Every Yard Counts

by | Aug 1, 2014 | Landscapes

TWO YEARS AGO I WAS ASKED TO CREATE A GARDEN in a pleasant upscale neighborhood that was – unfortunately – like so many others. This one happened to be in coastal southern Connecticut, just a short commute to New York City, but it could have been anywhere.

In nearly every yard, stormwater raced through downspouts and across clipped lawns, non-porous driveways and sidewalks out to the street’s storm sewers on its way to nearby Long Island Sound. Rain or shine, automatic irrigation systems periodically drenched lawns and sidewalks with treated drinking water.

Except for a few joggers and dog-walkers, people rarely appeared – other than an army of workmen with their massive mowers, gas-powered trimmers and backpack sprayers. After soil was compacted by the mowing and doused with chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides and fungicides, loud gas-powered blowers finished the job. Rather than compost them in place, workers carted leaves and lawn clippings “away,” then piled on trucked-in wood-chip mulch.

Today, neighbors stop to appreciate my client Sarah’s redesigned yard – which we hope is doing its part to make a positive environmental impact.

Sustainable landscaping is at once intensely local and universal. Changing the norm of vast lawns and wasteful and polluting management practices in millions of yards across the country would have a huge beneficial effect on the environment.

Homeowners can follow many of the same practices Sarah and I used to achieve a more sustainable garden wherever they are, if they choose locally adapted plants appropriate to their site. I share here how I transformed Sarah’s yard, as a guide that can be used elsewhere, in the belief that we can change the world – one yard at a time.

Like most of her neighbors, Sarah spent many hours a day commuting to an office job in New York City. She wanted to spend the little time she had at home enjoying her yard, but there was little to enjoy. What then passed for lawn was a 21-by-30-foot sun-baked rectangle of patchy crabgrass and clover contained by a low retaining wall and struggling to survive in concrete-hard soil. It sloped uncomfortably toward the street, and the view was of windows of houses across the street. Exactly once a week, on Saturday, she walked down the front walk to the mailbox rather than collecting mail from the car.

For our first meeting, I invited her to a presentation I was giving on native plants at the local Audubon Center. Talking it over by the nature center’s sunny parking lot afterward, we watched birds flit in and out of dense native bayberry thickets and butterflies flutter by. We listened to a pleasant symphony of birdsong and swishing wind-blown grasses. There was more sensory pleasure and sense of place in this parking lot than in Sarah’s entire neighborhood. She realized then that she wanted flowers and birds and a connection with nature, a yard that was a sanctuary not a sterile showplace.

I suggested wrapping a low soil berm around the yard’s perimeter to catch stormwater, allowing it to infiltrate and remain available to plants. On top, a grove of small multi-stemmed native trees and shrubs would create shade, privacy and a sense of enclosure. Thinning out lower branches would allow underplanting with drifts of drought-tolerant native grasses and showy flowering perennials. Embraced by the berm, a loosely semi-circular gravel walk would invite strolling on a firm, level surface. Anybody could do this anywhere, with regionally appropriate plants.

The first night after I set trees and shrubs in place, fireflies appeared, then birds came. I got an excited phone call a few weeks later. “There’s a butterfly on my butterflyweed!” The little girl next door soon inhabited the garden, immersing herself in imaginative play. She delights in the many kinds of butterflies and has taken to carefully selecting just one each of every flower and presenting the bouquet to the owner, who is always charmed. Sarah loves how the garden engages all the senses. “I walk outside all the time now just to enjoy it and see what’s going on, not just to get the paper,” she says. “I love to hear the crunch of gravel underfoot, and the undulating path is so mysterious … the way it curves around the house makes it feel like I could go on endlessly.”

She wakes to birds chirping, savors the lemony fragrance of sweetbay magnolia blossoms drifting in the air and the ever-changing flower colors. She is fascinated by the activity of the bees and hovering insects. On her way to the mailbox every day she stops to pat the irresistible white pine ‘soft touch’. Joggers and dog-walkers now stop to chat and look. The rattiest yard on the block has become a local landmark, a meeting place buzzing with life. It is now a welcoming habitat for people as well as wildlife. I hope that it also quietly inspires others to create beautiful, life-supporting landscapes in their own yards.

Garden photographer, writer and speaker Karen Bussolini is also an eco-friendly garden coach and a NOFA (Northeast Organic Farmers Assoc.)-Accredited Organic Land Care Professional.