The Suburban Lawn: Shifting the Paradigm

I live in a lovely but turf-dominant Twin Cities suburb in Minnesota. After earning my certification as a Minnesota Master Naturalist and studying the work of noted ecologist Douglas Tallamy, I began to understand the critical importance of transitioning my corner of the world to a more natural habitat, primarily for the sake of native birds and other pollinators, but also to improve water, soil, and air quality.

I live in a neighborhood with fairly strict guidelines so it was important to consider the cultural ramifications of such a transition and follow the daunting but necessary process of receiving approval from my Homeowners’ Association (HOA). This involved putting together a well-organized presentation packet that included visuals of the proposed new yard, a list of plants, and a written description of the project—which was designed and ultimately installed by the very talented native landscape designer Douglas Owens-Pike.

It helped to provide a rationale for why we should begin implementing what is described in Tallamy’s book, Nature’s Best Hope, as a community network of landscapes planted with native vegetation.

Despite the reasoning, I knew it would be a tough sell. The vision for my property might cause concern among neighbors who relate well-groomed yards to Midwestern virtue. I was aware the HOA board is required to approve projects as they relate to covenants that were structured decades ago. The committee needed to weigh each new request against ones they’d denied in the past (butterfly gardens and vegetable gardens in front yards, for example) and show concern for the point of view of all who live in the neighborhood. In anticipation of possible objections, I made sure that the shift from mowed turf to multi- level plantings in my yard would include stone edges so neighbors could visualize the intention of the new designs. It was important not to let the front yard grow wild and out of control.

The first steps in this plan would not be much of a challenge since a pocket pollinator garden that replaced a dying linden tree simply added color. The biggest changes would come in the third year when I replaced my conventional mowed Kentucky bluegrass lawn with Pennsylvania sedge, a flowing “lawn” that is about 6-8” high, and converted it using mechanical rather than chemical means. I intended to add a small vegetable garden to the front yard, since it is the only sunny spot on my property. The original plan to surround the garden with a picket fence was denied by the HOA board, since fences are not allowed in our front yards. However, the adaptation of a stone retaining wall turned out to be an even better-looking solution.

Dana Boyle’s first growing season. The best is yet to come.

The board struggled with whether to say yes or no to my novel request. They wanted to approve it but were unsure how others in the neighborhood would respond. In the end, I was relieved that they gave provisional approval.

The yard is now starting its third full year of growth. It was not surprising that some neighbors have contacted our neighborhood association to ask questions, such as, “will the sprouting sedges fill in eventually?” (The answer is yes.) Or to complain that there may be weeds growing through the mulch. Regardless, most passersby—especially during the pandemic—have been inspired by this transformation.

The yard, in its new state, allows me to tell stories to people of all ages about how valuable it is to have the plants do the work of filtering water that makes its way to the rich fen in the nature preserve across the street. I share that my yard no longer needs fertilizer and pesticides and requires far less water and time to keep in shape.

My property in now listed as a National Wildlife Federation-Certified Wildlife Habitat. The colors of the garden change but provide continuous blooms from May through October. The profusion of season-long color inspires people to keep stopping by to ask about the latest blossoms. Meanwhile, I have kept an eye on edges and weeds to demonstrate careful tending. And I have likewise learned that it is okay to introduce select ornamental plants here and there to provide a slightly more horticultural sensibility for those who respond less to blousy native plants and more to familiar cultivated species.

This work has been very fulfilling from an environmental conservation perspective and has propelled me to become a more active advocate with state and federal elected officials. I really can “walk the talk” when it comes to asking for their legislative support. It has also shown me what a great tool a native plant garden and yard can be in connecting with others—even if we are new to each other or align with divergent beliefs. Nature is a powerful force for connecting humans of all ages and backgrounds.

This gardening experience has empowered me to join the board of Monarch Joint Venture, as well as lead the Conservation Committee of the Saint Paul Garden Club (an affiliate of The Garden Club of America). The experience has also inspired my personal development as a botanical watercolor artist. What a rich and empowering platform for cultural change it has become.

—Story by Dana Boyle