I’ve been outside today, working in the yard and soaking up sunshine–both very welcome after some incredibly difficult months. I spent October and November caring for my sculptor husband, Richard until his death at home from brain cancer, and then plunged into end-of-the-year, after-death paperwork and organizing the celebration of his life. All of that was important and necessary work, sometimes even beautiful, but also exhausting, painful and simply grueling.
To have the unusually warm day and some free time to work outside was a gift. For me, only writing is as therapeutic as working with the native plants reweaving a healthy and diverse natural community on our formerly blighted industrial property.
When people ask why I chose to “green” our once-ugly and weed-infested property by seeding in a native grassland yard instead of sodding a lawn, I usually start with saying, “because it doesn’t need watering.”
Somewhere around 60 percent of household water consumption here in the arid West goes to maintaining landscaping. That’s simply not sustainable. Especially here in the high desert, where in a good year we only receive ten inches of precipitation anyway.
Which is why I decided to go native, restoring the community of wildflowers, bunchgrasses and shrubs that have thrived here for millennia, instead of importing a water-thirsty, maintenance-intensive lawn. I figured the natives would be tough, would survive without additional water (most of the time), and wouldn’t need fertilizer and pesticides and weekly mowing.
All of that’s proven true. I didn’t amend the soil (natives prefer the soil they’re used to, rather than garden soil); I don’t use fertilizers or pesticides–they don’t need either; I “mow” the yard once a year by hand, cutting back the dead tops of the perennial grasses and wildflowers in spring. And I hardly ever water–unless it’s been dry for weeks.
Today, as I pulled a few stray weeds, picked up windblown trash, and did some other yard-tidying, I was reminded of another reason I went native in restoring this once-ugly property: for the subtle beauty of our grasses and wildflowers in winter. The show-stopping seasons are spring and summer, of course, when passers-by ogle the sea of bright-colored wildflowers against the more muted green palette of the bunchgrasses.
But look what I found in the dead time of winter, in a season that’s been one of the driest in recent memory, including the clump of mountain fescue with the slender, gracefully curling leaves in the photo at the beginning of the post. And that gorgeous nearly magenta shade of the Rocky Mountain penstemon leaves in the photo above. And the ferny, silver-haired clump of basal leaves of scarlet gilia in the photo below. Talk about texture!
And one last pop of color and winter architecture from a clump of little bluestem grass. If that won’t brighten your day, I don’t know what will!
My “wild” yard is so much more interesting than a monocultural turf-grass lawn… And of course, each of these native plants comes with relationships with other organisms that together weave a healthy, sustainable, and fascinating community: the fungi that bind the grains of dry soil and help it absorb such precipitation as falls; the mosses and lichens that form a shady, insulating cover over the soil surface; the butterflies, beetles, bees, and hummingbirds that pollinate the flowers; the harvester ants, goldfinches and bushtits that eat the seeds, dropping some to sprout new natives far from the parent plants.
In return for the effort and time involved in restoring the native species to form this dryland meadow, I get a whole community to enliven my days, no matter the season. Sustainability, beauty, and something new to see every day. That’s a enduring gift.
And as I walk into my new solo life without Richard, my companion of nearly 29 years, I realize that restoring the natives is deeply right on more than a personal level. When I am gone too, our half-block yard, the little portion of this planet that we worked together to restore will be in far better shape than we found it.
Why go native? To heal ourselves, and our mite of Earth.
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