Wildlife Gardens By Example

Echinacea Purpurea

Echinacea Purpurea

The other day I was driving out New Hampshire Avenue, in Maryland just outside Washington, DC—the direct route to my favorite organic compost supplier, Pogo Organics. I was intent on buying their perfect soil blend for a rain garden I am installing.

The blur of green streaming by my window piqued my attention. I began to check out the real estate and realized that religious edifices dominated this nine-mile stretch of road. I counted thirty-one. On average, that’s one church every 1/3 mile.

The buildings seemed to represent every conceivable religious denomination that exists— Baptist, Lutheran, Muslim, Baptist, Catholic, Indian Orthodox, Evangelic, Buddhist, Baptist, Presbyterian and Jehovah’s Witness, just to name a few. Baptists were especially interested in locating on this highway which could be renamed “Heavenly Way”.

I started to speculate on what could possibly be the magnet that attracted all these institutions to this stretch of road? What non-profit, religious affiliation discount was offered at sale? I am still delving into that mystery.

Although their religious tenets are unique, their landscapes were not. It seemed the collective concept of “God’s Green Earth” translated into lawn, lawn, and lawn.  I know there are at least 50 million acres of lawn in the US and after this nine-mile trip I began to wonder how much of that belongs to religious organizations across the country. I tried Google. No luck.



And More Lawn

Here’s what I started to think about. What if places frequented by many people, every week, became good examples of sound environmental practices and advocated for conservation landscapes? You know, wildlife gardens. What if they planted wildlife habitat instead of lawn? What if the people who visited observed these landscapes and learned about the benefits of these wild life gardens and acted on changing their own yards to include natural landscapes? Hmmm.

Pizzo Ecological Restoration prairie landscape

With an environmental mission, Holy Spirit Catholic Community in Naperville, Illinois considered the landscape possibilities for their new building. They wanted a healthy, chemical free, sustainable landscape. The choice they made was to plant a native prairie.

When I visited, it was thriving with birds, bees and butterflies. According to Pat Zacher, landscape chairperson, “It has been an education for the parishioners. It wasn’t instantaneous acceptance. After several years, the concept is gaining approval and people have begun to understand the importance behind natural landscape initiatives.” That translates into more native gardens in parishioner’s home landscapes.

I do not want to single out religious institutions for a lack of leadership in environmental initiatives. Holy Spirit is proof that some churches are leading by example and The National Religious Partnership for the Environment is an association of independent faith groups, across a broad spectrum, working to heal the earth. I do feel their message of caring for God’s creation is a powerful starting point for teaching good stewardship of the land and taking the lead in environmental restoration efforts.

There are many other, well-trafficked landscape opportunities that could serve to provide excellent stewardship examples such as schools, libraries, corporations, and communities. The list goes on.

Tippecanoe High School in Ohio opted for a prairie habitat that enhances learning in their environmental studies classes

Landscapes that enhance understanding of the natural world

Prairie planting threads through common space in Wisconsin housing development

1 Women's Park & Habitat

Women’s Park of Yellow Springs, Ohio celebrates women and the environment

The city of Yellow Springs, Ohio dedicated a 500 x 25 foot stretch of land, along the community bike path, to the Greene County Women’s History Project. The park began as remembrance of women’s history with sculptures and commemorative tiles and grew into a native habitat. Bikers, walkers and bird and butterfly enthusiasts frequent the park.

Park staff and consultants plan the transformation of the “dimple” from monoculture, non-native turf to a wildlife meadow

I just started consulting with Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts on a meadow installation. Phil Goetkin, landscape manager, says the main goal of the project is to “demonstrate that Wolf Trap National Park is serious about natural resource management and is willing to take bold steps to show that it is prepared to be a leader in the community as well as the National Park Service.”

They have decided to take a high visibility area and turn it into a meadow. The “dimple” is a one-acre site perfect for a meadow adaptation. Along with Wolf Trap, The Wallace Genetic FoundationThe Meadow Project, Earth Sangha, the Center for Urban Ecology and other partners, the meadow will be installed next spring.

It is particularly important that this area be planted in a meadow/rain garden habitat because of the considerable runoff of storm water the “dimple” receives from impervious, paved and grassy areas during storms. Meadow rain gardens help to minimize runoff and filter pollutants with a matrix of plants and deep roots systems, where as lawns tend to allow water to run freely, carrying pollutants into storm water drains.

With the installation of the meadow habitat, a half million, annual visitors to Wolf Trap will have the opportunity to see a natural landscape in action. Wolf Trap staff also plans to develop an educational/interpretive opportunity through signage and literature on making meadows and natural landscapes. Wolf Trap’s environmental leadership can be a good model for all institutions that would like to focus on promoting healthy stewardship of their land.

Wildlife gardens by example. Try it in your hometown!

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  1. says

    Ah yes! People plant what they see – good to give them the right stuff to look at!

    Parts of Fairfield County where I live area are similarly plagued with over-sized, single-family houses surrounded by vast lawns. As a high-rise dweller myself, I can only speculate that McMansion owners are either (a) maintaining a clear field of fire in case of armed attack or (b) generously providing fodder (non-organic, unfortunately) to help encourage the white tail deer population.

    Keep up your good work, Catherine!

    • Catherine Zimmerman says

      When I was doing research for my book, Urban and Suburban Meadows, that’s what I had in mind. I’d like to see some, well all, of those McMansion dwellers give up some lawn in favor of wildlife habitat. I visited one community in Wisconsin where the average lot was 2 acres. I went there to document a home with a prairie planting. The planting covered at least an acre, much of the front lawn. A good example to the rest of the community. And wonders of wonders, the next door neighbor liked it so much they are in the process of installing their own prairie front yard! Wildlife gardens by example.

      • JoAnn Bowman says

        Don’t you know that New Hanpshire way out is the new 16th street? Now you just need to find out which churches have environmental sustainability policies or beliefs, and viola, there are your new clients!

  2. says

    Excellent article! Well thought, well presented.
    This reminds me of the movement to make golf courses more ecologically friendly. Some are doing just that: Role of Golf Courses in Biodiversity
    Also, I remember hearing that Denver International Airport had created meadows surrounding the airport. They save on mowing and the grasses can be harvested for hay. I wish I had a reference, but I can’t find any.
    Business campuses and college campuses should be next.

  3. says

    Catherine, I feel like you are reading my mind! I had an appointment the other day at a local healthcare facility that was built about 5 years ago, making it relatively new in this area. The facility prides itself on offering of a new type of holistic approach to medicine but I guess that approach has not been translated into the gardens. As I walking to the entrance I noted that some of the shrubs and trees were native (bravo) but that the ‘children’s garden’ contained a scraggly patch vinca, a few annual bedding plants and nothing else besides a lovely little sign proudly marking it’s dedication a few years ago. Landscape contractors were installing ‘seasonal color’ – 100’s of non-natives. I was thinking what a lost opportunity the landscaping was since so many people must pass through the area on a daily basis. Your post reminded me that I should make a few calls and see if whoever is in charge would be interested in making the gardens a showcase for native plants and more wildlife-friendly.

  4. says

    What a great observation.

    I hope you’ll send all the “Heavenly Way” churches all a copy of your post here, even if it’s anonymous. It’d be fun to see them starting to compete (or even cooperate!) to naturalize their lawns and get back to those many references in the Bible about stewardship of the earth and its creatures!

  5. Kim Sedmak says

    Catherine Zimmerman is the perfect native plant /naturalist garden designer to carry out God’s great work in all of the “green” environments mentioned in the above posts! I find her comments and insight so on target — she’s changing what and the way we plant for the better! Hallelugha!

    • says

      Well, thank you for the praise!

      One thing I know is, I have some of my most spiritual moments when I am out working in my meadow habitat. Being there is a calming moment, it’s peaceful and allows my brain to slow down and I just get to enjoy the critters and flowers around me. As a result I become more reflective. That’s something that is hard to achieve in other settings.

      I highly recommend establishing this wildlife vista,if for only those reasons, not to mention the great environmental benefits!

  6. Risa Edelstein says

    I could not agree more about our need to have more public examples of wildlife habitats. Imagine if people went to their bank and saw a habitat garden? Or the pharmacy? How about at every town hall? On public traffic islands? Public displays of these kind at a community level is what is going to get America changing.

    • says

      So, what I think needs to happen is basic education for these institutions. I think if these groups knew how important their patch of earth was to the ecosystem as a whole, they would change their practices. I really think folks just don’t know. I find that lack of knowledge every day when I talk to clients. I believe knowledgeable landscape designers can play a large role in expanding on information about the connection between native insects and native plants. Gaps in awareness will begin to be filled and we will see more wildlife habitats.

      • says

        I agree that education is the key. Those of us working with ecological landscaping accept it as part of everyday life. We forget that the majority of the public and landscapers still see lawn, mulch and specimen plants as the accepted landscape. Indeed, many people have no idea that there is any problem with large expanses of lawn.
        Creating ecologically friendly landscapes in public places is part of the solution. Here at the County Annex, our MAEscapes (Mid-Atlantic Ecological Landscape) gardens have great signage that helps passersby understand why we have no lawn. In addition, we teach classes in the garden to help homeowners who would like to start gardens of their own.
        I wonder, however, if a national movement that targets churches could be started by a group like the NWF that already has well known programs in place. One succinct flyer explaining the importatnce of stewardship could go a long way. And if a church decided to make the change, think how many parishioners would also be reached.

        • Catherine Zimmerman says

          This blog piece has gotten a lot of positive feedback. It is obvious that the more native landscapes people see, the more comfortable they will be with such a landscape in their own yard.

          The group I sited in the blog, The National Religious Partnership for the Environment, an association of independent faith groups, contacted me after I sent them a link to the blog. NRPE’s Executive Director, Matthew Anderson-Stembridge and I will be meeting next week to hopefully set up a dialog on how we can partner on educating parishioners as to the benefits of wild life gardens and how you actually plant a native habitat. Those are the keys to change.

  7. Scott Snyder says


    Once again, I appreciate your positive support of the prairie at Tipp City High School. I attend a baptist church and we are slowly beginning to think about recycling and better land management. Many churches (like mine) are getting there.. but slowly. From my limited experience it seems that the focus in developing new sites has been 99% on the building(s) with very little focus on the land. The prairie experience at our high school has taught me a lot about the benefits of investing in the land. One of the best lessons is the investment gives back 10 fold. What I mean by that is after the initial time and energy getting the prairie started it ends up taking very little maintenance… and it is beautiful! I almost feel guilty when I get compliments about the prairie… we just let the true Creator do his handiwork without interfering.

  8. says

    Thanks for your writing, Catherine! I am the Associate Pastor of Youth and Family Life at the Mennonite Church of Normal (IL). Last year we converted a 1700 sq ft turf swale adjacent to our parking area into a native prairie rain garden.

    You can see photos and read about our project at:

    I wrote a prairie rain garden Advent reflection on the holy foolishness of planting seeds on top of snow:

    • Catherine Zimmerman says

      Your prairie rain garden is beautiful! Just the kind of example I had in mind for churches. What a wonderful asset and learning tool for your school kids. I urge everyone to check out your website!


  1. […] Catherine is a videographer and photographer with a passion for changing the world one church, school, and home at a time by teaching people to replace part or all of their lawn with native wildflower meadows. See how she’s reaching out to members of her community in Wildlife Gardens by Example. […]

  2. […] Meadows can be created on any public or private outlying land presently requiring grass maintenance, saving money on mowing, equipment emissions, and labor.  Schools, churches, universities, corporate campuses, airfields, parks, roadsides, rights of way, all…. […]

  3. […] what I started to think about. What if places frequented by many people, every week, became good examples of sound environmental practices and advocated for conservation landscapes? You know, wildlife gardens. What if they planted wildlife habitat instead of lawn? What if the […]

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