Wild things can be wonderful in a healthy, biodiverse lawn

April 01, 1994|By Ann Egerton | Ann Egerton,Special to The Sun

Bruce Leopold has crammed fruit trees and shrubs and "thousands" of plants from bloodroot to sea lavender to Joe Pye weed into his one-third-acre yard. The Ruxton psychiatrist says that some of his neighbors probably think "it looks like Dr. Seuss has gone mad."

But Dr. Leopold says he has achieved what he wanted, "a breadth of flora and fauna," or what some are now calling a "biodiverse" garden.

Landscape designer and nurseryman Robert A. Schultz calls it gardening with, instead of against, the grain. Grass lawns dotted with weed-free flower plots are unnatural. It's that simple.

By forcing the land to accept our constant grooming -- via mowing and planting flora not indigenous to the region -- we interrupt the interworkings of the plant and animal kingdom. According to Baltimore gardener and landscape designer Frances Horich, "we disturb and tear the fabric of the natural environment."

But some gardeners are seeing the folly of their ways and are turning their gardens into units of biodiversity, which literally means "diverse life." Their plantings produce flowers and/or seeds and berries that attract a variety of wildlife -- birds, butterflies, small mammals, toads, earthworms and ants, right down to the necessary fungi and bacteria that make the soil hospitable to plants.

The 42-inch lily and fish pond in Dr. Leopold's garden attracts frogs that eat insects. Sometimes, he gets more biodiversity than he bargained for; "one day last summer a heron dropped out of the sky and helped himself to some of our goldfish. My wife was a little upset."

It's a situation that Sara Stein would applaud, however. A leader of the biodiversity movement, Ms. Stein wrote "Noah's Garden, Restoring the Ecology of Our Back Yard," published by Houghton Mifflin last year. Frances Horich calls "Noah's Garden" as definitive a work on the environment as Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" was 31 years ago.

According to Ms. Stein, there is no sin she and her husband did not commit in their quest for the perfect garden. Their manic clearing and mowing yielded a static garden with no wildlife. On their six acres in Pound Ridge, N.Y., they extended their lawn, and the pheasants stopped coming. They planted trees and shrubs whose sterile blooms produced no berries and thus attracted no birds; they cut down milkweeds, destroying food for Monarch butterfly larvae (which eat only milkweed). In adhering to the standards of landscaping, they destroyed the habitats and food of countless living beings.

When they realized what they had done, the Steins went to work to reverse the process.

Her book describes their efforts, and its most important advice, echoed by Ms. Horich and other area gardeners, is "plant, plant, plant" to create a diversity of plants. They will attract a diversity of wildlife that will, she says in a telephone interview, "benefit the entire ecosystem." Besides, adds Ms. Horich, "if you plant enough, you'll have created such a web that you won't have much weeding to do."

Successful biodiversity, proponents agree, requires a change in one's thinking. Says Mr. Schultz, the nurseryman, "You plant in layers, in micro-environments of perhaps a tree, some shrubs and flowers in a group at varying heights, which will have a more interesting look and which will always be changing."

Rob Mardiney, education director of Irvine Natural Science Center, also stresses the importance of planting at varying heights to attract different species of birds; "scarlet tanagers, cedar waxwings and orioles like to stay up fairly high."

Mr. Schultz suggests noting "where the most moisture is and planting moisture-loving plants there" -- such as fern, Jack-in-the-pulpit, iris -- "as well as where the dry spots are and planting accordingly" -- such as black-eyed Susan, coneflower, liatris.

Baltimore gardener Nan Paternotte warns against planting too much of the same plant, however. "If you have a blight, you're really introuble," she says, citing Dutch elm disease and woolly adelgids that are killing eastern hemlocks.

Another challenge to native plants is invasive imports such as kudzu, Japanese honeysuckle, English ivy and Norway maple (which secretes a toxin that kills plants under it). Biodiverse gardeners urge removing or controlling imports.

Many species of plants are diminishing at a dizzying pace, thanks to development and the best intentions of this country's approximately 35 million gardeners.

Ms. Stein says: "From 1800 to 1950, 90 native species of plants became extinct in the U.S. It is projected that in the period between 1950 and 1998, another 475 native species will be lost."

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