Naturalizing Your Landscape

What Do Your Neighbours Think?

An article on naturalizing your landscape by Robin Smith

It first appeared in Flora Borealis the SPS Newsletter Vol. 4, No. 1 - March, 1991

Probably the most frequent question that has been asked of my unusual front yard is what I've chosen to title this article. Yes, perhaps my front yard is unusual in the urban context, but truly it's a most common scene on the prairie - a bit of mixed prairie grass - wildflowers and clumps of native trees and shrubs; an oasis in an urban desert.

Why do we have lawns? To set off the permanent border? To simulate a carpet as an outdoor extension of our living rooms? Perhaps all of these are true, but I think there is a need to create order in the complex world environment that we live in. What better way than with a neatly trimmed lawn with a tidy shrub border and a tree or two if one can stand those "messy" leaves? We may not be able to order our lives but it almost becomes therapy to get the lawn mower out and cut the lawn. I don't doubt for a minute that there are those who get a great deal of satisfaction from this chore.

I, for one, do not enjoy that task and can rationalize not having a front lawn in several ways, not the least of which are the environmental issues of noise pollution, ground and air pollution, excessive water consumption and consumption of a limited resource (gas and oil). How often have we had our morning coffee on the deck interrupted by the neighbours starting their mowers? The problem is exacerbated by today's reduced size of lots. How many tons of fertilizer and herbicides are sprayed and spread in the pursuit of a greener(?), healthier(?), lawn? How many gallons of gasoline are consumed and gallons of water poured endlessly on lawns and streets? Statistics of these components of lawn care show that each adds to the degradation of our environment. I like to think that I'm contributing to a healthier planet by recreating what so many of us have willingly obliterated in our quest to impose our will over our habitat - order out of chaos! Mine is an eclectic mix of native and exotic plant material arranged in a randomly haphazard, but deliberate fashion, imitating the whims of natural selection. I presume there are those who would suppose that the custodian of such a garden is a slob of the worst type. I guess that its time that we slobs stand up and be counted! The truth be known, I probably spend more time on my front yard than the neighbours do on their highly maintained/manicured lawns. The difference is that it is quality time! And much of the time is watching things grow. Natural selection often wins out - the delicate get overtaken by the stronger growers. Every spring I inoculate the "wild patch" with new specimens - nurtured under the lights in the basement through the course of our long cold winter. There always seems to be room for one more plant - by selective removal of some bits of larger plants or one of many "volunteers".

For those of you who want to try a wild garden - I would encourage you to do so - perhaps starting small - a neglected corner or sun-baked slope where it's a struggle to get anything to grow. Mother Nature has selected the plants to use for you - the wildflowers, prairie grasses and shrubs - all of which thrive in our climate without the need to nurture. Many of these plants can be collected from waste areas, ditches, pastures or land about to be "developed". Local nurseries are starting to carry native plants as well.