How long does it take to establish a natural yard?

Many of us today want things as fast as possible. We like high-speed travel, instant coffee, and websites that load in a millisecond. Maybe this is part of why natural yards have been slow to catch on in America.

Unlike lawns, which can go from bare soil to goal state in a few weeks, or annual flowers, which come home from the garden store already blooming, natural yards take a long time to look like we envision. Experienced natural gardeners say that it takes about three years for a natural yard to “come together” and begin resembling what the gardener had in mind.

Why so long? First, because in a natural yard, the gardener is strongly encouraged to wait a year before even beginning to do anything. And second, because natural yards tend to focus on plants that expect to stick around for the long term – and long-lived plants take the slow and steady route, rather than rushing to flower in their first summer.

The native prairie plants of the American Midwest, for example, spend their first few years investing all their energy into the root systems that will sustain them over the coming decades. They grow just enough leaves to photosynthesize a little, and often don’t attempt to bloom until about their third year. People who aren’t familiar with prairie plants and their life cycles think that these baby perennials look like weeds. Well-intentioned gardeners who don’t adequately prepare themselves for the establishment phase think that their plants are failing, tear out the seedlings, and start over. The wise gardener waits patiently, and is ultimately rewarded with beautiful, thriving plants that are ready to take care of all their own needs.

How long does it take to establish a real prairie – a prairie that is indistinguishable from the few undisturbed remnants that remain in the Midwest? Scientists estimate that the answer is somewhere between 100 years and never.

The oldest prairie restoration in the world is located at Madison’s Arboretum. The planting was established about 80 years ago by the best experts available at the time (with hundreds of people helping to do the physical labor), and to a trained eye, it is still not the same as a remnant prairie. If a small army of the most dedicated, most knowledgeable people cannot truly restore a prairie in eight decades, it is unsurprising that the efforts of a home gardener take at least a few years to even begin looking like a prairie.

It’s similar with other types of ecosystems. A forest is not really restored until at least the second generation of trees has reached maturity, a process that can take decades to over a century. The Holy Wisdom Monastery (located in Middleton, a suburb of Madison) has started to restore 30 acres of its property to oak savanna – a type of ecosystem found across southern Wisconsin before European settlement – but will not even begin to plant understory species until the trees have matured, 20 years from now.

Even a desert takes a long time to restore. You can plant a Saguaro cactus, but it will take fifty years or more to grow its distinctive arms.

Natural yards teach us patience. There is not much a gardener can do to hurry up the process. In the next two posts, That Blog will look at some strategies that don’t work, and then some that do.

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How long does it take to establish a natural yard?

What is Kentucky bluegrass?

Everybody knows Kentucky bluegrass. It’s that good American plant that people across the country use in their lawns.

But wait – is Kentucky bluegrass really American?

It turns out it isn’t.

Kentucky bluegrass is scientifically known as Poa pratensis, which means “meadow grass”. That was the plant’s common name centuries ago in its native range – in Europe.

Meadow grass was brought to North America in the 1600s, probably by accident. It was a happy accident from the settlers’ point of view, since meadow grass made great forage for cattle. North America’s native grasses, the pioneers quickly discovered, couldn’t survive being eaten by cows day after day.

In addition to being good at surviving constant grazing, meadow grass – which soon was being referred to as “Old World meadow grass” – was also good at spreading. The plant rapidly escaped from pastures in the East Coast colonies, and started heading west. When explorers finally made it over the Appalachians to the region now known as Kentucky, they found the meadow grass had beaten them there. From its ability to travel swiftly and its deep green color, the plant acquired its modern name, “Kentucky bluegrass”.

Why do we use this invasive grass species in our lawns? After all, North America boasts over 1,000 of its own native grass species. The answer is that, for the same reason that North American grasses don’t put up with grazing, they also don’t survive regular mowing.

Kentucky bluegrass, and other European species, evolved alongside grazing animals that tended to stay put. These species needed to figure out strategies to recover from daily munching.

North American species, in contrast, evolved alongside buffalo – and as we all know, buffalo roam. Therefore, North American grass species evolved to survive being occasionally descended upon by a herd of large ungulates, and then having plenty of time to grow back before the animals returned for another meal. In the context of a yard, these species can tolerate being mowed once in a rare while, but they quickly die if mowed every week.

For a period of our country’s history, many people thought that being a good American meant having a yard filled edge to edge with an invasive grass species. Now, many people think that being a good American means celebrating our own native plants – and one way we can do that is to invite them into our yards.

What is Kentucky bluegrass?

What is the difference between a native plant garden and a natural yard?

Natural yards typically incorporate native plants. After all, natural yards seek to emulate nature, which generally means using the plant species that nature put in that spot.

What really defines a natural yard, though, is not the species used, but the way they are arranged and maintained.

For example, nature doesn’t plant in straight rows. Nature doesn’t pile hills of mulch around trees. Nature doesn’t put taller plants in the back. Nature doesn’t prevent pollinated flowers from turning into seedheads, and nature never thinks that plants are too big. Thus, in a natural yard, different species are mingled together, plants are allowed to complete their life cycles, and the gardener otherwise strives to replicate the way nature does things.

All the horticultural practices associated with conventional yards, however, can be used with native plants. A gardener could plant native perennials in flower beds, sort them by color, spray them with pesticides, and cut them down in the fall. This may be just the right approach for some gardeners – but it is not a natural yard. It is a native plant garden.

The idea that “natural yard” means “a conventional garden, just with native plants” leads some people to be surprised and unhappy when a neighbor’s natural yard resembles a wild landscape more than the tidy flower beds that many suburbanites are used to. Understanding that a true natural yard incorporates fundamentally different maintenance practices aimed at a fundamentally different goal can help people understand that those exuberantly-growing native plants look just as they’re supposed to.

What is the difference between a native plant garden and a natural yard?

What’s new in natural yards? April 2018

New Jersey has long been known as the Garden State. Now, it’s taking further steps to live up to its nickname.

Recognizing the opportunity created by its miles upon miles of highways, New Jersey has passed a law that landscaping projects alongside highways must use only plants native to the region. The law, which was passed last spring, went into effect in the fall. It applies to new roadway projects; it doesn’t require immediate re-planting along existing highways.

The law was drafted by Republicans in the state senate and assembly. It proved wildly popular among lawmakers from both parties: of 106 senators and assemblypersons who voted on it, only two were opposed.

There are lots of reasons in favor of planting natives, but the bill’s proponents focused on just a few of them. First, following the destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy in the fall of 2012, many New Jerseyans realized that plants native to the mid-Atlantic coast were better at withstanding these kinds of storms than exotic plants from around the world. As they ride out bad weather, these hardy plants go right on preventing flooding and erosion – services that non-natives stop providing when hurricanes wipe them out.

Native plants are also better at sustaining native animals. The new roadside plantings will serve as vital corridors for birds, butterflies, and other wildlife moving through the state.

Finally, the lawmakers noticed that natives are cheaper. Why? Because natives, once established, happily take care of themselves, while non-natives need constant expensive maintenance and often die anyway, leaving nothing to show for the investment.

The New Jersey lawmakers hope that more people will take up gardening with native plants. In the next post, That Blog will look at different ways native plants can be used.

What’s new in natural yards? April 2018