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

By JESSICA FLINT
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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Booming demand for wellness tourism shows no slowing, with travel related to health and well-being projected to have reached $1 trillion last year and to hit $1.3 trillion by 2025, according to the Global Wellness Institute, a nonprofit based in Miami.

Curated wellness travel programs are especially sought-after, specifically holistic treatments focused on longevity. Affluent travellers not only are making time to hit the gym while gallivanting across the globe, they’re also seeking destinations that specifically cater to their wellness goals, including treatments aimed at living longer.

“I believe Covid did put a spotlight on self-care and well-being,” says Penny Kriel, corporate director of spa and wellness at Salamander Collection, a group of luxury properties in places like Washington, D.C., and Charleston, South Carolina. But Kriel says today’s spas are more holistic, encouraging folks to understand the wellness concept and incorporate it into their lifestyle more frequently.

“With the evolution of treatment products and technology, spas have been able to enhance their offerings and appeal to more travellers,” Kriel says.

While some growth is connected to the variety of treatments available, results and the digital world are also contributing to the wellness boom.

“The efficacy and benefits of these treatments continue to drive bookings and interest, especially with the support of social media, influencers, and celebrity endorsements,” Kriel says.

While genetics, environmental factors, and lifestyle choices such as regular exercise, a diet free of processed foods, sufficient sleep, and human connection play essential roles in living well and longer, experts believe in holistic therapies to help manage stress, boost immunity, and ultimately influence length and quality of life.

Anti Ageing and Beyond

“For years, people have been coming to spas, booking treatments, and gaining advice on how to turn the clock back with anti ageing and corrective skin treatments,” Kriel says. However, today’s treatments are far more innovative.

On Marinella Beach in Porto Rotondo, on the Italian island of Sardinia, guests at the five-star Abi d’Oru Hotel & Spa can experience the resort’s one-of-a-kind “longevity treatment,” a unique antiaging facial using one of the island’s native grapes: Cannonau. The world’s first declared “Blue Zone”—one of five designated areas where people live longer than average, some into their 100s—Sardinia produces this robust red wine varietal, the most widely planted on the island.

Known as Garnacha in Spain and Grenache in France, Cannonau supposedly contains two to three times more antioxidants than other red-wine grapes. By incorporating Cannonau, Abi Spa says its unique 50-minute longevity session increases collagen production for firmer, younger-looking skin.

Maintaining a youthful appearance is just one facet of longevity treatments, which range from stress-reduction sessions like massage to nutritional support and sleep programs, Kriel says. Some retreats also offer medical services such as IV infusions and joint injections.

Keeping with the trend, Kriel is expanding Salamander Collection’s existing spa services, such as detox wraps and lymphatic drainage, to include dedicated “Wellness Rooms,” new vegan and vegetarian menu items, and well-being workshops. “Sleep, nutrition, and mindfulness will be a big focus for integration in 2024,” she says.

Data-Driven Wellness

Skyler Stillings, an exercise physiologist at Sensei Lanai, a Four Seasons Resort—an adults-only wellness centre in Lanai, Hawaii—says guests were drawn to the social aspect when the spa opened in November 2021.

“We saw a huge need for human connection,” she recalls. But over the past few years, what’s paramount has shifted. “Longevity is trending much more right now.”

Human connection is a central draw for guests at Sensei Lanai, an adults-only and wellness-focused Four Seasons Resort in Hawaii.
Sensei Lanai, A Four Seasons Resort

Billionaire co-founder of tech company Oracle Larry Ellison and physician and scientist Dr. David Angus co-founded Sensei. After the death of a mutual close friend, the duo teamed up to create longevity-based wellness retreats to nurture preventative care and a healthy lifestyle. In addition to the Lanai location, the brand established Sensei Porcupine Creek in Greater Palm Springs, California, in November 2022.

Sensei has a data-driven approach. The team performs a series of assessments to obtain a clearer picture of a guest’s health, making wellness recommendations based on the findings. While Sensei analyses that data to curate a personalised plan, Stillings says it’s up to the guests which path they choose.

Sensei’s core three-day retreat is a “Guided Wellness Experience.” For spa treatments, each guest checks into their own “Spa Hale,” a private 1,000-square-foot bungalow furnished with an infrared sauna, a steam shower, a soaking tub, and plunge pools. The latest therapies include Sarga Bodywalking—a barefoot myofascial release massage, and “Four Hands in Harmony,” a massage with two therapists working in tandem. Sensei Guides provide take-home plans so guests can continue their wellness journeys after the spa.

Sensei Lanai, an adults-only and wellness-focused Four Seasons Resort in Hawaii.
Sensei Lanai, A Four Seasons Resort

Sanctuaries for Longevity

Headquartered in Switzerland with hotels and on-site spas across the globe, Aman Resorts features an integrative approach, combining traditional remedies with modern medicine’s advanced technologies. Tucked behind the doors of the storied Crown Building in Midtown Manhattan, Banya Spa House at Aman New York—the brand’s flagship spa in the Western Hemisphere—is a 25,000-square-foot, three-floor urban oasis.

Yuki Kiyono, global head of health and wellness development at Aman, says the centre provides access to holistic and cutting-edge treatments benefiting physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and social well-being. Aman’s customisable “Immersion Programs” consist of a three- or five-day immersion. “The programs encompass treatments and experiences that touch every significant aspect to create a path for longevity, from meditation and mindfulness to nutrition and movement,” Kiyono explains.

Banya Spa House at Aman New York.
Robert Rieger

The spa’s “Tei-An Wellness Solution” features 90- to 150-minute sessions using massage, cryotherapy, and Vitamin IV infusions. Acupuncture is also on offer.

“With its rich history of Chinese Medicine, modern research, and the introduction of sophisticated electro-acupuncture medicine, acupuncture has been proven to assist with problems and increase performance,” Kiyono says.

Resetting the Mind and Body

Beyond longevity, “healthspan”—the number of years a person can live in good health free of chronic disease—is the cornerstone of Mountain Trek Health Reset Retreat’s program in British Columbia, Canada.

Kirk Shave, president and program director, and his team employ a holistic approach, using lifestyles in long-living Blue Zones as a point of reference.

“We improve our daily lifestyle habits, so we live vitally as long as we’re meant to live,” Shave says of the retreat. He built the program from an anthropological stance, referencing humans as farmers, hunters, and gatherers based on their eating and sleeping patterns. Food includes vegetable-centric meals sans alcohol, sugar, bread, or dairy.

Guests wake at dawn each day and have access to sunrise yoga, several hours of “flow” or slow hiking, spa treatments, forest bathing, calming crystal singing-bowl and sound therapy sessions, and classes on stress reduction—one of Mountain Trek’s primary goals. The program motivates people to spend much of their time in nature because it’s been proven to reduce cortisol, the stress hormone that can lead to inflammation and disease when elevated for extended periods.

While most guests aren’t aware of how immersive Mountain Trek’s program is when they arrive, they leave the resort revitalized after the structured, one-week program. Set in the Kootenays overlooking its eponymous river, the resort and adventure promise what Shave calls a “visceral experience of transformation.”

“They’re interested in coming to be in nature,” Shave says of the guests. “They hit a wall in their life and slipped backwards, so they know they need a reset.”

Banya Spa House at Aman New York provides access to holistic and cutting-edge treatments benefiting physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and social well-being.
Robert Rieger

This article first appeared in the Winter 2024 issue of Mansion Global Experience Luxury.

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