Going native with the yard

  • Article by: KIM PALMER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 20, 2011 - 10:42 AM

A Minnetonka horticulturist turns back the clock, restoring her suburban landscape to what it might have looked like 200 years ago, before lawn and buckthorn.

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Location, location, location. Heather Holm is a horticulturist, not a real-estate agent. But that's her mantra when it comes to choosing plants for her Minnetonka landscape.

She plants only species that are native to her immediate area, taking cues from a woodland at a nearby city park, and consulting old survey documents and other resources.

"If you just buy a plant at a garden center, it's like putting a square plant in a round hole," she said. "My epiphany was understanding that you need to know where a plant originated. What soil? How much sun?"

Section by section, Holm and her husband, Brent, have eliminated almost all of the turf grass on their 2/3-acre lot and replaced it with native trees, shrubs and wildflowers. "We're really aiming for diversity," she said.

By planting almost 200 herbaceous species and 65 to 70 woody species, they've turned their yard into a native arboretum that attracts a wide variety of birds, butterflies and other insects. They've kept a small patch of lawn, for their dog, at the back of the house, but that's it.

"Grass is a bit boring," Brent said. "This is more interesting."

Heather wasn't always such a naturalist. She used to design traditional perennial gardens, for herself and for clients, as a consultant. But she's always loved wildlife, and as she learned more about their dwindling habitat, threatened by development and invasive species, she became increasingly committed to restoring it.

"We gardeners have to contribute," she said. Landscapes that are merely pretty don't give anything back to the ecosystem. "Most birds, their diet is insects," she said. "Native insects are attracted to native plants, and birds eat those insects."

Despite her passion, even Heather isn't a total purist. She still has one peony plant and one clematis, both gifts.

"A dear friend gave it to me," she said pointing to the peony. "I can't dig it out, although it's never flowered. Not enough sun."

The Holms had restoration in mind seven years ago when they bought their home, which came surrounded by grass, creeping Charlie, buckthorn and asphalt parking pads. On the plus side, the lot was large and had an abundance of mature trees.

"We inherited a good base -- along with a lot of invasives," she said.

Eradicating buckthorn, the bane of many local landscapes, was one of their first challenges. "I'm not a proponent of chemicals," Heather said, but she makes an exception for buckthorn, applying Roundup to the cut stems. "Here in Minnesota, [buckthorn is] the worst thing. It's devastating our wetlands."

Turning turf grass into a native garden was another priority. The Holms' preferred method for killing the lawn is to smother it with plastic weighted by rocks.

"With a sod lifter, you're removing the top organic matter and disturbing the soil," she said.

As their yard became less cul-de-sac conventional, and shaggier and more natural looking, they began hosting annual open houses and inviting neighbors to help them understand what they were trying to do. (She also invites people from her native-plant network, and the City of Minnetonka promotes the open house in its newsletter.)

"We haven't had any opposition," she said. "We're fortunate we're tucked back in here," she said, referring to their somewhat secluded neighborhood, which boasts wooded, generous-sized lots. "We're not in suburbia, with lawn after lawn. It's easier to do it here without ruffling feathers."

Heather has become a passionate advocate for native landscapes, blogging (www.restoringthelandscape.com), consulting, helping homeowners and organizations get grants for restoration projects and helping people identify and control invasives.

Her latest foe: narrowleaf bittercress, a relatively new invasive species. "It's going to be the next garlic mustard. It's nasty," she said.

Homeowners need to learn more about the plants they're putting in their yards because many aggressive, non-native plants, such as Japanese barberry and Norway maple, are still being sold in nurseries, she said. "I'm not against selling all non-native species, but we do need to check what we're allowing for sale that we shouldn't. There's a disconnect. If it's not a nuisance to agriculture, there's no regulation."

And watch what you pick up at the plant swap. "A lot of things that show up at swaps are potentially invasive," she said. (She lists native plants and nurseries where you can find them on her blog, www.restoringthelandscape.com.)

Restoring your landscape can be labor-intensive at the beginning. But there are rewards, in addition to attracting wildlife. Heather says she now enjoys a virtually maintenance-free yard. "I pull buckthorn seedlings and garlic mustard, and that's about it. For the most part, I'm not doing anything but looking and watching."

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784

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  • HOW TO GO NATIVE

    Tuesday July 19, 2011

    Awareness and acceptance of natural landscapes is growing, but the concept is still controversial in some communities, where manicured lawns are the norm.

  • Heather and Brent Holm focused on planting native plants around their home.

  • NATIVES ON PARADE

    What: A garden open house at the restored native landscape of Heather and Brent Holm.

    When: 9 a.m.-1 p.m. July 30.

    Where: 15327 Lake Shore Av., Minnetonka.

    Tickets: Free.

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