This time of year, when straw-colored bunches of fine-textured native grass wave over a thin layer of snow in my yard, along with silver-gray and chocolate brown seed heads of last year’s wildflowers, people often ask me how I maintain my eye-catching “unlawn.”
“It’s easy,” I say cheerfully, “I pronghorn it.”
And then I grin at the puzzled looks.
“Pronghorn?” someone asks.
“Yup,” I reply. “I act like a pronghorn antelope, and graze the whole yard by hand in late winter.”
I wait respectfully for mouths to close and astonishment to pass. Someone inevitably asks what else I do to maintain the yard, and that gives me my opening.
“Nothing,” I say cheerfully, and then explain that my yard is a restored native dryland meadow, a self-sustaining natural community of the very species of bunchgrasses, wildflowers and naturally dwarf shrubs that would have grown in what is now my yard before the westward-expanding railroad established this small town in 1879, platting streets and lots across the wind-swept mountain prairie.
I don’t mow my my native wildflower-grassland: in our high-desert environment, with ten inches of precipitation in a good year, the blue grama and other native grasses are naturally short, their fine leaves growing no more than six to eight inches tall and their feathery flower stalks reaching a foot or so high.
I don’t apply Weed-N-Feed or Scotts MiracleGro either. Native plants do best in unamended native soil–it’s what they’ve adapted to over millennia, so why wouldn’t they? Fertilizer and other amendments cause them to grow bigger, but die sooner.
Ditto for pesticides: I take care of any weed problems by hand, using a dandelion digger for deep-rooted perennials or old-fashioned yanking for annuals. The hummingbirds, butterflies, and other pollinators that visit the wildflowers in droves in summer thank me for not poisoning their food.
I explain that I only water rarely, in serious droughts (like the year we received just over two inches of moisture all year long), or if a national garden tour is coming to visit.
At about that point, the questions usually circle back to, “What’s pronghorning?”
To “pronghorn”: verb Maintain a native grassland the way the native grazers did.
In my case, I explain, that means acting like a grazing pronghorn antelope. When I researched the ecological history of this formerly blighted industrial place, before my late husband and I restored its sparse native mountain bunchgrass with the dotting of wildflowers, I found that it was a windswept grassland favored by pronghorn antelope for winter and early spring grazing.
These skittish wildlings no longer graze in town, so every spring, I pretend I’m a herd of pronghorn and “graze” our restored grassland to keep it healthy, cutting back last year’s dried grass flowers and wildflower stalks clump by clump, and hand-thatching the bunches of grass with a small rake. Without that annual cutting-back, the grass bunches get too dense and the wildflowers get buried.
It’s a lot of hand work, a lot of squatting and clipping and hand-thatching, but it only takes me a couple of days once a year. And my effort is rewarded by the treasures I find as I cut back last year’s dried flower stalks and seed heads, and save them to spread on other parts of our property still in need of restoration.
Treasures like the tiny native nipple cactus (Mammalaria species), revealing its crown of pink flowers. Or the early blooming pasque flower, with their parabolic-reflector-shaped blossoms that concentrate the sun’s rays and reward early-flying pollinators with a dose of warmth.
So if you see me sitting out in the midst of my native dryland meadow yard this time of year, hand-raking my blue grama clumps and grinning foolishly at a wildflower I’ve just discovered hiding in a dense clump of grass, don’t worry. I’m just happily pronghorning my yard, anticipating delights to come.
Want to know more? Check out these two great resources for designing and maintaining your own native “unlawn”:
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