A yard that’s all grass is just so boring … and the wildlife thinks so, too. For many conservation-minded people, a little bit of wilderness in the yard can have a great big payoff – for people and animals alike.
Four years ago, shortly after Stacey and Mike Laschen moved into their 8-acre property in North Barrington, they knew they had some work to do.
“I was noticing that we had a ton of buckthorn and a lot of mud, and that was not a good fit for my family with young kids at the time, and a dog,” says the 39-year-old mother of three.
She remembered hearing about the Barrington Area Conservation Trust’s Conservation@Home program, which advocates for using native plants and provides homeowners with easy, environmentally friendly choices for their landscape. Stacey got in touch.
Soon, she had volunteers visiting her home, showing her how to get rid of the invasive buckthorn without pesticides and handing her lists of native plants that would thrive in her yard.
“We have woods in the back of our property that were completely inundated with buckthorn,” Laschen says. “There are Virginia bluebells, trillium and mayapples blooming now – all these things popping up that I didn’t know were back there, because they were smothered by buckthorn and garlic mustard.”
To cover the wet, muddy area, the Laschens planted a rain garden, filling it with native swamp milkweed, cup plants, cardinal flowers, blue flag irises, sedges and other native, water-tolerant plants and shrubs.
“That spot is now not nearly as much of an eyesore as it used to be,” Laschen says.
The family also planted a prairie garden, opting for native plants like pale purple coneflower, black-eyed Susans, Indian grass, big bluestem and prairie dropseed.
The visual aesthetic is more pleasing now, Laschen says, and there are other benefits.
“My family gets to enjoy the animals, the birds, the different insects and wildlife we have coming back into our yard,” Laschen says. “We have seen so many positive things: nesting bluebirds, monarchs and other butterflies that consistently are coming. We have an owl that likes to hang around. At night, we see the bats and fireflies. Our neighbor said that it sounds like a nature preserve.”
After seeing the change firsthand, Laschen believes in the “plant native” theme that groups like Conservation@Home preach. But she’s also being realistic.
“My house isn’t completely native,” she says. “I love hostas – so do the deer – and I plant hostas along the edge of my property. But every small step counts, so if you can plant an oak tree or a native plant or shrub, that would be a step in the right direction.”
The experts agree. No matter if you have 8 acres, like the Laschens, or a more restricted suburban lot, the effect is the same. A little bit of wilderness can go a long way.
“Being positive about what you have is really important,” says Virginia Brown, of Barrington Hills, who has volunteered with Conservation@Home for years.
“I think it’s OK to mix in non-native daffodils and non-native plants,” she adds. “It’s fine to mix ornamental and non-native, as long as they’re noninvasive. We want people to be out in their gardens.”
A Growing Trend
Incorporating native plants into suburbia isn’t a new trend by any means, but it has accelerated since COVID-19 forced more people to stay home.
“It’s kind of a growing movement,” says Patty Barten, outreach director for Citizens for Conservation (CFC), a Barrington-based nonprofit that seeks to preserve and restore the natural environment in northeastern Illinois. “I think the pandemic really struck a lot of people. They were stuck at home and they started watching things – there’s a lot more interest.”
Case in point: CFC hosts a native plant and shrub sale every spring. The idea is to encourage planting those species that are best adapted to our Midwestern climate. This year’s sale was supposed to last until April 20; CFC sold out weeks before.
The enthusiasm is admirable, but going wild does require a new mindset. For those who are willing to make the investment, the benefits are many.
Nathan Aaberg is director of conservation and working lands for the Liberty Prairie Foundation, which owns and manages a 94-acre farm within Prairie Crossing, a subdivision in Grayslake. George and Vicky Ranney developed the conservation-minded community in the mid-1990s to preserve open space and to answer the question: does suburbia have to be a dead zone to nature?
The short answer is definitely not. Thanks to nearly 200 acres of restored natural habitat, Prairie Crossing boasts an impressive variety of wildlife visitors, including hummingbirds, red-tailed hawks, coyotes, deer, loons, sandhill cranes, mink, the occasional bald eagle and myriad other bird species, Aaberg says. The organic farm on-site also provides valuable habitat and does not use chemicals that could kill insects and harm birds. Even stormwater management is different.
“Your typical subdivision has a stormwater system: drains, detention basin – the very infrastructure doesn’t really mimic nature much,” Aaberg says. “Almost all of the rain falling in Prairie Crossing is shepherded to swales, wetlands and lakes. Through a man-made system, we’re mimicking how nature works.”
Since Prairie Crossing was developed, a brook that meanders its way to the Des Plaines River has seen reduced erosion and become much healthier, Aaberg says. With these environmentally friendly features in place, many – if not most – Prairie Crossing residents choose to incorporate at least some native plants in their private landscapes, though it’s not required. People want to keep the wilderness close.
“We’re a really important corridor for bird pathways north and south,” Aaberg says. “The value of what you do in your own yard is significant. The fundamental thing about creating a natural landscape to bring wildlife to your backyard is you have to use native plants. Some species of oaks can support over 500 kinds of caterpillars, which are a key part of many birds’ diets. A non-native tree like the gingko supports none. The point is, there’s a really important relationship between native wildlife and native vegetation.”
Aaberg and Barten both point to Douglas Tallamy’s “Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens.” They say the book is a fantastic resource that seriously explores the value and pleasure of natural habitat in your own yard.
“Tallamy makes an interesting proposition that fragmented habitats are almost as bad as having no habitat,” Barten says. “Animals and plants can’t migrate because there are gaps. The national park system and forest preserves are not enough. We need to start a homeowner national preserve: the idea is everyone’s own yards or balconies can help.”
Tackling an environmentally friendly outdoor project can seem daunting, especially if you’re not familiar with native plants and what conditions they thrive in. That’s the main reason Jim Kleinwachter founded the Conservation@Home program 15 years ago.
“I realized there was a need that was not being met, and I wanted to give people some further help,” Kleinwachter says. “It’s not enough to tell people you need to be doing things better, or you should put in a rain garden. They need that next step: where should I get the plants, what plants should I use, all of the other things that they’re not sure about. I created the Conservation@Home program to take that next step.”
The program, which Kleinwachter first established under the guidance of The Conservation Foundation in Naperville, quickly grew.
Today, it offers a license agreement with conservation groups – including Barrington Area Conservation Trust – so that more people can bring a touch of wilderness to their own properties.
In fact, the program is available in 21 Illinois counties and extends to Wisconsin and Michigan.
What makes it successful is that volunteers come ready to provide easy solutions to any type of “problem” a person might have, along with a simple explanation – because if they do that, homeowners are more likely to make environmentally friendly changes, Kleinwachter says.
“In tree-shaded areas, people have tried to grow grass, and it’s never going to work,” Kleinwachter says. “So, I would say to them, if you love that tree, grass is the worst thing you can put under the tree, and the root is popping up over there because it can’t breathe. Grass needs six hours of full sun; you’re never going to get that under this tree.”
Instead, he suggests trying native plants that do thrive in shade: Virginia bluebells, wild ginger and wild geranium, to name a few.
Conservation@Home is just one approach. Habitat Corridors is a similar program in the Barrington area and it’s run by Citizens for Conservation. The University of Illinois Extention’s master gardeners are trained horticultural experts who readily share their expertise with others.
No matter what your property looks like, there’s something native that will attract wildlife.
“Things grow on the bottom of the ocean and on top of the mountain,” says Kleinwachter. “Your yard – in Hometown, USA – there are things that can grow here.”
What to Plant
If you’re itching to start planting right now, have at it – but keep a few things in mind.
“I always encourage people to start small,” Barten says. “If you want to put in a dining room table-sized rain garden, or even a dining room table-sized garden of native plants, you will be shocked at the wildlife that will come.”
If you’re planning on transforming your outdoor space, remember what wildlife needs to survive.
“The key elements for making your yard more habitable, however big or small it is, is having food, shelter and a source of water for all sorts of wildlife,” says Brown. “Think about insects that burrow in leaf piles, birds that need water and seeds and nectar, birdhouses – those elements can be incorporated in any size yard.”
And they don’t have to be fancy.
“A lot of people will clean up their yard beds in fall before winter and cut down standing flowers and dead flowers,” says Aaberg. “If you have a bare landscape between September and next spring, there’s no place for insects, there are no seeds for birds to eat, there’s no cover – it’s just a barren landscape.”
Finally, the ideal backyard will have diversity of plant life that blooms at different times and provides different structure, says Aaberg. If you want birds, you need insects. Caterpillars are a great mixture of protein and fat, and they need to be fed from April to September.
“Sometimes we’ll like a particular flower, and that’s great for that part of time that flower is blooming, but what happens for the rest of the year? Where do the bees and butterflies and moths go to find flowers?” he says. “You should make blooming time part of your structure.”
So, what should go in your yard?
Native trees include oaks, redbuds, lindens and hickories, and they can provide a more manicured aesthetic than prairie plants – which can look very wild.
People often forget about native shrubs, says Aaberg.
“The beautiful thing about shrubs is they give you flowers, they’re good for pollinators, sometimes they give you nuts for squirrels and they give you vertical habitat,” he says. “One shrub can be worth more than four or five prairie plants.”
Viburnums, like nannyberry, are attractive, large-flowering shrubs, while serviceberries are on the smaller side with pretty white flowers that bloom early and provide critical nectar for insects.
Some of the prettiest, easiest-to-grow flowers include black-eyed Susans, milkweed, coneflowers, blazing stars, coreopsis, monarda and phlox, says Kleinwachter.
There’s also Penstemon, which blooms early in May and spreads well; Golden Alexanders are hearty and have nice, yellow flowers; red columbine can grow in part shade, have delicate yellow and pinkish-red flowers and reseed well; blanket flowers are a show-stopping, daisy-looking flower that are easy to grow; New England asters are purple, really stand out in the fall, and are one of the last natives to bloom (a good alternative to mums); and several types of milkweed – common milkweed, swamp milkweed and butterfly milkweed – also do well in native gardens, says Brown.
“The good thing about native flowers and, for the most part, trees, is they are pretty hearty,” Brown says. “Most of them can live in a variety of environments. There are some that can specifically handle the wet or dry very well. But generally, whether in clay or sand soil, most of these native plants will grow nicely.”
Native grasses like little bluestem – an attractive, stout little grass that turns reddish-bronze in winter – act almost like ornamental grass, but they’re also good for pollinators.
If native plants seem too wild, consider planting them in islands around your property to break up your grassy areas, Brown adds.
“I tell people to clump the plants,” says Kleinwachter. “Don’t just buy one of this and one of that; make a clump that makes a statement in your yard.”
Even if you stick to planting in a garden bed, you can make your yard more environmentally friendly by mowing your grass at 4 inches instead of the typical 2 inches. Then, it will need less water and stay green longer, Brown says.
If you’re fortunate enough to have plenty of acreage, create a plan, zone it and prioritize your workload, Barten says.
But on any size yard, you’ll want to get rid of invasive species first. The University of Illinois Extension has several resources to help you identify them.
“On my own little acre and a half, my husband and I took 10 years getting the buckthorn out,” Barten says. “Part of it is the little seeds: birds spread them, and those seeds can lay dormant in the soil for 5 to 7 years before they pop up.”
Remember that, even if something looks messy, it may still have a huge benefit to wildlife.
“Unfortunately, a lot of trees have died lately,” says Barten. “Leave them. If you cut off the tops for safety reasons, leave the trunks. They become nurse logs, they become ecosystems and they become bountiful in what they support.”
However you add natural habitat to your yard will benefit everyone in the long run.
“I think people are hungry for reconnection to nature,” says Barten. “Being cooped up for a year has helped people prioritize some things and recognize the value of other living things around us. And when it really comes to it, we’re one of those species, too. We’re not trying to save the backyards for other things, we’re trying to save it for us, too … so we can keep going, too.”