and natives

Back when finished up the backyard terracing project, we were left with a middle zone between our two stone walls that needed planting.  It was semi-crappy soil, a steep slope, and blazing hot southern exposure.  Since one major point of the wall project was to eliminate perilous mowing, we wanted this section to be fairly low maintenance.  Due to chickens and dogs, it also had to be able to take some abuse.  This was not the spot for delicate, diva plantings. and not really a good spot for edible plants, except for the grapes that D planned to plant along the walls.

One option we had in mind was to try a prairie planting.  I knew they were drought-tolerant, put down deep roots for erosion control, and were good for pollinators.  I had  never really thought much about native plantings before, our ornamental flower beds have many of the regular old classic perennials: spring bulbs, sedum, asiatic lilies, heuchera and hostas, with hybridized monardas and lupines.  I'd seen plenty of cool permaculture/hippie front yards in Madison planted with natives, and while I thought they were interesting, I guess I just didn't get it.  It just seemed like an cool option if you had acreage, and great for municipal park areas, but maybe not for my backyard.

But here we were, with a problem area looking for a solution, so we decided to give it a shot. The UW-Aboretum has an annual plant sale, so we ordered a mixed flat of shorter, sun-loving prairie plants, and picked up a few more natives from The Flower Factory, our favorite local perennial place. We started prepping the area in sections, and covered/smothered the areas we didn't have time to get to yet (and grew pumpkin the first year, why not?). In subsequent years we learned about a very cool program called Plant Dane! which offers a group discount on native plants in their spring sale--it's a great deal and a perfect way to get started. We've added lots of blooming varieties, more grasses, and some shade tolerant plants for the side near our garage and under a maple tree.

So now we're in year 4, and while it's still a work in progress, I've fallen deeply in love with this section of our yard.  More so than our other ornamental areas, it's just a crescendo of blooms and textures, starting with ephemeral prairie smoke in the earliest days of spring, and rising to a point, mid-summer, where it's a riot of color and activity.

And oh, the bugs!  I knew we'd attract bees, but it's a zoo of damsel flies, spit bugs, caterpillars, fireflies, butterflies, and tons of different bees, wasps, and other pollinators. The birds (native and imported alike-- even our hens) love it for it's seed-heads, insects, and to collect materials for nests. I can sit happily on the steps and listen to the humming of activity on a muggy afternoon, and come dusk the bats arrive, making calculated sweeps over the yard.

And of course we're not quite at "low maintenance" yet, there are some perennial weeds we are fighting (bindweed, ground ivy) that will probably take a few years of editing to get to the point where the desired plants can hold their own.  Some natives are more aggressive than others in spreading around, so we are learning what to recognize, and when to move/remove things that are volunteering in the gaps.  It's a little more chaotic than the cultivated spaces I have elsewhere in my yard, and takes a little more patience on my part to let things be wild.  But I'm learning to go with it :)

So I get it now.  I'm happily on the native plant bandwagon.  I'm never going to be purist about it: we've transplanted a few random "regular" plants that seemed to have an affinity for growing in this environment--thyme is super happy along our stones, as are creeping phlox.  Black-eyed Susans have been naturalizing all over our yard for years, and I have no idea what their original variety was. 

At the end of the day, I live in a relatively un-natural place: (some of) our neighbors are always going to spray their lawns, there's a gas station up the street, lights from a sports field sometimes stay on late into the night.  And yet there is wildness too--we live close enough to corridors of undeveloped space that we see fox, mink, kingfishers and wood ducks regularly.  It's always going to be a mishmash, and our yard is always going to be a haven.  Milkweed is popping up in my front yard flower garden next to the towering lilies, bumblebees are feasting on my hosta blossoms, and that's just fine with me.

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