“My little slice of heaven in the city provides big habitat for wildlife. A small, modest bungalow on a narrow, 40-foot wide lot in Minneapolis, not far from the only gorge along the mighty Mississippi.

A cheerful yellow front door greets visitors.

“When my husband and I first moved to the neighborhood in 1979, our yard was mostly grass with a few shrubs, perennials, and bulbs planted along the foundation. We did what every other new homeowner would do: we bought a lawnmower, treated the lawn for dandelions, and maintained a neat and tidy manicured look. The social norm! If I didn’t keep the lawn mowed, my neighbor Ralph would jokingly suggest I get a goat!

“About the same time we bought our house, a grassroots movement was starting to take hold. The water in our City of Lakes had become contaminated by stormwater runoff from yard and street chemicals. Our natural areas were being consumed by invasive species, and migratory birds were struggling to find food as they passed through the city each spring and fall. Various organizations started campaigns to change the way we manage our own, personal spaces. While our small city lot was a manageable size, mowing was not my favorite pastime. These blossoming organizations provided the gentle nudge I needed to reduce my lawn size and add more native plant gardens.

Lead plant, royal catchfly, partridge pea, purple coneflower, and nodding wild onion are among the many native species planted throughout the yard.

“Introducing native plants to my gardens started about 20 years ago. I missed being surrounded by the natural world of my childhood; but I also absolutely loved the cultural diversity of city life. Driven by nostalgia, each time I visited my mother I admired the native plants abundant in my hometown. And so my transition to natives began. Today, my small city lot is a National Wildlife Federation (NWF) Certified Wildlife Habitat and it feels much bigger than it actually is. While there are a few remnant plants from my original garden, most have been replaced with native plants.

Now, there are no lawns to mow, no leaves to rake, and no pests to kill. Trees and shrubs offer shelter, privacy, and shade for both humans and wildlife. Native plants and ground covers provide nectar, pollen, and foraging for birds and insects.

A strip of boulevard is also planted with natives.

“Now, there are no lawns to mow, no leaves to rake, and no pests to kill. Trees and shrubs offer shelter, privacy, and shade for both humans and wildlife. Native plants and ground covers provide nectar, pollen, and foraging for birds and insects. The woodland backyard is an intimate and cozy retreat. And my boulevard and front yard gardens are welcoming to the children and adults who walk by and stop to get a taste of nature. What was once lawn is now teeming with life, supported by over 160 species of native plants in both managed gardens and naturalized areas. A funny thing happens when you embrace nature: it begins to embrace you.

Dappled light in the woodland gardens showcase spring ephemerals such as the Celadine Poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum).

“The land you inhabit with nature comes to life and speaks to you, taking you on an adventurous journey in your own back-yard. You begin to appreciate all the life forms you had forgotten about, from fireflies to bumblebees, finches to Cooper’s hawks, chipmunks and yes, even a fox. As my neighbors see the bumblebees and other wildlife in my yard, they are excited to expand their own habitat gardens. The unexpected joy of living with the land—and its creatures—brings you back full circle to the homage of the woods where you danced as a child. I am living wild in the city and wouldn’t have it any other way.”

— As told to Neighborhood Greening by Julia Vanatta, co-president of the Wild Ones Twin Cities chapter.

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