods and sugar maples--that will eventually overtop our mature oaks.

Many yards, particularly in subdivisions, are scraped bare during development. Plant life is destroyed, and starting from scratch is necessary.

A decade ago commercial sources of native plant materials were hard to locate. Local nurseries sold non-native shrubs but not the beautiful and well-adapted pagoda dogwood, highbush cranberry, and viburnams we wanted. We found them by collecting native plants from woodlots about to be bulldozed for houses, roads, and stores. Developers almost always gave permission to collect plants. Also, other natural landscape enthusiasts and gardeners shared surplus native plants from their yards.

In recent years a number of nurseries have begun propagating many varieties of native plants. Finding native-plant material is easier than it once was in nearly all parts of the country.

One of the joys of naturalistic landscaping is that it tends to reduce many boring maintenance tasks, such as mowing and leaf raking. Time saved can be productively used to discover the developing forest of tree canopy, shrubs, wildflowers, and wildlife . . . Leopold's liberal education.

We're not opposed to lawns. Our 11-year-old son is a baseball buff who enjoys our back lawn as a practice site. We like the view across our small front lawn. So we still do some mowing, but where lawn once blanketed the entire lot, it now covers about half. Mowing time has been slashed. So has leaf raking.

"If you want to establish a good stand of bloodroot, Dutchman's breeches, and many other woodland wildflowers, don't rake your leaves," says David Kopitzke, a botanist in southwestern Wisconsin and founder of the little Valley Farm, which specializes in propagating and selling native plants to homeowners.

Since we have small children, we still rake leaves from our lawn. The kids love to jump in the piles and scatter the leaves. We haul them to the garden for mulch. In these days of limited landfill space, city managers appreciate homeowners who recycle leaves rather than raking them to the curb for pickup. We let the leaves that fall into our restored forest areas alone. They provide cover for plants, decompose into soil nutrients, and hold moisture.

Moisture conservation is especially important. From Florida and the Midwest to California and the desert Southwest, water is becoming ever more precious, and traditional landscaping consumes huge quantities of it. A growing landscaping concept is xeriscaping--gardening with drought-tolerant, native plants. Homeowners who employ xeriscaping conserve a precious resource, have lower water bills, and can spend more time enjoying and nurturing their yard.

Buffalo grass, cacti, succulents, and hardy indigenous flowers, shrubs, and trees that can survive on rainfall alone put no stress on city water departments or water tables. Xeriscaped yards attract native birds and such desirable


1 Learn about the native vegetation in your region. Decide how much time you want to devote to yard care and what wildlife you want to attract.

2 Explain to your neighbors what you would like to do. Natural landscaping isn't neglect. In fact, initially it is hard work!

3 Start small, especially if you have close and traditional neighbors. Incorporate a backdrop of shrubs, a pocket prairie, a border of woodland plants, or a hardy succulent screen, al] with soft and flowing lines. Choose plants that do not infringe on neighbors. Some shrubs don't respect lot lines and will send up suckers on the far side . Remember, 12-inch seedlings can grow into towering trees which may shade a vegetable garden.

4 Don't be discouraged, especially during the first years. It takes patience and work to encourage native species while keeping weeds down. Pulled weeds are a resource for the compost bin.

5 Be aware of noxious weed laws, but don't let iGnorant "weed inspectors" buffalo you into conformity.

6 Be patient and try again when you fail.

7 Keep a written and pictorial record to mark your progress.

8 Buy seeds and plants from reputable sources that specialize in native material. Natural-landscape advocates agree that the "meadow-in-a-can" concept is misleading and ineffective for establishing a balanced habitat. Some of the mixes contain non-native plants that could go wild and choke out more desirable plants.

Rich and Marion Patterson are a freelance writing team from Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Before and after: the authors, home in 1979 (inset) and 12 years later with a tiny corner of Iowa's woodlands restored. insects as butterflies, honeybees, and colorful moths. These beneficial insects make property more attractive and interesting.

Our yard has changed dramatically over the years. Construction of a tiny pond attracted everything from deer to wood ducks. On the pond's margin, moisture-loving plants add color and draw in birds, pollinating insects, and desirable small mammals.

But of all our yard's assets, we most appreciate Leopold's liberal education. We've watched our lot diversify before our eyes. Some plants thrive during droughts, while others decline. Come a wet year and species flip-flop. Nearly every backyard foray reveals a surprise, and we keep field guides handy to identify unfamiliar species.

We've reaped other benefits. For example, our yard has become a magnet for "human wildlife." Neighbor kids join ours to spot tadpoles in the pond and forage on raspberries as they play hide |n' seek.

Another advantage is privacy. One neighbor's home is only a few dozen feet away, but we can no longer see it from our front porch or backyard. Our neighbors tell us that they enjoy our bright flowers and birds. However, there is a fine line between privacy and claustrophobia, and we work for a blend of shrubbery and open spaces.

The third and most rewarding aspect of a natural yard is the satisfaction of restoring a native woodland. It has been a fascinating adventure.

We were never able to buy that private and quiet home in the country, but we were able to create both assets in the city. By observing and enjoying our yard, every day we become a bit more ecologically literate.

Sorces of Info And Supplies

Local garden clubs, nature centers, arboretums, botanical centers, landscape departments at universities, state and county Extension services, nongame programs of departments of natural resources or conservation have information and personnel who can help.

"Planting a Refuge for Wildlife. "Nongame Program, Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission, 620 S. Meridian St., Tallahassee, FL 32301.

"Backyard Wildlife Habitat Information Kit." National Wildlife Federation, Item #79919, 1400 16th St. NW, Washington, DC 20036. $4.95.

National Institute for Urban Wildlife, 10921 Trotting Ridge Way, Columbia, MD 21044.

National Wildflower Research Center, 2600 FM 973 N., Austin, TX 78725. 512-929-3600. Complete information on regional sources of native plants, how to get started, reference library list, recommended plant species by regions.

Association for the Use of Natural Vegetation in Landscape through Education (ANVIL), 871 Shawnee Ave., LaFayette, IN 47905.

"Sources of Native Seeds and Plants," Soil and Water Conservation Society, 7515 Northeast Ankeny Rd., Ankeny, IA 50021. Listing regional sources, this is an excellent resource. $3.

Desert Botanical Garden, 1201 N. Galvin Pkwy., Phoenix, AZ 85008. 602-941 -1225.

Darrel Morrison, Dean, School of Environmental Design, University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602.

Craig Johnson, College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Science, Dept. of Landscape Architecture, Utah State University, Logan, UT 84322-4005.

An Introduction to Naturalized Landscapes: A Guide to Madison's (Wisconsin) "Natural Lawn" Ordinance, John Diekelmann and Cathie Bruner, Madison City/County Bldg., 210 Monona Ave., Madison, WI 53703.

Natural Landscaping: Designing with Native Plant Communities, John Diekelmann and Robert Schuster, McGraw-Hill (1982).

The Backyard Naturalist, Craig Tufts. National Wildlife Federation (1988).

The Naturalists, Garden, Ruth Shaw Ernst, Rodale Press (1987).

The Prairie Garden: Seventy Native Plants You Can Grow in Town or Country, J. Robert and Beatrice Smith, University of Wisconsin Press (1980).
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Author:Patterson, Marion
Publication:American Forests
Date:Mar 1, 1992
Previous Article:The secret harvest.
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