Open Spaces

Creating a “Greener” Landscape

The definition of “green” landscape is shifting from impenetrable
emerald lawns to backyard habitats

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Story by April Anderson | Photo: Diane Bodkin

There are nearly two billion acres of land in the lower 48 states. About 70 percent of this land is privately owned: 1.4 billion acres is managed by farmers and ranchers, while the remaining 92 million acres of land (an area about the size of California) is tended by homeowners. (Source: National Association of Resource Conservation Districts) The definition of “green” landscape is shifting from impenetrable emerald lawns to backyard habitats.

The 12 “priority species” list

Each spring, small white flags begin to appear in lush lawns warning people to “keep children and pets off the grass” after monthly chemical applications, as birds, butterflies, and other wildlife seek clean water, uncontaminated food, and ample shelter. Last year, Chicago Wilderness (CW), a regional conservation alliance, targeted 12 priority species of wildlife with the goal of improving the health of each species and habitat over the next five years. Based on input from more than 100 CW member organizations, including 40 taxonomic specialists, educators, social scientists, ecologists, and regional conservation leaders, the regional conservation alliance selected: Blanding’s turtle, blue-spotted salamander, bobolink, ellipse, Henslow’s sparrow, little brown bat, monarch butterfly, mottled sculpin, red-headed woodpecker, regal fritillary, rusty-patched bumblebee, and smooth green snake. These animals span a mosaic of ecosystems once native to the Barrington area from pristine ponds and streams to prairies, forests, and savannas.

Going green doesn’t have to be extreme

Creating space for wildlife can be done on everything from a postage stamp-sized lot to a sprawling estate. “I’m always stressing the importance of trees and shrubs because wildlife gets so much bang for the buck,” says Meredith Tucker of Citizens for Conservation’s (CFC) Community Education Committee. “An oak can harbor up to 500 Lepidoptera species.” The larvae of these tiny moths and butterflies enable birds to feed their young. “Ninety-five percent of baby birds must eat soft-bodied larvae,” says Tucker, emphasizing “only natives are going to attract native insects.”

“Think about putting in little gardens of natives,” suggests Tucker, who reflects on how she converted half of her property to prairie, not including the replacement of Norway maples with five species of oak and a perimeter of native shrubs for privacy.

For gardeners facing nibbling deer and rabbits, Tucker recommends spicebush, winterberry, witch hazel, black haw, nannyberry, and snowberry viburnum shrubs. Rabbit fencing (above and slightly below ground) can help protect oak and ironwood from being shredded by deer rubbing the velvet off their antlers each fall.

Success in Tower Lakes

For those dealing with geese visiting from a backyard lake or pond, tall plants installed along the shoreline and in the water can reduce unwanted visits, curb erosion, and provide habitat for fish, frogs, and toads. Tower Lakes Improvement Association’s (TLIA) Lake Committee Head, Tom Kubala, credits shoreline buffers and rain gardens for improved water quality and oxygen levels for Tower Lakes’ bass, northern pike, bluegills, and crappies. While only a small percentage of homeowners provide backyard habitat in his community (less than 10 percent), Kubala has witnessed the positive response of wildlife including mink, turtles, and raptors. “Hawks and owls roost on the peak of my house,” says Kubala, marveling that, “I don’t remember seeing this number of owls and hawks a year ago.”

Working with Lake County Stormwater Management, Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, Army Corps of Engineers, Barrington Area Conservation Trust (BACT), and Tower Lake Drain Partnership, this lake-centered community is striving to keep their waters healthy for people and wildlife. Hoping more residents will landscape for wildlife, Kubala acknowledges, “We are conservationists with a taste for recreation trying to strike the right balance.”

Monarch waystations

For BACT Director of Community Engagement, Susan Lenz, creating a greener landscape is about developing Monarch Waystations throughout the Barrington region. Referencing the USFWS map of monarch butterfly migration patterns, Lenz underscores the importance of the Barrington communities in providing habitat specifically for this Chicago Wilderness “priority species” and state insect.

As part of BACT’s “Year of the Monarch”, Susan Lenz and BACT Executive Director Lisa Woolford are seeking grants to cover the cost of 50-gallon-size plants, compost, mulch, signage, and registration for Monarch Waystations that BACT would like to establish at local schools, churches, and community venues. Planting kits will include swamp milkweed and butterfly weed to provide food for monarch larvae in addition to nectar sources such as asters, purple coneflower, Joe Pye weed, prairie dropseed, little bluestem, rattlesnake master, and ironweed for adults.

Lenz hopes that seeing these beautiful sun gardens will inspire residents to add native plants—especially milkweed—to their home landscapes and plans with design ideas for homeowners wishing to welcome monarchs to their yards later this spring.

Creating a “greener” landscape does not require an extreme makeover unless the yard is overrun with invasive species. Wildflowers, as well as native trees and shrubs that have adapted to our area over the course of millennia, can be readily integrated into most home landscapes. By planting native species that complement those of our neighbors, we can create local, regional, and international corridors to provide habitat, support migration, and promote recovery.

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April Anderson is a naturalist and freelance writer who can be contacted at team.nature.ed@gmail.com.