Marsh marigolds wade at the edge of Peter Brooks’ small pond, their blossoms like sun on a cloudy spring afternoon. Nearby, the stalks of last year’s cattails recline, while the tender green shoots of the new generation tentatively push their way through.
A tawny tangle of last summer’s wildflower stems blankets a berm beyond the pond, and fiddleheads are springing up everywhere. Bees socialize around the white confetti blooms of the flowering shadbush. Birds sing, chipmunks dart, water rushes and the wind cavorts in the newly budding oaks. It’s easy to feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere on this half-acre plot, smack dab in the center of suburbia.
Over the past nine years, Brooks has transformed what was a typical grass-and-trees yard into a diverse, earth-friendly landscape.
A longtime supporter of the environmental movement, Brooks holds a degree from Cornell University in natural resources and environmental education, as well as a master’s degree in regional planning and landscape architecture from the University of Pennsylvania.
He was trained as a teaching naturalist by the National Audubon Society and worked for the state Department of Environmental Conservation in the division of lands and forests. He’s currently a full-time financial adviser, but in his spare time runs an ecological-based landscape design business — Brooks Landscape Design.
When Brooks designs a landscape, he doesn’t just think about what will look pretty or what will best serve the needs of the landowner. He considers the land’s history and composition. He inventories existing vegetation and the wildlife that frequents the site and the surrounding area, and tries to deduce how the land got to be the way it is today.
“What’s the bedrock? What’s the soil? What’s the history of land use? What’s happened in the last 300 years since the first white man got here? What was happening for the 1,000 years before that? We need to understand that process and we also need to understand the basic concept of what would be living and growing here if we weren’t interfering,” says Brooks.
Once he’s collected enough data, he shares his findings with the landowner. “I give them some basic understanding of what they own, how it got to be this way, what its capabilities are, and what would happen if we just did nothing,” he says. He then takes the landowner’s desires and needs and integrates them, as harmoniously as possible, with the scientific realities of the landscape.
Most people, he believes, want to have an eco-friendly yard, but lack knowledge about what’s ecologically right and wrong.
The biggest collection of wrong things, he says, has to do with the lawn. “If nobody interfered with the vegetation for 25 years, what would be growing in your neighborhood?” he asks. “This place wants to be a forest. That’s the climate that we have. We have lots of good soil, we have lots of rain, we have lots of seed source and we’ve got 10,000 years of history since the last glacier left. This place does not want to be a prairie.”
And a prairie, he says, is essentially what we make our yards into when we plant grass.
Establishing a lush, green lawn is nothing short of a struggle. First, existing vegetation must be cleared. Then grass seed must be planted and watered. Once it sprouts, we have to fight to keep it looking presentable — by applying more water, fertilizer, herbicides, insecticides, and, at times, lime or sulfur, to regulate the pH. Then there’s the fossil fuel expended to mow it.
“This is not a low-maintenance situation,” says Brooks. “You’re using a lot of chemicals, a lot of hydrocarbons, and a lot of your own time, energy and money to maintain something through force.”
So what’s the eco-friendly thing to do? Reduce your lawn size as much as you can, suggests Brooks. He admits he likes lawns as much as the next guy, and even has some clipped, grassy areas in his own yard, but little by little they are disappearing. His small backyard, once entirely lawn, is now a meadow he mows just once a year.
“I just let it grow,” he says. “Goldenrod and all kinds of wild, native stuff comes in and the fireflies love it, as do the birds and a million other things. And the more years that go by, the more species, the more diversity there is.”
Right now, the meadow is lying low, a mellow green. Stalks from last year’s goldenrod and milkweed lie scattered here and there. The wild strawberries are just beginning to bud. “Look, here’s a little natural fertilizer coming down,” Brooks says happily, holding up a red flower that just fell from a nearby maple tree.
Brooks has reduced the size of his front yard by adding more plantings. In one shady spot, he’s filled a depressed area with ferns. “Any place where people grow hosta, they should be growing ferns,” he says. “They’re more beautiful, they’re more graceful, and there’s all these different varieties of them.”
Virginia creeper climbs nimbly across a boulder and scales an oak that borders the fern bed. Nearby, a variety of native viburnum bushes are in bud.
Brooks encourages the use of native plants. “These are species that have evolved here for thousands of years. They are really adapted to our climate, our soils, our birds, our insects, the million-and-one funguses and bacteria that are here, so they’re going to survive and they’re going to thrive and they’re going to work in harmony,” he says. “They’re not going to succumb to some weird disease or some insect infestation.”
There are plenty of native plants to choose from; an ever-increasing number of species are offered at local nurseries. Brooks’ yard is an encyclopedia of native varieties: violets, duckweed, lady’s slipper, trillium, sumac, blueberry bushes, royal fern, merry bells, moss and more. He’s training wild grapevines and honeysuckle to grow up his cedar gazebo. “The hummingbirds buzz around and they’ll come to the flowers on the honeysuckle a foot away from your head when you’re sitting here,” he says.
Many native plants are perennials, so they’ll come up year after year, unlike annuals, which must be replanted every season. “I really try to discourage people from using annuals,” says Brooks. “They’re probably not native, and what an incredible amount of labor and expense.”
Brooks cautions against planting invasive species, imports from other continents that spread aggressively, displace other plants, and become a maintenance issue. There are many suitable native substitutions, he says.
“The burning bush — sure it has brilliant red foliage in fall, but it is nonnative and is very invasive. Instead you could plant Virginia sweetspire, mapleleaf viburnum, red chokeberry or highbush blueberry. They all have brilliant, red fall color and they’re all native plants. In addition, some of them have showier flowers.”
A yard that includes a variety of low-maintenance native vegetation will invite insects and wildlife, which are components of every healthy landscape. Diverse habitats will attract even more wild residents.
The marshy area around Brooks’ pond is planted with water lilies, wild iris, bogbean and other native plants that don’t mind wet feet. This little oasis attracts dragonflies, frogs and salamanders and offers the birds a place to bathe. Spring peepers are raising their voices in song and, in the summer, the yard is alive with the jungle call of tree frogs.
In a sunny spot, Brooks has a garden full of milkweed, ironweed, bee balm, pearly everlasting and black-eyed Susans. The seed heads from some of last year’s plants still stand, the majority of the seeds now gone.
“The birds work this over all winter,” he says. And when summer comes, butterflies drink the nectar of the new blooms, while bees collect the pollen.
Soon, last year’s flower stalks will begin to decompose. Brooks will clip the ones left standing, but has no intention of raking them out and carting them away. “It protects the soil, it’ll feed the soil,” he explains. “Just like a mulch, it physically moderates temperature and moisture. It’s absolutely no barrier to stuff growing up again, and two months from now, you won’t see any of that. It’ll all be decomposed and gone.”
Brooks’ early spring yard isn’t the manicured showplace you might see in the pages of Better Homes and Gardens. But he’s glad. “People often have this concept that things have to look neat and clean, everything has to be picked up and in order,” he says. Landowners with that mind-set, he says, tend to wind up with a yard full of grass and a couple of trees.
“They understand that,” he says, “and they think, ‘I’ve got that under control.’ Nature is messy, so we need to get away from this concept that if it isn’t all straight lines and level and under control, then somehow it’s bad, somehow it threatens me. I try to get them to understand that nature is complex, and [urge them] to have a more complex yard than just grass and trees. And that, frankly, is the ecologically healthier yard, and it’s the financially cheaper yard to establish and maintain.”
So what does a gorgeous yard look like? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, says Brooks. The greater the understanding, the lovelier a berm of last year’s wildflower stalks, or a backyard left unmowed will seem.
“Ugly is not a lack of straight lines. Ugly is where we are oversimplifying or contaminating or interfering with what should be the natural process. I like to think that I can bring people to the point where beauty is not just the things that they see, but the ecological peace and harmony that they see.”
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