Bringing nature to your doorstep

Adella Young finds nature in a native prairie garden just outside her home

Can you find nature in your own backyard, or is it something you travel faraway to enjoy?  In my current home, nestled snug against the woods and looking out across a patchwork quilt of marsh and pond, the natural world seems close at hand. Growing up, however, that wasn’t always the case. In California, our backyard was a postage stamp of grass walled-in on all sides by a ten-foot redwood fence. One could scale the fence, as I often did, and walk down the entire length of the block looking down into neighboring yards with identical parcels of yellowing grass, all surrounded by the same never-ending redwood fence.

On bike and by foot, my friends and I explored the vacant fields nearby where new houses sprang up like weeds, as well as the almond and apricot orchards, now houses and streets as well, and a hilly patch of wildland near the canal where grapes and blackberries grew. On the weekends, my parents and I sometimes drove up into the Sierra Nevadas, where birds and animals lurked behind towering pines. Where was nature during that stretch of my childhood? It was certainly in the mountains, probably out in the country where the grapevines grew, possibly in the orchards and empty lots, but definitely not in our own backyard.

Now, when I hear my friend Amber talk about spending time with her kids in their yard in Newport, I’m amazed by how much nature they find only a few feet from their doorstep. Deer frequently visit their yard, pausing unhurriedly outside the kitchen window. Birdseed in the feeders disappears overnight. Another friend who lives near Villa Park in Roseville, smack dab in the middle of metropolis, snapped photos of a barred owl that landed outside his home just in time for Christmas dinner. It appears, therefore, that nature chooses some backyards over others. 

At the Wild Ones 2011 Design with Nature Conference, to be held February 26 at the University of Minnesota Conference Center, four guest speakers will share their perspectives on bringing nature into our yards. Borrowing inspiration from Aldo Leopold, conference organizers hope to combine Leopold’s vision of a natural community that connects soil, water, plants and wildlife with the current movement toward natural landscaping that has many local yards looking more like an extension of the neighborhood woods and less like a fenced-in square of lawn.

Keynote speaker Rick Darke, a renowned landscape designer and photographer from Pennsylvania, will talk about creating a layered landscape in the “new wild garden” that borrows elements from nature to create a livable backyard. Paula Westmoreland, landscape designer and author, will discuss changes in geology and ecology over time and the impacts that these landscape changes have had on our water resources. She will also explore ways for people to bring their own yards and properties into harmony with natural areas in their communities. Stan Temple, a Senior Fellow for the Aldo Leopold Foundation and Professor Emeritus at UW Madison, will focus on observing and recording nature in our yards throughout the changing seasons, while Lynn Steiner, a Midwest author and regular contributor to Northern Gardener magazine, will offer design suggestions and tips for selecting native plants for any yard.

While many local residents are turning to native landscaping as a way to bring nature back into their yards, it is worth noting that these backyard woods, prairies and native gardens are also helping to protect lakes, streams and groundwater resources for future generations. Indeed, this year’s conference theme is Building Tomorrow’s Heritage and event partner Blue Thumb – Planting for Clean Water is quick to note that native yards and landscapes help to soak rain and melting snow into the ground and keep lakes and rivers clean. All involved share the hope that tomorrow’s children will be able to find nature in their yards and on their doorsteps as well as in faraway locales.

For complete details about the Wild Ones 2011 Design with Nature Conference, including speaker biographies, topics and content, schedule of events, and registration, visit