• ljmarkson

I'm Done Tidying Nature For an Outdated Aesthetic

Updated: Oct 19

I’ve recently had a paradigm shift about spending so much energy making my rewilded yard more approachable, neater, or more traditionally contextualized for people with sterile, environmentally hostile yards who don’t like or appreciate it and never will. I once had a neighbor I didn't even know randomly explain to me that when children brush up against my plants that spill onto the edges of the sidewalk after a rain, they end up sitting in school with wet pant legs. He told me he understood what I was doing in my yard because his lawn turf doesn’t need as much water as other grasses. I wonder if he feels so comfortable sharing his bizarre and ignorant opinions with neighbors who have invasive English ivy, liriope or vinca touching the sidewalk?

The area lining my sidewalk is densely planted with herbs, native grasses, sedges and perennials for storm water retention and erosion control from neighboring property. I designed it so if you brush up against the plants spilling onto the sidewalk you might smell a lovely hint of fresh oregano, mountain mint, thyme, bronze fennel, or sage. Other plants include coneflower, early goldenrod, black-eyed susan, blue-eyed grass, stokes aster, and river oats.

I’m not giving the finger to being a good neighbor by abandoning basic yard care…yet.

Still, people either walk by my yard with appreciative wonder or cross the street as they approach it.

My yard was picked for an Audubon Sanctuary tour over professionally landscaped yards because it is an explosion of life. Hundreds of different native plants pack as much biodiversity into .2 of an acre as possible. The birds and wildlife that visit appreciate my effort even if all the people who walk by don't.

My daughter, an artist, has taught me the millennial’s concept of an aesthetic which as I understand it is a personal style. I think my personal aesthetic falls in the category of a nature-lover with a fashion sense leaning towards Duluth trading overalls, rain boots, and head-to-toe mosquito netting outfits. Why is it my job to please my ponytailed Lululemon-wearing basic neighbors who think neon non-native shrubs and poison-soaked lawns are somehow desirable? They have zero interest in my yard, and I am not interested in their antiquated landscape sensibility. My chances of convincing them to change is as great as my chance of convincing my red meat loving husband to try plant-based burgers.

The previous photo of my healthy ecosystem was taken on the same day on the other side of the driveway of this sterile, lifeless yard. When these neighbors moved in a few years ago they destroyed the mature landscaping including 40+ year old native maple, cherry, American holly, and dogwood trees and replaced them with non-native neon and purple shrubs. Native blue mist flowers, spiderwort, goldenrod, and coneflowers were replaced with dyed mulch. There is zero chance I will influence their eco-destructive landscape practices.

One of the most common reasons people rarely live fully in their own homes is because they are afraid of impacting the resale value. This is like playing the lottery. When we were younger, we made several corporate moves and found that it is impossible to plan for the economy and the whims of future trends in the real estate market. We lost money when we moved from our first home in what is now a pricey Bethesda, Maryland neighborhood and made a ridiculous amount of money on a bland McMansion in a Denver, Colorado HOA community where we lived for a short time. Go figure.

I hopefully have a few decades left in me and have no intention of moving or selling my home ever again. In the meantime, I’ve decided to go all in ungardening and nurturing a wildlife oasis in the middle of my lawn-centric neighborhood. The same way I sought out organic milk 30 years ago before it went mainstream, I know there is no place in the future for resource greedy non-native lawns. I will continue to help the folks who are also trying to do the right thing in their own yards. I’m happy to share resources, native plants, seeds, give garden tours or even show curious kids the amazing things happening every day in my yard. Yesterday it was a coopers hawk sitting on a tree branch, today it’s a marbled orb weaver making a web, and tomorrow it might be a gulf fritillary butterfly emerging from a chrysalis.

It is no longer uncommon to see wildlife like this cooper hawk in my rewilded yard. I'm always happy to have visitors. A stroll through my small yard always includes a wonderous find of some sort!

I’m not giving up on my efforts to raise awareness through education.

  • My little Homestead Nature Center kiosk is filled with small potted native plants with details about their habitat value and how to grow them, and a handful of seasonal flyers about topic such as ways to preserve nature locally, coexist with snakes, or control mosquitoes naturally.

  • I seasonally switch out my yard signs. Now that the evening temperatures are dropping a bit, I've put away the Mosquito Spraying Kills Pollinators sign and put out the Leaves are Not Litter and No Gas Powered Leaf Blowers signs.

  • My favorite local park is a restored brownfield and I try to help in small ways by donating native plants after researching ones that might do well there.

  • I’ve become involved in the new Intown Atlanta Chapter of the Georgia Native Plant Society which works to protect and promote naturescaping by using native plants.

  • I share dispassionate information about the damage mosquito spraying does, when and why to turn the lights out for migrating birds, the dangers of fake Halloween spider webs, and any number of topics in our local neighborhood online groups. In most cases people just aren’t aware of the damage they might be doing to our world and sincerely want to do the right thing.

I just added new No Gas Leaf Blower yard signs to delineate the beginning of "my" right of way. Our neighbors "reclaimed" their one-foot strip on our side of their driveway. This is an unusual image because ironically their weekly mow and blow crew uses gas powered leaf blowers to removed all the leaves, so there is usually a tidy strip of bare earth. They are also brutal about weed whacking any wandering native frog fruit ground cover growing underneath muhly grass, mountain mint, goldenrod and other native perennials and stray, self-seeding zinnias. Their scorched earth aesthetic has no room for "trespassing" ground cover!

Everyone I know who is on any sort of journey trying to restore the ecosystem where they live has stories of frustration, discouragement, and even anger. I’m guessing we all have days when we wonder if we’re really doing any good because we are just a blip on a map. It can be draining to the spirit to try to influence people about environmentally destructive practices. Things like pesticides and gas-powered leaf blowers are so entrenched in our culture that we appear to be the crazy ones speaking out against them, not the people exterminating insects when there are 75% fewer insects than there were 50 years ago!

I have to stay positive and accept that we still live in a world where this kind of unnecessary insect extermination is going on every month next to my little wildlife sanctuary. I love how pesticide companies have cartoon images of the cute wildlife they exterminate! It also confounds my why anyone thinks using "organic" pesticide to exterminate insects is somehow less destructive.

Religion, psychology, and meditation all offer ways of accepting things you cannot change because this is such a basic human challenge. I have concluded that it is healthier and more productive for my mental health if I stop beating my head against the wall trying to “tidy” up my intentionally naturescaped yard for the haters and instead double down, embrace what I’m doing, and create an example of what I think is possible.

This is a section of my front yard in late September. The reality is a successful pocket meadow needs to be judged by its value as a dense plant community for wildlife. It is the opposite aesthetic of the anachronistic, unsustainable, tidy and sterile yards that were popular many decades ago because they were a sign of suburban prosperity.

My small .2 of an acre yard is a healthy wildlife habitat bursting with life despite the environmental carnage all around me - next door neighbors who seem to be following a how-to manual for destroying a yard’s ecosystem, a McMansion being built nearby, the daily blast of gas-powered leaf blowers from mow and blow crews, the awful sound of trees being destroyed, yards lit up like Christmas trees with landscape lighting, and pesticide and wildlife removal services consistently rolling down the street. It’s insane but out of my control.

It's popular in my neighborhood to pay companies thousands of dollars to create this kind of pretty light pollution. This is not something I can change so it I need to find a healthy way to accept it and focus on the positive thing I can do.

I’ve decided to intentionally focus on the positive. When I find a rare bee in my yard, give an impromptu garden tour, watch a child take a plant from my nature kiosk, someone walking by thanks me for what I am doing, a neighbor tells me they stopped using pesticides or leaf blowers after talking to me, or a new plant friend shares stories about the gulf fritillary caterpillars they have on passionflower vines that grew from a slip I once gave them, I realize I am having an impact and moving the needle in the right direction. I have faith in the process and will just continue to nurture nature in my tiny part of the world and hope others who are doing it don’t become discouraged and will continue to do the same.

Finding the rare American bumblebee for the first time in my rewilded yard reminds me to focus on the positive! They are on the verge of extinction but maybe if I can help more people open to dedicating even a small part of their yard to nature, they can rebound like the bald eagle.

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