Walking the Talk in the Suburbs - A Midwest story of education, transformation, and inspiration
DescriptionEducation and Reframing -- I live in a lovely but turf-dominant Twin Cities suburb in Minnesota. After earning my certification as a Minnesota Master Naturalist and studying the work of noted ecologist Douglas Tallamy, I began to understand the critical importance of restoring my corner of the world to a more natural habitat, primarily for the sake of native birds and other pollinators, as well as improved water, soil and air quality. That initial inspiration has spawned many valuable teachings and relationships, which are worth sharing.
My journey, which was further propelled by seeing the beautiful native plantings of a neighbor up the street, launched with my decision to gently begin integrating native plants – shade and sun-loving flowering plants, shrubs and trees – into my property. This was done over the period of three years, with the invaluable help of Diane Hilscher, a well-respected landscape architect, and Douglas Owens-Pike, an accomplished designer who specializes in “gentle transitions” to native landscapes. To support the process, I read books and field guides, listened to podcasts and explored apps, such as iNaturalist. I spoke with people at nurseries, gardening groups and universities, as well as other community members who were eager to share their knowledge. A bonus beyond understanding what plants worked well for my property was learning about the use, history and cultural significance of our native species.
Gaining Acceptance – Being that I live in a neighborhood with fairly strict guidelines, it was important to consider the cultural ramifications of such a transition and follow the daunting but necessary process of garnering approval from my Homeowners’ Association (HOA). This involved putting together a well-organized presentation packet that included visuals of the proposed new yard, a list of plants, and a written description of the project. What helped was to provide them with the rationale for why we should begin implementing what is described in Tallamy’s book, Nature’s Best Hope, as a network that forms his Homegrown National Park concept.
Despite the reasoning, I knew that it would be a tough sell. The job of the HOA Board is to approve of appropriate projects, as they relate to covenants that were structured several decades ago. The committee also must weigh each new request against ones they’ve denied in the past (butterfly gardens and vegetable gardens in the front yards, for example). The committee members had to be concerned about criticism from others, and it was vital to see things from their point of view. By way of an example, the vision for my property might cause concern to those homeowners who relate well-groomed yards to Midwestern virtue. In anticipation of this, I made sure that the shift from mowed turf to multi-level plantings in my yard would include stone edges. Neighbors could thus visualize that there was intention to the new designs, and see that someone was caring enough to not just let the yard go completely wild and out of control.
Transformation – The first steps in this plan were not much of a challenge, since a pocket pollinator garden that replaced a dying Linden tree simply added color. The biggest changes came in Year #3, however, when I replaced my conventional mowed Kentucky blue grass with Pennsylvania Sedge, a flowing “lawn” that is about 6-8” high. (This was all converted using mechanical rather than chemical means.) I also added a small vegetable garden to the front yard, since it is the only sunny spot on my property. The original plan to surround it with a picket fence was denied by the HOA Board, since fences are not allowed in our front yards; however, the adaptation of a stone retaining wall turned out to be an even better-looking solution. Ultimately, the Board wrangled with whether or not to say “yes” to this dramatic request, explaining that they desired to approve it, but were unsure of how others would respond. In the end, I was relieved that they gave provisional approval.
Inspiration – As of 2021, the yard is in its second full year of growth. It was not surprising that some neighbors have contacted our neighborhood Association to ask questions about the yard (such as, “will the sprouting sedges fill in eventually?” to which the answer is yes) or complain that there may be weeds growing through the mulch. That being said, most passersby – especially during the year of the pandemic – have been inspired by this transformation. The yard, in its new state, allows me to tell stories to people of all ages about how valuable it is to have the plants do the work of filtering water, as it makes its way to the rich fen in the nature Preserve across the street and flows beyond into the Mississippi River in St. Paul. I let them know that my yard no longer needs fertilizer and pesticides. It also requires far less water and less time to keep in shape. I can show people my solitary pollinator bees in the little bee house in one garden and monarchs on the milkweeds and liatris plants in another. Hummingbirds flock to the red cardinal flowers and a new water feature allows me to authentically have this property tagged as a National Wildlife Federation-Certified Wildlife Habitat. The colors of the garden change, but provide continuous blooming from May through October, based on recommendations from Minnesota’s Lawns to Legumes program, which provided me with a small grant and a great deal of education. This gives opportunities for people to keep stopping by, to ask about the latest blossoms. Meanwhile, I have kept an eye on edges and weeds, to demonstrate careful tending. And I have likewise learned that it is okay to introduce select ornamental plants here and there, to provide a slightly more horticultural sensibility for those who respond less to blousy native plants and more to familiar cultivated species.
This work has been very fulfilling from an environmental conservation perspective and has propelled me to become a more active advocate with State and Federal elected officials. I really can “walk the talk,” when it comes to asking for their legislative support. It has also shown me what a great tool a native plant garden and yard can be in connecting with others – even if we are new to each other or we align with divergent beliefs. Nature is a powerful force for connecting humans of all ages and backgrounds, and I have especially enjoyed the rich conversations I’ve had with neighbors who think and vote differently than I. As we relate to our common interest in nature, we begin to listen and share thoughts in a more relaxed way. Personally, this gardening experience has also empowered me to join the Board of the national Monarch Joint Venture, as well as lead the Conservation Committee of the Saint Paul Garden Club (an affiliate of The Garden Club of America). Further, it has inspired my personal development as a botanical watercolor artist. What a rich and empowering platform for cultural change it has become.
- Story contributed by Dana Boyle