How is your garden growing?

Simple steps to promote beauty and sustainability

As the sustainable gardening movement continues to grow, static courtyards with tightly trimmed lawns and razor-sharp box trees give way to wilder spaces where bees hum, butterflies flutter and insects squirm beneath a musky-scented carpet of rotting leaves.

Thanks in part to recent environmental initiatives like No-Mow May, a growing segment of the population is recognizing that when it comes to the ecosystem, we really reap what we sow. If you’re not ready for a dramatic landscape overhaul, go slow. Even small changes in your garden or habits can have a significant positive impact and help bring back beetles and migratory birds.

The prickly blue alpine holly attracts beneficial insects like butterflies and beetles. Recognition: Jane Fulton Alt

Leslie Shad, director of Natural Habitat Evanston, a local environmental organization, explained the forces at work and what gardeners can do to help.

“The problem is that insect populations are declining and we’re losing too many birds,” Shad said. “The best thing you can do, and the easiest thing you can do, is leave the leaves alone. Get them off your grass and put them under your shrubs and trees.” The decaying leaves provide a nutrient-rich environment for insects and a tailored food source for the plants around them. To prevent possible stem rot, Shad recommends leaving a 3-inch gap at the base.

Amy (Dale) Wilke, owner of Green Edens, an Evanston-based landscaping company, agrees there’s a lot to be said for foliage. Instead of hauling them away, her team shreds the leaves and spreads the material around customers’ plant beds.

Black-eyed Susans offer contrast in a patch of purple hyssop.
Recognition: Jane Fulton Alt

“Foliar mulch is the cheapest mulch,” she said. “It adds organic matter. It improves the soil. It keeps the moisture in the soil and keeps the weeds from growing so much.”

Wilke and Shad also advise gardeners to leave spent plant stems and seed heads in place. “Birds will eat it,” Shad said. “Little insects live in there.” Wilke found that a less manicured plant has an aesthetic appeal.

“It increases winter interest. It looks so pretty with the snow on it.” For customers who like things a little tidier, Wilke trims and bundles the plant stems and leaves them in the beds until spring when lots of beneficial insects will appear.

When gardeners start leaving leaves and stems in place, they may notice an initial surge in insect activity in the garden, which isn’t a pleasant change for everyone. Shad asks for patience. Balance comes with time. “You’re not going to have a full ecosystem the moment you start doing this,” she said. “We want people to have a little tolerance for mistakes. If you can stand it, the birds will come and the assassin bugs will come so there will be a more functioning ecosystem.”

A large gold miner wasp perches on the sage colored foliage of a calamint plant.
Recognition: Jane Fulton Alt

Installing one or more native plants in your garden is another easy step towards sustainability. According to Shad, 90 percent of all insects depend on a specific host plant or collection of host plants for sustenance. Japanese barberry may be pleasing to the eye, but it does nothing to support our local insect population. She laments the fact that so many people have come to prefer rare or exotic plants to those that feed our resident pollinators. “The idea of ​​something special or unique is so revered that we have lost sight of the task that our gardens were meant to fulfil.”

Shad recommends gardeners start by planting a native tree or shrub, which can also serve to reduce the amount of lawn grass in the garden. Because native plants are well adapted to local environmental conditions, they require less water and thrive without fertilizers or pesticides. For gardeners willing to go beyond a single tree or shrub, the choices stretch far beyond coneflowers and the monarch’s favorite, spurge. Stately oakleaf hydrangeas, quirky wild bergamot and bright garden phlox can add definition and vibrancy to any landscape design.

Light bee balm is an attraction to hummingbirds, butterflies and moths, and a particular favorite of bumblebees.
Recognition: Jane Fulton Alt

Local garden enthusiast and fine art photographer Jane Fulton Alt, whose Orrington Avenue home was a stop on the recent Evanston Garden Walk, has a park path that is entirely lawnless. Instead, it’s filled with showy blooms and buzzing insects. The intentional lack of rigid orchestration allows her plants to take center stage and put on a stunning performance. “The lemon balm started blooming the day of the garden walk,” Alt said, “and I’m starting to see hummingbirds now, which is really exciting.”

A few years ago, Alt’s late husband, Howard, was inspired to drastically reduce the lawn and emphasize native plants by planting them in the avenue and in the front and side gardens. Alt is amazed at the resilience of the plants, especially in the oldest bed. “I didn’t water that section once last summer and it survived,” she said. “It’s drought resistance. The roots go really deep.”

At landscape architect Amy (Dale) Wilke’s Payne Street home, the lawn is a low-maintenance micro-clover mix bordered by drought- and salt-tolerant sedum. Recognition: Amy (Dale) Wilke

The robust beauty of native flowering plants is undeniable, but the Gatsbyan ideal of a rolling green lawn is a dream not easily extinguished. Many people are not willing to get rid of the solid green space in front of their house. Fortunately, there are greener options than water-eating lawn grass. Green Edens offers micro-clover sods or a sustainable fescue-hallowgrass seed mix, both of which are deep-rooted, low-maintenance and self-pollinating, according to Wilke.

Shad cites buffalo grass as another great option instead of turf. It grows to about 4 inches and does not require mowing. “Who wants to mow their lawn?” she asked. “It’s a strange concept. Younger people are really going to rethink that.”

For more information on sustainable gardening practices and creating, maintaining and protecting habitats for birds and pollinators visit

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