With native plants and garden vegetables, this small yard offers a smorgasbord for people and wild creatures.
It was a snowy March day in 1995, and I had just purchased a house in an old St. Paul neighborhood. As I surveyed the back yard, which had been occupied by two large dogs all winter, I tried to imagine how I could convert the torn-up turf grass into the kind of yard that people and wildlife would want to visit. It was a stretch to picture a new landscape, but I was determined to try. With my background as a plant ecologist and gardener, the yard project felt like my kind of challenge.
Twenty years later, most of the turf grass is long gone, and I have filled my 3,400-square-foot yard with a mix of native plant gardens as well as vegetable and fruit gardens. After lots of trial and error—some of it laughable, some of it heartbreaking—I am finally happy with the mix. My yard is attractive, productive, and always interesting. Perhaps best of all, it has inspired many friends and neighbors to plant native gardens of their own.
Through my work at the Department of Natural Resources, I have seen successful native plant landscaping projects ranging from hundreds of acres to small boulevard gardens. No matter the size of your property or what part of the state you live in, native plants are a great choice for landscaping. Native plants evolved over the years to thrive in local soil and climate conditions. Once established, they generally do not need to be watered and don’t need fertilizer or pesticides. Maintenance is limited to weeding and sometimes trimming. The deep roots of many native plants hold soil and prevent erosion, and they help control stormwater by taking up water that might otherwise pour into streets and, eventually, streams.
Today, my yard includes nannyberry, pagoda dogwood, and four other species of native trees; 11 native shrub species, such as American hazelnut and snowberry; and more than 80 species of native wildflowers, grasses, and sedges in prairie, shade, and rain gardens. This past season my husband, Mike, and I harvested 13 kinds of vegetables, five kinds of herbs, and four kinds of fruit.
Where to Begin.
I started slowly in those first years. I began by learning about my land and its place in the region’s landscape. I submitted a soil sample to the University of Minnesota soil-testing laboratory and learned that my soil was a sandy loam, free of lead or salt contamination, and with a good balance of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium.
By examining a map of pre-European settlement vegetation in Minnesota, I learned that my Hamline–Midway neighborhood was a prairie in the 1800s with nearby areas of oak savanna and forest. Today these habitats are mostly gone, but a few tiny remnants of prairie remain along railroad tracks in the area, and a small patch of naturally occurring oak forest persists nearby in Como Park. I knew that monarch butterflies feed, reproduce, and migrate through the area. They need prairie wildflowers to feed on nectar and milkweed plants for larvae to eat the leaves. The nearby Mississippi River is a migratory corridor for 60 percent of North America’s bird species every spring and fall, so bird habitat seemed important too.
To boost my chances of gardening success, I wanted to use plant species that have evolved to be perfectly adapted to local conditions. My back yard is flat with nutrient-rich, well-drained sandy loam soil. Most of my yard is sunny, so a 500-square-foot tallgrass prairie garden in one area seemed to be the perfect choice.
I learned the hard way that site preparation is extremely important. I rototilled the turf grass to prepare the site for my prairie garden, but this left root fragments of invasive quack grass that I spent years digging up. Through experimentation in other parts of the yard, I learned that smothering turf grass with either black plastic or layers of newspaper and mulch did a more thorough job of killing all unwanted plants, reducing future weeds.
When each garden bed was ready, I shopped for native plants and seeds at local native plant nurseries. I searched for plants that came from as close as possible to my site to ensure that they would be adapted to my conditions.
Front Yard View.
I worked with a native-landscaping company to develop a custom shortgrass prairie seed mix to plant on the small south-facing steep hill in front of my house and my neighbor’s house. Because the hill is small, I knew that taller prairie plants wouldn’t look right, so I chose small prairie grasses and wildflowers.
For the front yard, I also designed a more formal-looking butterfly garden, using colorful wildflowers such as ironweed, rough blazing star, and green-headed coneflower, all known for their attractiveness to butterflies and bees. To provide shade, perches, and berries for birds, I planted a few trees and shrubs in other parts of the yard. On the north side of the house, I also created small gardens with shade-tolerant wildflowers such as zigzag goldenrod, nodding trillium, and wild geranium.
I wanted to keep the rainwater in my yard to make good use of it and keep it from flowing into the street where it would eventually add to the flashy floodwaters of the Mississippi River. So in the middle of the butterfly garden and in my back yard, I established rain gardens. These are simply shallow basins filled with bottle gentian, tussock sedge, and other plants that tolerate both wet and dry conditions. My two rain gardens are close to rainwater outlets from gutter pipes from my roof.
When nonnative boulevard trees died as a result of disease, I requested native trees from city foresters. They complied by planting a bur oak and a Kentucky coffee tree—much better neighbors for the adjacent native prairie gardens.
It was important to me to make my yard attractive, both for my own aesthetics and to reassure neighbors unfamiliar with the look of native plantings. I added a curving brick walkway and patio in the back yard, and I used wood-chipped pathways to divide other gardens. In the front yard, I left a small amount of lawn for pathways between gardens. The prairie plants in my boulevard garden are 36 inches or shorter to follow city ordinances, and the boulevard plots are edged with landscape timbers.
Besides aesthetics, I am motivated by environmental sustainability. I leave most plants up all winter for color and texture against the snow and to help prevent snow from drifting. I cut down the prairie grasses in spring and use them to mulch my vegetables. I also have a compost pile to make humus to add to my gardens.
Of course, one city lot will not be sufficient to support populations of native wildlife. The best way to protect wildlife habitat is to ensure naturally occurring native plant communities are protected and sustainably managed. However, yards with native plantings can help provide habitat connections and increase the ecological value of otherwise barren or fragmented areas. Many insects cannot travel between habitat patches that are far apart. If even a small percentage of properties included native plantings, the impact to some species of native birds and insects could be tremendous.
In spring I love going out to my yard to see which green shoots are poking up and which flowers are in bloom. There is so much beauty in the textures and colors of native plantings. I look forward to the days in early summer when the juneberry and pagoda dogwood trees are covered by thousands of ripe fruits and the yard is filled with robins impatiently waiting their turn to grab nutritious berries. I’m excited when an eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly visits joe-pye weed in my backyard rain garden, sipping nectar for hours. These experiences make my yard feel like a part of the larger ecosystem around me.
I am reminded of a warm, sunny day last October when American goldfinches filled my backyard prairie garden. They moved quickly from plant to plant, eating the fluffy seeds of stiff goldenrod. Native bees sipped nectar from late-blooming fall asters and anise hyssop. I was surrounded by plants in a broad spectrum of warm colors, from yellow to salmon to gold. And I had just finished harvesting raspberries, broccoli, kale, and Brussels sprouts from the fruit and vegetable gardens. Standing in the midst of this beautiful, lively scene, I felt like I truly did have the best of both worlds with so much nature in the heart of the city.