If you sit outside on a warm, sunny day and listen carefully, you might hear the humming of insects busy at work. That’s because some residents of the southwest metro are returning their yards to a natural habitat where insects thrive and flowers bloom all summer long. With Wild Ones of Prairie Edge, a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to promoting natural plants and landscapes, it is easy to gather information and support to help your backyard return to its roots.
Marilynn Torkelson and Tammy Seemann began the local chapter of the nationwide organization in 2013. Monthly meetings are free and open to the public, with guest speakers lecturing on everything from invasive species to dragonflies. The best thing about Wild Ones, says Seemann, currently the membership chair, is that “you can know absolutely nothing about gardening and will learn everything you need to know.” Even Torkelson, the current president, was just starting out on her native planting journey six years ago.
When Torkelson purchased her home in Eden Prairie, the backyard looked like any other suburban landscape: green turf grass. And like most homeowners, she and her husband, Tom, were not happy about the amount of water they were using to maintain the green. Even their rain barrel system wasn’t efficient enough.
So she enrolled in a rain garden class to gather some more information about how to capture and conserve water from their yard. A rain garden, she learned, is a small depression in the ground, planted with deep-rooted native plants, that catches storm water and keeps it from running off the property into the sewer system. “The earth becomes the sponge like it was always meant to be,” she says. Because of these impressive 10-to-15 foot root systems, supplemental watering is not necessary. Torkelson was sold and thus began her passion for native plants.
But Torkelson didn’t want to stop with one rain garden, or even two. Gradually, over the past few years, the Torkelsons have transformed their backyard by integrating native plants “bit by bit, as we saw areas that didn’t have much interest or wildlife,” she explains. “One thing led to the next in an organic fashion.”
Today the Torkelson home has three rain gardens, an area of shoreline restoration, a full-sun prairie garden, and a shaded woodland walkway. They are even growing an oak tree, since the species is known to provide habitat for more than 500 insects. “[Her] garden is a prime example of what a suburban landscape can be transformed into,” says Seemann.
Although it’s only a third of an acre, Torkelson has maximized the space. “She has a nice variety of open space and even waterfront, so she can have a big variety of plants for different conditions.”
When planning her garden, Torkelson made selections based on three factors: sun, soil type and water. She also paid attention to the expected height of each plant since natives are often tall and she didn’t want to block anything from view, and chose plants with differing blooming periods to ensure something would be in bloom throughout the entire summer. As Torkelson points out, this is important “for beauty and appreciation, but also to supply nectar and pollen throughout the growing season for hummingbirds, butterflies and bees.”
Luckily, when planting with natives, it isn’t hard to keep the garden blooming all summer long. Early in the season the woodland flowers pop up, and later in August, when many traditional garden plants are past their peak, natives are in full bloom. “At the end of the season things are pretty fabulous in the garden,” says Torkelson.
One of the added benefits of using native plants in your yard, points out Torkelson, is that they require very little upkeep once established. Natives don’t require supplemental watering, the roots naturally block out weeds, and at the end of the season, about 30 percent of the roots decompose and enrich the soil.
When traditional gardeners are busy putting the garden to bed for the winter, native gardeners can relax since winterizing is not necessary. In fact, the insects that make their home in the plants need them to stay intact until the spring thaw. “[Native plants] got along for 10,000 years without us; they don’t need our intervention,” says Torkelson.
Now that the Torkelson property has native plants blooming throughout the summer in nearly every corner, the couple finds that they enjoy spending time in their yard. “Well, no one would go outside to look at grass. So suddenly your yard just becomes fascinating,” says Torkelson. “There’s always something going on.” From birds doing mating calls and collecting material for their nests to “soldier bees” acting as bullies, the garden is abuzz with activity.
Torkelson is proud to be a part of an organization that helps people make an environmental impact right at home. “If you own land … there is something really amazing you can do for the environment: convert it back to native plants,” she says.
Torkelson explains that in a healthy ecosystem, everything works together in a sustainable fashion, from insects and flowers to birds and raptors, and ultimately, to the food on our dinner table. Having native plants is critical to the equation because they provide habitat for the insects that pollinate our food. “It’s gardening for life. You can have your beautiful yard and you can give back to the earth that gives us so much.”
Bring natives into your own habitat.
Interested in starting your own native planting project? Seemann recommends beginning with a butterfly garden. It’s easy to do and you will see results as soon as your plants start blossoming, says Seemann. “They say, ‘Build it and they will come,’ and it’s absolutely true.”
A traditional rain garden is another great starter project that doesn’t require a lot of space. Seemann recommends finding a patch near your driveway where you can direct water runoff to keep that water from running back into our lakes. If you live in Eden Prairie, there is a water quality rebate you can apply for that will give you 50 percent of the cost of installing a rain garden, among other things. You can also get grants through your watershed district.
Recommended reading: Pollinators of Native Plants, by Heather Holm, vice president of Wild Ones of Prairie Edge.