About eight years ago, not long after my Rocky Mountain Garden Survival Guide was published, I got a call from a board member of Audubon Colorado, the state chapter of The National Audubon Society. She was spearheading an effort to produce a book about “wildscaping,” landscaping for wildlife. She had hired a writer, but wasn’t happy with the resultant manuscript–it needed more how-to for homeowners, she said, more examples of successful projects, and more focus on yards as wildlife habitat, especially for birds. She had seen my new garden book and knew I wrote for Audubon Magazine. Would I look over the manuscript and give her suggestions?
I sighed inwardly, guessing that the money for writing the book had already been spent, and that she was hoping I would rescue it gratis. That assumption proved true, but the project–an effort to show people how restore nature in our yards and neighborhoods–was close to my heart, so I said “Yes.” I even enrolled my mother, a retired librarian with a passion for plants and natural history, in helping me with the research, fact-checking, and indexing.
The heart-time I put into that book, Colorado Wildscapes: Bringing Conservation Home, resulted in my working with the funder on several (paid) urban wildlife restoration projects, including developing a wildscape at a gritty urban power plant, and over time, we became close friends, a relationship worth far more than any billable hours.
Recently, my wildscape-promoting friend returned to Colorado after living away, and purchased a lot in a subdivision developed by Colorado’s largest green builder, McStain Neighborhoods. When she met with McStain, reknowned for their early adoption of New Urbanism (houses with front porches, shared green spaces, and pedestrian- and bike-friendly neighborhoods) and energy-efficient, green designs, she was shocked to realize they required a portion of each yard be landscaped with turfgrass lawn.
So she called and asked for advice. I had been wondering what I could get her for a housewarming present. The answer was obvious: I could draw her landscape concept plan. One that featured her passion for birds and wildlife habitat in urban places, and did not include any lawn, but would “wow” the McStain people.
I visited her new lot on the high plains east of Boulder. The soil was clay; the original shortgrass grassland that nurtured bison and prairie dogs, horned larks and mountain plover, was long gone, succeeded by imported pasture grasses and now, the lawns and shade trees of suburbia.
As we walked her corner lot, looking at the stakes that outlined her 2,000+ square-foot Craftsman bungalow-style house, she turned to me and said, “What was I thinking? This lot is huge!”
I reassured her that we’d turn it into an easy-care, wildlife friendly landscape that would delight her, wouldn’t cost a fortune, and would be a showplace for her wildscape concept.
The first step was a plant list. Since she knew what plants she liked, and had Colorado Wildscapes to draw on, I asked her to write up her thoughts, and I’d refine them and come up with a plan for which species would be happy where, and a concept that would turn her huge scraped lot into a series of intimate spaces filled with native flowers in season and birds year-round, with emphasis on her favorites, hummingbirds. And of course, it would be water-thrifty and low maintenance.
Then I went home and lost a night’s sleep wondering what I had gotten myself into….
Once I had her plant list, and had refined it, paring the species that would not love her clay soils and hot summers, the species that required too much fussing, and adding some she hadn’t thought of that would give winter color and food for her beloved birds, I spent a few evenings staring at the lot plan and thinking.
I began to see a patio in the front yard, screened by waving clumps of native grasses and a flowering crabapple tree, where she could enjoy coffee in the morning sun. Between her house and the one next door, a boulder-filled dry stream channel that would carry water away from the sloping backyard and would provide her a colorful thread of riparian shrubs to provide screening from that too-close neighboring house, and more bird habitat.
On the expansive south side of the house, a shortgrass prairie “unlawn” filled with native wildflowers, with a path meandering through it, connecting the patio in front with the backyard, and beyond that prairie, an undulating wild “hedge” of water-thrifty, mixed native shrub species that would give her some privacy from the side street, as well as provide still more bird food and habitat. In the backyard, the engineering plan dictated a storm-water retention basin which could become a swale, feeding the dry stream bed along the side of the house. It could also water a mountain-ash tree just off her kitchen, providing berries to attract birds in winter. A border of hummingbird-attracting wildflowers next to her porch; more shortgrass prairie unlawn beyond a vegetable garden and a labyrinth, and a clump of spruce and piñon pines in the far corner to give her a bit of mountain habitat….
Once I had the images in my mind, I spent a weekend refining the pencil-sketch concept, and then sent it off in the mail. The other day I got an ecstatic email from my friend: “Thanks to you and your plan, McStain’s landscaper embraced the design and I will have the first house in the development without SOD!!!”
Wildscape: 1; Lawn: 0. That’s the score I was hoping for.
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