Restore your own backyard

By David Beach

The guy from the tree company thought he could save the paper birch in my front yard. The tree was suffering from two pests: the bronze birch borer and the leaf miner. But a regimen of pesticide injections and sprays could control the problems, he said. It would be a shame to lose such a decorative tree.

The paper birch, with its lacy white bark, had been planted years ago by a previous owner who no doubt had noble landscaping intentions. But it was a cool-weather tree out of its natural range. Ohio's hot summers placed it under too much stress, made it too susceptible to pests. It was doomed to die and early death unless I agreed to pay for perpetual chemical fixes.

In the end, I decided to accept nature's verdict. I told the guy from the tree company to cut the birch down. I replaced it with a hardier tree that's adapted to local conditions.

It's the kind of decision faced by everyone who is the steward of a piece of land. How far do you go to impose your own will and landscape prejudices on your yard? Do you follow the 'barefoot grass' admonitions of the lawn care companies, or do you allow natural processes to run their course?

In recent years, it seems more and more people are choosing to err on the side of nature. Some are concerned about the health dangers of pesticides used to poison nature into submission. Others want to turn their artificial, monoculture lawn into a more diverse, natural habitat. They realize that, while urban or suburban land is usually so disturbed that is must be 'managed' in some way; the management doesn't have to be toxic. And the resulting yard can contribute in many ways to the larger ecosystem of the region.

"It starts off with homeowners realizing that they are just temporary custodians of this habitat, and they can help restore it or they can blindly follow the landscape style of the guy down the street with a lawn and a few shrubs," says Brian Parsons, natural areas coordinator at the Holden Arboretum in Kirtland.

"If you look at each blade of grass in your yard as an introduced plant species that has displaces a native species, then you can begin to sense the magnitude of change we have made in the name of 'progress,'" he adds.

Gardening writer Sara Stein comments in her book, Noah's Garden: "Suburban development has wrought habitat destruction on a grand scale. As these tracts expand, they increasingly squeeze the remaining natural ecosystems, fragment them, and sever corridors by which plants and animals might refill the voids we have created. To reverse this process, to reconnect as many plant and animal species as we can to rebuild intelligent suburban ecosystems, requires a new kind of garden, new techniques of gardening, and, I emphasize, a new kind of gardener."

In this spirit, here are a few basic steps we can take to restore our yards and the larger ecosystems of Northeast Ohio:

  • Stop urban sprawl: First, we must save as much unspoiled natural area and rural land as possible. This means the municipalities and counties in our region need to work together to slow the unnecessary, uncontrolled sprawl of development over the countryside.
  • Cluster development: If new land must be developed, at least do it sensitively. For example, new homes or businesses can be clustered so only a small portion of a site has to be disturbed.
  • Get rid of lawns: In areas that are already developed, reduce the area covered by lawnsthose water hungry, high-maintenance, chemical-intensive, unsustainable, monotonous stand of nonnative plants. "Anything is better than a lawn," says Parsons, who teaches a class at the Arboretum on designing a natural landscape. "Start from that premise, then work your way back. The goal is to have a lawn no larger than you care to mow by hand with a traditional push mower."
  • Create diversity: In his backyard, Parsons performed an experiment a few years ago. He simply stopped mowing a large swath of grass and observed what came up. Some of the plants were noxious weeds, which he pulled by hand. But many wildflower species also appeared. He planted some additional wildflowers, and by the second year he had a beautiful meadow. It's also possible to add complexity to the "vertical structure" of your yardthe layers of ground cover, understory plants and canopy trees. By increasing the diversity of species and structure, you also create more habitats and food sources for wildlife.
  • Plant native species: To complete the restoration process, we must assemble as many pieces of the region's original ecosystem as possible. "Our yards are within range of several thousand plant species," Parsons notes. "Rip out a little vinca and plant something different. Live on the edge."

The cooler north and east sides of a house can become woodland meadows. The south and west exposures can feature prairie species. You can find examples to follow in parks throughout the region.

One problem for the casual gardener is finding sources of native plants. Restoration purists scoff at all-purpose, wildflower seed mixes (a "meadow in a can") sold by national retailers. They say it's important to collect seeds of native plants growing within 100 miles or so. Only then can you be reasonably sure that the plants' genes have evolved in response to the specific climatic and ecological requirements of the region. Local nurseries don't often sell such native plants, leaving most gardeners to depend on nurseries elsewhere in the eastern United States that sell seed or propagated natives.

Ultimately, the goal should be to create an authentic, regional landscape aesthetic, just as some parts of the country have regional cuisines or styles of architecture, Parsons says.

"Right now, we have no landscape style of our own," he says. "Everyone's got this exotic landscape. There's no sense of place."

"We need to consider ourselves as the temporary custodians of land which is home to hundreds of native plant and animal speciesÂ…our own lives are brief. But the consequences of our actions can far outlive us. After we move on, our plants stay put, and they can remain for 100 years."


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EcoCity Cleveland
3500 Lorain Avenue, Suite 301, Cleveland OH 44113
Cuyahoga Bioregion
(216) 961-5020
Copyright 2002-2003

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Backyard restoration resources

  • Cleveland Botanical Garden, 11030 East Blvd., Cleveland, OH 44106, 216-721-1600
  • Cleveland Museum of Natural History (botanical surveys and research on rare plants in the region; extensive herbarium collection), 1 Wade Oval, Cleveland, OH 44106, 216-231-4600
  • Holden Arboretum (nation's largest arboretum), 9500 Sperry Rd., Kirtland, OH 44094, 440-946-4400
  • Backyard Wildlife Habitat program of the National Wildlife Federation


The city is cutting down/pruning a tree in/near my propertywho can I call?

Each municipality has a forestry/urban forestry division. The city of Cleveland forestry division, for example, can be reached at 216-691-7300.


Please if you know of a resource to add to this list.


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