• ljmarkson

Update on My Mini Nature Center

Updated: Nov 22

I appreciate how social media can connect me to so many like-minded people who are also working to restore nature where they live. It’s like having one big online support group! The authentic successes and struggles of an online community help me learn from their experiences and generate new ideas. In this spirit, I’ll share an update on the Mini Nature Center I posted about last spring. I explained how I created it for anyone who walked by my naturescaped yard and added informational flyers and small pots of easy-to-grow native plants to encourage more sustainable, healthy yard practices, and a stronger habitat pathway where I live. I was gratified by all the online support. It was encouraging to know others might also start a variation of a mini nature center where they live. I still wasn’t sure what would happen to mine over time though.

My mini nature center is still standing and active! I've learned a bit about creating change since putting it up last spring.

In a neighborhood where an army of landscape, pesticide, critter ridder, and chemical lawn crews keep lawn-centric yards tidy and sterile I know my impact is a small one. Yet small changes can add up. I’m already seeing younger first-time homeowners in funkier neighborhoods than mine doing away with lawns and replacing them with socially conscious edible landscaping, and/or naturescaping using native plants.

Yards like this are becoming more common particularly as younger homeowners embrace more socially conscious landscaping options. (This is my yard back when I was including edibles in the landscape and before I decided to naturescape it.)

When we moved to Atlanta over 16 years ago our neighborhood was still lawn-centric, but a bit sleepier. "Landscraper" crews were not the norm and weekend landscape warriors were focused on mowing the lawn and trimming back errant branches. Homes were renovated, mature landscaping was appreciated, and the sound of gas leaf blowers was incidental. Unfortunately, the wealthy double income homeowners moving to now trendy intown neighborhoods like mine seem to be emulating the suburban hellscapes they grew up in. One-hundred-year-old bungalows and native trees are being replaced with McMansions, McCarriage houses, and non-native saplings and shrubs. I’d like to give the new homeowners the benefit of the doubt and hope they just don’t connect the damage they’re doing in their own yards to the decline in insects, birds, and native plants. Years ago, I didn’t use pesticides but there are so many other unhealthy yard practices I didn’t know about. This is where I hope my nature center can help current homeowners. I just need to figure out how to get them to stop and look!

When an original 1920s home like this is sold it sits unattended until signs for tree removal and zoning variances go up. Eventually all the old growth trees are removed, the house is demolished, and a McMansion takes the place of this small piece of Atlanta history...and nature loses unless we can at least replant the landscape with mature trees and native plants. (Better yet we need to stop this kind of zero-lot-line building!)

If I found a mini nature center on a walk, I’d be thrilled to explore it so I’m having a hard time trying to figure out why people just walk by without even looking at it, even out of curiosity. My theories about why it seems to be such a hard sell to get people to be open to even exploring the flyers and plants in the center include: It’s a brand-new concept There are no other mini nature centers anywhere and it is an unknown. It looks like a little library, but it’s not.

My family had these cute signs made to indicate my mini nature center has no books in it!

Maybe they think there’s a catch In a world where everyone has an angle, the idea that something is exactly what it appears to be is weirdly suspicious. I have had multiple people ask me if I consult or am starting a nursery when I’ve told them about my advocacy efforts, including the nature center. Anyone who knows me would know these are the very last things in the world I would ever want to do. Yet, the questions indicate they are trying to make sense of why I would be spending my time growing and giving away plants or sharing information with anyone interested unless I was laying the groundwork for something else.

I'm a simple person and enjoy winter sowing native plants like these baptista alba seedlings to share with others. I want everyone to have native plants in their yard!

I live in the wrong neighborhood for my message to resonate. As I’ve said many times, I live in an increasingly hyper-manicured neighborhood where lawns seem to be valued and backyard nature feared. I’m sure in the areas where I see more gently landscaped yards and Mosquito Spraying Kills Bees yard signs instead of pesticide application signs, a neighborhood nature center would be a bonus, not an oddity.

In the town a few miles from where I live these signs are everywhere. If I had neighbors with these signs in their yard, I imagine they would embrace my landscape choices and mini nature center.

You get what you pay for?

An online friend brilliantly pointed out that the idea of perceived value applies to this situation. If you don't know anything about native plants and have never bought one, there is no basis for appreciating either their landscape or monetary value. If I put out little pots of pansies or snapdragons, they would be quickly scooped up by folks who know exactly what they cost and where they "belong" in the landscape. Even if you know the value of native plants, the adage you get what you pay for might be coming into play here. If you know how pricey native plants can be and someone is just giving them away, it makes sense to think it might not be the same quality as ones you might buy or even unethically sourced in the wild. Same with my informational flyers. We only value information when we need it, and even, then we value it more if we're paying a consultant to give it to us!

I'm used to buying native plants like these little pots that were for sale at the Wylde Center last spring. Someone who has never bought a native plant would have no context for the value they offer wildlife and might compare them to traditional nursery plants that have been manipulated to be showy for consumers. The small native plants in my mini nature center would hold no value to them.

My yard is a no-starter My yard is the only naturescaped one around with yard signs such as Leaves Are Not Litter or No Gas Leaf Blowers. It’s “messy” by traditional standards so someone with a lawn-centric yard might think there’s nothing my mini nature center could tell them that would apply to their neat and tidy yard. I’m all in on rewilding so it might not be clear that I don’t expect everyone to have a yard like mine. I just want everyone to stop using pesticides, plant a native plant or two and get rid of those awful gas-powered leaf blowers.

I'm not sure if my naturescaped yard is off-putting for homeowners with more lawn-centric yards. Even if they love my yard, they may not think any of my ideas could apply to theirs.

Less foot traffic

The elementary school nearby is being renovated this year so there are not as many families and curious kids walking by. In addition, most people have returned to their offices and we’re back to less people walking. The merry bands of kids I saw playing in the neighborhood during the pandemic that would have found the nature center are all back to their regularly scheduled activities now.

There are fewer kids walking by my house. They are curious and more likely to check out a new nature center.

The obvious The homeowners who spend so much money creating a yard devoid of nature have little interest in learning how to make their yard more natural. If you pay a company to spray and get rid of all the bugs on your plants, why would you want to learn what plants attract bugs? Even a small free plant is not welcome in a yard where only landscaper approved plants are put in the ground, mulched then sprayed with pesticides. No wildlife allowed! My ideas create too much cognitive dissonance. It’s hard not to be snarky about the situation. How can you be all about saving the planet from climate change yet contribute to it every day in your own yard.

If this lawn sign is in your front yard, chances are you don't want plants that attracts "bugs"!

Even though the flyers and free plants don’t fly off the shelves the way I hoped they would, they still get taken and are appreciated by the folks who do stop by and thank me for encouraging them in some way. I’m also using a guerilla gardening approach because I choose to give away the most beneficial native plants where I live that will also easily spread or self-seed. Of course, I also want anyone who plants them to have a positive, successful experience with native plants.

I just refreshed my mini nature center with native large-flowered coreopsis because it is easy to grow and will self-seed.

For the winter months, I’ve started making small seed packets of native plants with high germination rates like bidens alba that will quickly establish anywhere they are sown.

Each little hooked seed on this bidens alba will create a new four-foot plant! Each plant will self-seed and quickly create a vibrant bidens alba patch.

I like to think that every plant or seed that leaves my yard will support habitat in a new home and every person who changes even one behavior like not spraying for mosquitoes or planting a little native plant is making their own yard healthier and helping to restore nature.

If someone picks up this flyer from my mini nature center and practices just one of the suggestions, they would be helping restore nature.

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