Our house was built around 1872 and the surrounding neighborhood dates to a similar time. At the time, the town was becoming a bit of a commercial center due to its position at the mouth of a creek that penetrated the Front Range. The railroad down to Denver began here, only later replacing the wagon road into the foothills. Upstream were some significant towns where gold mining was the economic driver and supported the multitude of bars and casinos.
At the mouth of the canyon, things opened up and travel was easier. There was room for permanent settlement for all the merchants, officials and other people that supported the upstream economy, including for itinerant miners. As the town grew, the residents improved their houses and neighborhoods, gradually developing tree-lined roads and schools — including the campus for the Colorado School of Mines. Lots of trees were planted along roadways and in yards to offset the rugged hills on one side and the arid plains on the other.
When I moved here in the mid-1970’s, we worked to make our lot more comfortable but also took advantage of a surprising number of volunteer plants. We added sod to the baked earth backyard and planted a few trees and shrubs among those already here. The lilacs were well established, so we only had to relocate a few, but we transplanted many lilac shoots to new beds. The trumpet vine that graced the front of the house’s second story was healthy and has only gotten more spectacular over time. I relocated one of its saplings to the other side of the house and it’s done well also.
We’ve changed and added some shrubbery and flowers, and have kept a large snowball bush safe. I transplanted some feral chokecherry bushes from the alley to the side yards where they have thrived. And, over the years, we’ve added a number of trees, too: Linden, Limber pine, Bur oak and English oak — sadly, the English oak didn’t survive a vicious cold snap a few winters ago. A crabapple tree is also one of the recent additions. We have tended numerous volunteer green ash along the fence lines and among the street trees out front.
While our yard isn’t deliberately a native plant haven, we have focused largely on them as we worked to facilitate the wildlife that exists. Most of the yards in our neighborhood are similar to ours, and not too much emphasis is placed on an immaculate lawn. Consequently, each spring, we have a respectable crop of dandelions, as well as a smattering of small blue flowers and a bit of clover, so the bees stay happy and plentiful while the neighbors don’t seem too upset.
In addition to blossoms in the lawn, larger blooming plants and flowering shrubs also encourage the bees and butterflies. Staging the yard stepwise from lawn to shrubs to trees provides habitat for birds, and we keep bird feeders going almost year ‘round, including a couple of hummingbird stations. We have a lot of squirrels and lately, we’ve discovered a family of bunnies beneath our shed that seem suitably wary of our dog and two cats. The house cats hunt the mice that live in the bed beneath the bird feeder in what seems a fair trade — mice eat the spilled birdseed and the cats eat the mice. It all seems pretty natural to me.
Our place is not tidily groomed and we’ve tended to accept and work with many of the volunteer plants that have demonstrated that they want to be here. Columnist Dana Milbank took a different approach, “For 20 years, I found the latest, greatest horticultural marvels at garden centers and planted them in my yard: sunny knock-out roses, encore azaleas, merlot redbud, summer snowflake viburnum, genie magnolia, firepower nandina … In between them flowed my lush, deep-green lawn. I hauled sod directly from the farm and rolled it out in neat rows. I core-aerated, I conditioned, I thatched, I overseeded, I fertilized. I weeded by hand, protecting each prized blade of tall fescue from crabgrass and clover … It turns out I’ve been filling my yard with a mix of ecological junk food and horticultural terrorists.”
He continues, “When it comes to the world’s biodiversity crisis — as many as 1 million plant and animal species face near-term extinction because of habitat loss ― I am part of the problem. I’m sorry to say that if you have a typical urban or suburban landscape, your lawn and garden are also dooming the Earth … I’ve discovered that all the backbreaking work I’ve done in my yard over the years has produced virtually nothing of ecological value — and some things that do actual harm.”
Climate reporter Cara Buckley observes, “Insect, bird and wildlife populations are plummeting as a result of human activity, pollution and habitat destruction, prompting scientists to predict mounting mass extinctions in the coming years … Lawns make up one-third of the country’s 135 million acres of residential landscaping, according to the ecologist Douglas W. Tallamy, who calls the velvety carpeting of bluegrass or ryegrass ‘ecological dead zones’.”
“Lawns continue to polarize Americans, with traditionalists prizing manicured emerald expanses and environmentalists seeing them as ecological deserts that suck up excessive amounts of water and pesticides.”
I doubt we’ll ever get rid of our lawn. I enjoy the dandelions and other flowers, but I also like the feel of cool grass on bare feet. Seeing your son toddle across wet grass for the first time is incredible. We try to keep the non-natives and invasives to a minimum, and only use pesticides or herbicides sparingly if at all. We mostly take the ‘live and let live’ attitude to volunteer plants, and relocate them rather than pull them up.
The result is probably considered chaos by some, but works for us, and maybe for the critters, too. Maybe everyone should give it a try.
Cara Buckley, They Fought the Lawn. And the Lawn Lost, December 14, 2022, New York Times
Dana Milbank, I’m No Genius With Genuses, But Your Garden Is Killing The Earth, April 7, 2023, The Washington Post
It’s good to see someone did change their mind (the columnist!) too often these folks buck the science for as long as possible! Your lawn does look soft to walk on!