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As the sustainable gardening movement continues to grow, static yards with tightly trimmed turf and knife-edged boxwoods are giving way to wilder spaces where bees thrum, butterflies flutter and insects wriggle beneath a musk-scented carpet of decaying leaves.

Thanks in part to recent environmental initiatives like “No-Mow May,” an ever-increasing segment of the population now recognizes that in terms of the ecosystem, we really do reap what we sow. If you’re not ready for a dramatic landscape overhaul, go slowly. Even small changes in your garden or habits can have a significant positive impact and help bring back bugs and migratory birds.

Spiky blue alpine sea holly attracts useful insects including butterflies and beetles. Credit: Jane Fulton Alt

Leslie Shad, who leads Natural Habitat Evanston, a local environmental organization, explained the forces at work and what gardeners can do to help.

“The problem is that insect populations are tanking and we’re losing too many birds,” said Shad. “The best thing you can do and the easiest thing you can do is leave the leaves. Get them off your grass and put them under your shrubs and trees.” The decaying leaves provide a nutrient-rich environment for insects and a tailor-made food source for the plants around them. To prevent potential trunk rot, Shad recommends leaving a three-inch gap at the base. 

Amy (Dale) Wilke, owner of Green Edens, an Evanston-based landscaping company, agrees that there is much to be said in favor of fallen leaves. Instead of hauling them away, her team grinds the leaves and spreads the material in clients’ plant beds.

Black-eyed Susans provide contrast in a patch of purple hyssop. Credit: Jane Fulton Alt

“Leaf mulch is the least-expensive mulch,” she said. “It adds organic matter. It improves the soil. It keeps the moisture in the soil and keeps the weeds from coming up as much.” 

Wilke and Shad also advise gardeners to leave spent plant stalks and seed heads in place. “Birds will eat from them,” said Shad. “Little insects live in there.” Wilke noted that there is an esthetic appeal to a less manicured plant.

“It adds winter interest. It looks so nice when the snow is on it.” For clients who prefer a tidier look, Wilke cuts and bundles the plant stalks and leaves them in the beds until spring when a host of beneficial insects emerge.

When gardeners begin leaving leaves and stalks in place, they may notice an initial uptick of insect activity in the garden, not a pleasing change for everyone. Shad urges patience. Balance comes over time. “You won’t have a complete ecosystem the moment you start doing this,” she said. “We want people to get a little tolerance for bugs. If you can stand it, the birds will come, and the predator bugs will come so that there is a more functional ecosystem.” 

A great golden digger wasp alights on the sage-hued foliage of a mountain mint plant. Credit: Jane Fulton Alt

Installing one or more native plants in your yard is another simple step toward sustainability. According to Shad, 90% of all insects rely on a specific host plant or collection of host plants for sustenance. Japanese barberry may be pleasing to the eye, but it does nothing to support our local insect population. She bemoans the fact that so many people have come to prize rare or exotic plants over those that sustain our resident pollinators. “The idea of something special or unique is so revered that we’ve lost track of the job our gardens were meant to do.”

Shad recommends gardeners start by planting one native tree or shrub, which may also serve to reduce the amount of turf grass in the yard. Because native plants are well adapted to local environmental conditions, they require less water and will thrive without fertilizers or pesticides. For gardeners ready to move beyond a single tree or shrub, the choices extend far beyond coneflowers and the monarch’s favorite, milkweed. Stately oakleaf hydrangeas, quirky wild bergamot and bright garden phlox can add definition and vibrancy to any landscape design.

Bright bee balm is a draw for hummingbirds, butterflies and moths and is a particular favorite of bumblebees. Credit: Jane Fulton Alt

Local gardening enthusiast and fine arts photographer Jane Fulton Alt, whose Orrington Avenue home was a stop on the recent Evanston Garden Walk, has a parkway completely devoid of turf. Instead, it’s filled with showy blooms and buzzing insects. The intentional absence of rigid orchestration allows her plants to take center stage and deliver a stunning performance. “The bee balm started blossoming on the day of the garden walk,” said Alt, “and I’m starting to see hummingbirds now, which is really thrilling.”

Several years ago, Alt’s late husband, Howard, was inspired to reduce their lawn dramatically and emphasize native plants, installing them in the parkway, and in the front and side gardens. Alt marvels at the resilience of the plants, especially in the oldest bed. “I didn’t water that section once last summer and it survived,” she said. “It’s drought resistant. The roots go down really deep.”

At landscape designer Amy (Dale) Wilke’s home on Payne Street, the lawn is a low-maintenance microclover mix bordered by drought- and salt-tolerant sedum. Credit: Amy (Dale) Wilke

The robust beauty of native flowering plants is undeniable, but the Gatsbyesque ideal of a rolling green lawn is a dream not easily extinguished. Many folks are not ready to eliminate the solid verdant expanse in front of their home. Happily, there are more ecofriendly options than water-guzzling turf grass. Green Edens offers micro clover lawns or a sustainable fescue-ryegrass seed mix, both of which are deep-rooted, low-maintenance and self-fertilizing, according to Wilke.

Shad cites buffalo grass as another great option in place of turf. It grows to about four inches and does not require mowing. “Who wants to mow their grass?” she asked. “It’s kind of a weird concept. Younger people will really be rethinking this.”

For more information on sustainable gardening practices and how to create, preserve and protect habitats for birds and pollinators, visit naturalhabitatevanston.org

Nancy McLaughlin

Nancy McLaughlin is an Evanston-based freelance writer who has a fascination for the everyday events that shape our community in extraordinary ways. She covers human interest stories for the RoundTable.

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  1. Once you begin planting native plants, it’s thrilling to welcome monarchs, bees and songbirds to your yard. Native wildflowers and grasses are not only beautiful but, because they are perennials and hardy, require less care. In my neighborhood at least three adjacent houses provide a “monarch alley” because of the milkweed growing in our yards.