Meet the Homeowners Spending Tens of Thousands to Let Their Lawns Go Wild | Kanebridge News
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Meet the Homeowners Spending Tens of Thousands to Let Their Lawns Go Wild

A growing number of people across the U.S. are ditching manicured grass for native plants and trees

Sat, Sep 16, 2023 7:00amGrey Clock 8 min

Within Denver’s Washington Park neighbourhood, an enclave south of downtown where the median house listing price is just over $2 million, quintessential manicured American lawns roll out in front of historic brick bungalows, restored Victorians and contemporary new builds. Then there is Lisa Negri’s yard, which sits adjacent to her three-bedroom, two-bathroom bungalow where she’s lived since 2012.

“It looks like nature,” says Negri, 66, a retired engineer.

Roughly 50,000 plants comprising 92 species engulf her 0.14-acre lot, which until 2020 sported green lawn grass. She estimates the yard has cost roughly $75,000 for plants, bulbs, seeds and hardscaping. Negri’s creation, designed by Denver Botanic Gardens assistant curator of horticulture Kevin Philip Williams, rejects the time-honoured status symbol of a tidy lawn in favour of a new luxury: the rewilded yard.

Lisa Negri sits among her yard’s plants, including the purple-topped Rocky Mountain blazing star (the tallest plant to the left) and the orange and purple licorice mint (to the right). Negri bought the house next door to hers to prevent a new building from being constructed there. PHOTO: JIMENA PECK FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“Rewilding is returning land to a more natural state,” says Allison Messner, co-founder and CEO of Yardzen, a landscape design company with clients nationwide. Rewilding a yard typically involves introducing regionally appropriate plants, also called native plants, and fostering habitats for local wildlife. People come to the practice for myriad reasons. Some people want to support pollinators; some want to avoid water-guzzlers; others want to signal they are climate conscious. But the overarching purpose is universal: to encourage the flourishing of natural ecosystems and to mitigate the effects of habitat loss and climate change.

A common big black wasp sits atop a spotted beebalm in Negri’s yard. PHOTO: JIMENA PECK FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

In Negri’s yard, this means interweaving prairie grasses and southwestern shrubs commingle with pockets of bulbs, wildflowers and succulents, all chosen to thrive in Denver’s climate, which is warm and dry in the summer and harsh in the winter, and has fierce year-round sun because of the altitude. Plants also specifically open the door to animals, insects, fungi and bacteria.

The space is one big meshed movement that throughout the year waxes and wanes in colour, height, shape and texture. A low-slung, post-winter skeletal brown becomes spring’s sprouting rainbow of lush hues, which gives way to summer’s 8-foot, reach-for-the-sky feathery silvers and waxy blues before fall’s explosion of radioactive yellows and Martian reds take hold for a last gasp as winter’s white waits in the wings.

A total of 9,000 plants and bulbs were planted in 2020, largely with help from neighbours and friends. Since then, Negri has planted fewer than 1,000 new plants but has added a large number of seeds. It took a year of significant watering to get roots established. Now the only substantial maintenance required is cutting the yard to the ground in the spring and watering two to three times a year.

An aerial view of Negri’s yard shows off such plants as the snow-on-the-mountain, which is to the back with white bracts (modified leaves), and the yellow flowering stiff goldenrod. PHOTO: JIMENA PECK FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL


The xeric crevice garden, which is the hottest, driest part of the yard, puts Negri’s love of cactuses on display. PHOTO: JIMENA PECK FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“A niche group of people has supported yard rewilding over the past decade or so, but recently it’s become much more mainstream,” Messner says. In 2022, Yardzen saw a 66% year-to-year increase in clients replacing green lawn grass with fully rewilded yards. “We’re not seeing thousands of people say, ‘Tear out my lawn and put in a rewilded yard,’ ” she says, but the majority of Yardzen’s clients are rewilding in some capacity. Last year, 90% of new Yardzen clients installed some type of native plants. “Things are moving in this direction,” she says.

Rewilded yards look different depending on climate and topography. In general, however, they support the web of life from below the ground up to the canopy, and every ecological layer in between, says Melissa Marie Wilson, CEO of Mill Valley, Calif.-based landscape firm Want Green Gardens. Lawns are nonexistent or minimized with native grasses. Plants bloom throughout the seasons. Native trees anchor the yard and provide wildlife with food and year-round shelter.

Eden Passante, 38, and Zan Passante, 47, worked with Yardzen to rewild their half-acre lot about 30 miles northwest of Los Angeles in the ranch community of Newhall, Calif. They purchased the property in 2016 for $560,000 and spent $400,000 gut-renovating their space, which totals 2,100 square feet and has three bedrooms, three bathrooms and a guesthouse. They estimate they have spent $65,000 on rewilding. Plants cost about $10,000; hardscaping cost the most. The bulk of the designing and planting took five months.

The Passante family on their back porch. The dried purple sage in the vase comes from their yard. PHOTO: TEAL THOMSEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Today, the grassless yard is filled with whimsical flowers and succulents, such as blue chalksticks and large blue agaves. Gravel pathways lead to sitting and dining areas and a fire pit. There are garden beds for vegetables and edible flowers and a separate herb garden for mint, thyme, oregano and pineapple sage. A citrus grove has a Eureka lemon tree, a Meyer lemon tree, a yellow grapefruit tree, a lime tree and an orange tree.

“They are half native plants but all of the plants are drought-tolerant and zoned for this area,” says Eden Passante, who is the CEO of the home-entertaining website Sugar and Charm. Wildlife is active in the yard. A partridge laid 12 eggs under a bush. Pollinators love the blooming citrus trees.

The yard is low maintenance. “I try to let nature do its thing, but I remove any invasive weeds and keep the pathways nice,” she says. “The only difficulty is keeping the dust, rocks and pebbles out of the house.” Sometimes she wishes there was a soft play surface for her two young children.

Emily Murphy, an ethnobotanist with a background in ecology and environmental science and author of the regenerative gardening book Grow Now, says it is easy to get in the weeds with rewilding terminology. “It’s evolving in real time,” she says, noting that the word rewilding sprung up in conservation biology and ecology circles in the 1990s in reference to large-scale efforts to restore biodiversity and improve the integrity of landscape and natural systems.

Murphy says that rewilding a yard will obviously look very different from rewilding, say, a National Park. “Purists would say—and there is always a purist—that your yard can’t be compared to the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone.” But she believes that rewilded yards do contribute to the greater good. “Once you plant native plants, biodiversity will come,” she says, giving the example of a native oak tree, which can support roughly 2,300 species of animals and insects. In comparison, a non-native Chinese ginkgo has been documented to support five or fewer local species.

Jennifer Ehlert, vice president of landscape design firm Metro Blooms Design+Build in Minneapolis, says rewilding costs roughly the same as other landscaping. “A DIY pollinator patch might be in the hundreds,” she says. “Hiring a landscaping company to design and build some portion of a rewilded yard might be in the thousands. Rewilding your whole yard might be in the tens of thousands. If you’re into the hundreds of thousands, you have a huge property or you’re hardscaping as part of a bigger project.”

Dan Dufficy, founder of Mill Valley, Calif.-based California Native Landscapes nursery, encourages clients to start small. “Customers aren’t used to seeing these plants,” he says. “Their friends aren’t used to seeing these plants. They have no idea what the maturity of the product looks like.” To help clients get excited, he uses his hands to animate what plants look like and he uses vivid, educational language.

Not everyone is excited about yard rewilding. Homeowner associations can have landscape aesthetic rules. People who are allergic to bees have legitimate concerns. And then there are neighbours who just don’t get it.

Her first summer of rewilding, Lisa Negri in Denver received a cease-and-desist order from the city, which closed her down for eight months. “A neighbour called the city on me and said, ‘We don’t know what this person is doing. We’re afraid of it,’ ” Negri says. With the help of her garden designer and several horticulturists, she put together a 90-page presentation and ultimately received an open space conservation zoning designation, which is one of several types of conservation-related protections homeowners could pursue locally. Some cities—such as Austin, Texas, Evanston, Ill., and Green Bay, Wisc.—have passed ordinances in support of wildlife-friendly homeowners. This is also happening at the state level. In Minnesota, for example, a new state law bans cities from limiting managed natural landscapes.

The plants in the front yard of the home of Roshanna Baron and Nir Einhorn in Santa Monica, Calif., include foxtail agave (the succulent in the front), a princess flower tree with purple flowers (to the far back right), and a spiky-looking New Zealand flax (in the upper left, in front of the gate). PHOTO: NATASHA LEE FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL


Roshanna Baron in front of a fuchsia-coloured salvia in her yard. PHOTO: NATASHA LEE FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL


Roshanna Baron tested out several kinds of pebbles—evaluating them when they were both dry and wet—before she settled on this pea gravel that sits between and around the pavers. PHOTO: NATASHA LEE FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

In Santa Monica, Calif., Roshanna Baron is having an opposite problem: Neighbours are copying her 0.13-acre rewilded yard. She and her husband, Nir Einhorn, 48, bought their house for $1.1 million in 2017. The couple received a landscaping blank slate when their yard was torn up during a nine-month renovation of their home, which has three bedrooms and two bathrooms, and totals 2,220 square feet, including their short-term rental guesthouse.

Planning their fully rewilded yard lasted about a month. Buying and installing $4,000 worth of plants took about two weekends with the help of a gardener. At first the landscaping felt empty, but after a year it was grown in. Three years later, the yard is colourful and warm with green- and blue-tinted plants, flowering succulents and a Meyer lemon tree. They kept a 75-year-old persimmon tree, the fruit of which keeps getting better as the yard’s soil improves.

“I’ve been stopped several times from husbands or wives saying they are planning on copying our yard,” says Roshanna Baron, 51, who works in entertainment industry talent relations and event planning. “One specifically told me he was copying everything because his wife loved it so much. A stranger parked in front of our home to tell me they aspire to have a yard like this.”


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GENOA, Italy—Renato Zanelli crossed the finish line with a rusty iron hanging from his neck while pulling 140 pounds of trash on an improvised sled fashioned from a slab of plastic waste.

Zanelli, a retired IT specialist, flashed a tired smile, but he suspected his garbage haul wouldn’t be enough to defend his title as world champion of plogging—a sport that combines running with trash collecting.

A rival had just finished the race with a chair around his neck and dragging three tires, a television and four sacks of trash. Another crossed the line with muscles bulging, towing a large refrigerator. But the strongest challenger was Manuel Jesus Ortega Garcia, a Spanish plumber who arrived at the finish pulling a fridge, a dishwasher, a propane gas tank, a fire extinguisher and a host of other odds and ends.

“The competition is intense this year,” said Zanelli. Now 71, he used his fitness and knack for finding trash to compete against athletes half his age. “I’m here to help the environment, but I also want to win.”

Italy, a land of beauty, is also a land of uncollected trash. The country struggles with chronic littering, inefficient garbage collection in many cities, and illegal dumping in the countryside of everything from washing machines to construction waste. Rome has become an emblem of Italy’s inability to fix its trash problem.

So it was fitting that at the recent World Plogging Championship more than 70 athletes from 16 countries tested their talents in this northern Italian city. During the six hours of the race, contestants collect points by racking up miles and vertical distance, and by carrying as much trash across the finish line as they can. Trash gets scored based on its weight and environmental impact. Batteries and electronic equipment earn the most points.

A mobile app ensures runners stay within the race’s permitted area, approximately 12 square miles. Athletes have to pass through checkpoints in the rugged, hilly park. They are issued gloves and four plastic bags to fill with garbage, and are also allowed to carry up to three bulky finds, such as tires or TVs.

Genoa, a gritty industrial port city in the country’s mountainous northwest, has a trash problem that gets worse the further one gets away from its relatively clean historic core. The park that hosted the plogging championship has long been plagued by garbage big and small.

“It’s ironic to have the World Plogging Championship in a country that’s not always as clean as it could be. But maybe it will help bring awareness and things will improve,” said Francesco Carcioffo, chief executive of Acea Pinerolese Industriale, an energy and recycling company that’s been involved in sponsoring and organizing the race since its first edition in 2021. All three world championships so far have been held in Italy.

Events that combine running and trash-collecting go back to at least 2010. The sport gained traction about seven years ago when a Swede, Erik Ahlström, coined the name plogging, a mashup of plocka upp, Swedish for “pick up,” and jogging.

“If you don’t have a catchy name you might as well not exist,” said Roberto Cavallo, an Italian environmental consultant and longtime plogger, who is on the world championship organizing committee together with Ahlström.

Saturday’s event brought together a mix of wiry trail runners and environmental activists, some of whom looked less like elite athletes.

“We like plogging because it makes us feel a little less guilty about the way things are going with the environment,” said Elena Canuto, 29, as she warmed up before the start. She came in first in the women’s ranking two years ago. “This year I’m taking it a bit easier because I’m three months pregnant.”

Around two-thirds of the contestants were Italians. The rest came from other European countries, as well as Japan, Argentina, Uruguay, Mexico, Algeria, Ghana and Senegal.

“I hope to win so people in Senegal get enthusiastic about plogging,” said Issa Ba, a 30-year-old Senegalese-born factory worker who has lived in Italy for eight years.

“Three, two, one, go,” Cavallo shouted over a loudspeaker, and the athletes sprinted off in different directions. Some stopped 20 yards from the starting line to collect their first trash. Others took off to be the first to exploit richer pickings on wooded hilltops, where batteries and home appliances lay waiting.

As the hours went by, the athletes crisscrossed trails and roads, their bags became heavier. They tagged their bulky items and left them at roadsides for later collection. Contestants gathered at refreshment points, discussing what they had found as they fueled up on cookies and juice. Some contestants had brought their own reusable cups.

With 30 minutes left in the race, athletes were gathering so much trash that the organisers decided to tweak the rules: in addition to their four plastic bags, contestants could carry six bulky objects over the finish line rather than three.

“I know it’s like changing the rules halfway through a game of Monopoly, but I know I can rely on your comprehension,” Cavallo announced over the PA as the athletes braced for their final push to the finish line.

The rule change meant some contestants could almost double the weight of their trash, but others smelled a rat.

“That’s fantastic that people found so much stuff, but it’s not really fair to change the rules at the last minute,” said Paul Waye, a Dutch plogging evangelist who had passed up on some bulky trash because of the three-item rule.

Senegal will have to wait at least a year to have a plogging champion. Two hours after the end of Saturday’s race, Ba still hadn’t arrived at the finish line.

“My phone ran out of battery and I got lost,” Ba said later at the awards ceremony. “I’ll be back next year, but with a better phone.”

The race went better for Canuto. She used an abandoned shopping cart to wheel in her loot. It included a baby stroller, which the mother-to-be took as a good omen. Her total haul weighed a relatively modest 100 pounds, but was heavy on electronic equipment, which was enough for her to score her second triumph.

“I don’t know if I’ll be back next year to defend my title. The baby will be six or seven months old,” she said.

In the men’s ranking, Ortega, the Spanish plumber, brought in 310 pounds of waste, racked up more than 16 miles and climbed 7,300 feet to run away with the title.

Zanelli, the defending champion, didn’t make it onto the podium. He said he would take solace from the nearly new Neapolitan coffee maker he found during the first championship two years ago. “I’ll always have my victory and the coffee maker, which I polished and now display in my home,” he said.

Contestants collected more than 6,600 pounds of trash. The haul included fridges, bikes, dozens of tires, baby seats, mattresses, lead pipes, stoves, chairs, TVs, 1980s-era boomboxes with cassettes still inside, motorcycle helmets, electric fans, traffic cones, air rifles, a toilet and a soccer goal.

“This park hasn’t been this clean since the 15 century,” said Genoa’s ambassador for sport, Roberto Giordano.


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