Nature Initiative pitches new approach to yards

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published February 1, 2019

  From left, Amy Aubry, mayor pro tem of Hazel Park, and Grace Vatai, naturalist and co-owner of Mulberry Hill Wildlife, fill feeders for wildlife at the Mulberry Hill Wildlife Habitat in Hazel Park. The duo co-authored the Hazel Park Nature Initiative, which promotes alternative yards and healthy ecosystems.

From left, Amy Aubry, mayor pro tem of Hazel Park, and Grace Vatai, naturalist and co-owner of Mulberry Hill Wildlife, fill feeders for wildlife at the Mulberry Hill Wildlife Habitat in Hazel Park. The duo co-authored the Hazel Park Nature Initiative, which promotes alternative yards and healthy ecosystems.

Photo provided by Grace Vatai

 The Mulberry Hill Wildlife Habitat features landscaping alternatives to traditional lawns, including native pollinator plants that grow during the spring and summer.

The Mulberry Hill Wildlife Habitat features landscaping alternatives to traditional lawns, including native pollinator plants that grow during the spring and summer.

Photo provided by Grace Vatai

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HAZEL PARK — The well-manicured grass turf lawn is a staple of suburban communities — but it’s not the only approach one can take with their yard.

In fact, there are alternatives that are better for the ecosystem yet still straightforward to maintain and pleasing to the eye.

The Hazel Park Nature Initiative is a new program that seeks to educate the public on these options while working on local ordinances that will enhance the city’s natural landscape.

The effort is co-authored by Amy Aubry and Grace Vatai. Aubry is the mayor pro tem of Hazel Park, while Vatai is a naturalist and co-owner of Mulberry Hill Wildlife and president of th Associated Council of Restoration Naturalists, or ACORN.

Aubry said the idea is to encourage planting that provides food for native life including birds, bees, butterflies, bats and bugs — what she calls “the five B’s.” She also noted that the program will work with city departments to incorporate these features in city properties.

“This initiative cannot be successful without the support of all aspects of the city: the residents, city administration and various city departments, especially Parks and Recreation and Public Works,” Aubry said. “In addition to the city aspect, we need the services of professionals in this area, like Grace at Mulberry Hill Wildlife, and other volunteers with expertise in the areas we’re looking at.”

Vatai said that a primary goal is to cultivate habitats that attract and sustain beneficial native wildlife in the city. To this end, the program is also currently planning a new nature area in Hazel Park that will feature diverse native gardens. She said the downside of “monoculture” — the cultivation of a single species of plant with no diversity, often covering a large space — is that it doesn’t provide the variety needed for a healthy ecosystem. Traditional lawns also often require large amounts of chemical fertilizer and pesticides to maintain.

“Occupying around 30 to 40 million acres, or 63,000 square miles of land, turf grass is the No. 1 cultivar in the United States, and is our largest monoculture,” Vatai said. “Americans spend over $40 billion every year maintaining lawns in addition to applying harmful fertilizers and pesticides. These pesticides are responsible for killing (millions of birds) and countless other beneficial organisms annually.

“In contrast, a native landscape can utilize a multitude of attractive and beneficial elements like beautiful wildflower beds, native flower or fruit-bearing shrubs and trees, and more,” she continued. “These elements create landscapes that have high wildlife value, which means they attract and support local wildlife by providing suitable homes, nest sites, food sources and more. Native landscapes avoid the use of harmful chemicals and can be lower maintenance, and often include elements such as rain gardens, bioswales (for cleaning and controlling water runoff), compost, companion planting, and other creative natural methods to mitigate common issues.”

Examples of beneficial wildlife include pollinators like bees, butterflies and hummingbirds, as well as ladybugs that naturally prevent aphid populations from destroying gardens. Birds will also appreciate the additional nest sites provided, Vatai said, as well as food provided by plant species that grow fruits and seeds.

“Other elements often added to native landscapes include bird feeders and bat houses,” Vatai said. “By providing homes for beneficial wildlife, we might just be doing ourselves a huge favor. For example, a single bat can eat up to 1,000 mosquito-sized insects in a single hour. Now that’s a benefit I can live with!”

Aubry said she wants people to consider alternative planting options, including milkweed, black-eyed Susan, aster, butterfly weed, goldenrod, coneflower, bee-balm, sunflowers and more.

“When people purchase a home in a suburban area like metro Detroit, it usually comes with a lawn, and people don’t realize there are other options out there. Lawn monocultures prevent us from enjoying the beauty and benefit of a diverse landscape,” Aubry said. “Lawn alternatives can enrich our lives with things such as edible landscaping, pollinators, birds and wildlife, fresh flowers for our table, and more. And one major benefit our residents will enjoy is the additional time, energy and money they will have when they no longer need to pour those resources into maintaining their lawns.”

Vatai suggested seeding clover as a great natural alternative in place of traditional turf grass.

“Clover is an effective and beautiful alternative that requires less mowing and often turns green sooner in spring while staying green longer into the fall. When you mow your clover, it’s going to grow back to maintain a height closer to your mow level, which means that you are less likely to have an unsightly or overgrown yard, and will save time on yard work in the process,” Vatai said. “Additionally, clover blossoms provide food for pollinators and attract them to your yard. Clover is also a nitrogen-fixing plant, which means that it will add nitrogen into your soil, fertilizing itself and other plants naturally.”

Going forward, one goal of the Hazel Park Nature Initiative is to create or amend ordinances that address both traditional lawns as well as an approved list of alternatives that include plants such as clover, or that replace lawns with native landscaping made of various annuals and perennials.

“Reduced maintenance should accompany these changes, but it’s also not an excuse to neglect your lawn,” Aubry said. “We like to say it should look ‘intentional.’ The various options would still be guided by city ordnance to the extent appropriate, and we will work with code enforcement to discover the best ways to make this a fun, environmentally friendly option for residents, but that isn’t a nuisance for neighbors.

“Ultimately, City Council will have to vote on the changes, and public hearings will be held with the community, which gives residents the opportunity to ask these questions, express their concerns and make suggestions for ways to amend the ordinance,” she said. “By making this initiative visible and accessible for all residents, we can come together and get our nature fix within walking distance of our homes.”

For more information on alternative lawns, contact Grace Vatai at Mulberry Hill Wildlife by emailing wildlife.mulberryhill@gmail.com, or visit the group online at face book.com/mulberryhillwildlife.

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