Beautiful Native Plants

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Thursday, January 9, 2020

Rethinking Pretty in Suburbia

Every year I ruminate on what more I can do to support (and not just attract) wildlife in my home landscape. When an F1 tornado took down a dead elm tree and a few birch leaders last summer, we left the trunks of both as snags. When I clip shrub and tree branches I put them in a growing pile in the back corner of our lot instead of chipping them up. And I’m always experimenting with different management techniques in our prairie-inspired headquarters deep in the heart of suburbia.
In 2014 I converted our thinning / neglected back lawn of about 2,500ft into meadow. Over the years I’ve tried different methods of spring removal of plant top growth -- fire is illegal in city limits here in the Plains -- as well as employing fall forb plug planting and variously-timed seeding. I’ve not found the magic sauce to increase forb density without burning, but plugs out back and in the front beds has been modestly effective.

Speaking of out front, that’s where I spend more time tweaking. Honestly, it’s amazing the pressures a small 400-500ft space must face. The two garden beds are divided by a wide lawn path that’s slowly succumbing to little bluestem self sowing. The west bed is watered daily by my neighbor’s lawn sprinkler over spray, and the really drought tolerant plants have vanished so each year I make additions. The east bed fares better and forbs are actually starting to dominate the grasses to the point where early each summer I do a little thinning. Did I mention the garden capture a lot of neighborhood trash? Kid’s crayon drawings, work evaluations, socks, little plastic trees, plastic coffee cups, credit card bills, glue dot sheets, bags of sequins, packages of eyeglass wipes, play money…. The garden filters trash and rainfall. 

Overall I let all areas of the landscape find their way and teach me. While the front beds are more exposed to human viewing -- and thus require a fuzz more TLC like cutting back grasses near the sidewalk in mid summer -- the other 5,000ft or so are more kept up by birds, voles, and my toddler who trims plants within reach.

I’ve had my fair share of city weed control notices, winning each time, knowing how critical it is to have this re-wilded example in an ocean of lawn with an absence of street trees. Our city lot is within 1/2 mile of a restored tallgrass prairie of over 500 hundred acres, and a few miles away from a conserved prairie of another few hundred acres. Our subdivision is flanked on one side by a long grove of trees that creates a songbird flyway and, in summer, echoes with a few fleeting bobwhite calls. The pond one hundred feet from our house is deafening in March as peepers awaken.

It’s imperative we make a stand for nature wherever and however we can. This means gardens take on a sort of activist, social justice for wildlife (and people) bent that makes a variety of folks and industries uncomfortable. But if we aren’t uncomfortable -- if we aren’t being challenged to rethink pretty and think critically about human supremacy over landscapes -- then there’s no room for empathy, understanding, or equality among all of us who call our neighborhoods home. When I dig in a new Heuchera richardsonii, Liatris aspera, or Dalea purpurea I’m not dreaming of how I will enjoy the plant -- I’m thinking what species use it as a larval host or come in droves to gather pollen. That might make me an anomaly, but in the view of insects and bugs and more, it also makes my garden a refuge of hope and a place of defiant compassion.  

BENJAMIN VOGT has a PhD from the University of Nebraska and is the author of A New Garden Ethic: Cultivating Defiant Compassion for An Uncertain Future. He speaks nationally on sustainable design, environmental psychology, and reconciliation ecology. Benjamin owns the prairie-inspired design firm Monarch Gardens LLC and lives in Lincoln, Nebraska.