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.

How long does it take to establish a natural yard?

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