Monday, May 14, 2007

J.B.'s Backyard...the Mini-Prairie

Backyard in May after the burn Photograph by John Blakeman

Backyard in October Photograph by John Blakeman
Backyard in winter Photograph by John Blakeman

And here it is, a look at John Blakeman's infamous backyard and some thoughts and theory on breaking away from the dominion of turf...

I've attached a few photos of my backyard, in three seasons, in May just after the prescribed fire of the prairie grasses in April, in October when the Indiangrass of the back prairie is in full glory, and then in winter, when all is dormant, revealing the fine winter color and textures of the Indiangrass against the snow.

I don't have any photos of my “prairie gardens,” as I don't have any of those. I have created prairie landscapes on my property, mostly of various prairie tallgrasses, with 6-ft Indiangrass my favorite. I have only a small patch of little bluestem, which I planted just two years ago.

On my property I sadly have no really fine patches of prairie forbs (“wildflowers”). That’s because I've used my five acres to experiment and work out grass and forb designs and mixtures that I think will work for my clients. I try to make all of my design and specification mistakes here, and transfer only what works to client projects. Consequently, quite a number of my trial plantings have been turned under and discarded.

I'd like to do that to my acre of front yard, which is in big bluestem prairie grass. It was the first thing I planted back in the spring of 1976 when I purchased the property. But today, I wish I would have planted it to the much more beautiful little bluestem. When I started, only some remnant alfalfa and soybean stubble was on the five acres, nothing else. I've planted over 2200 trees of various species, along with about two acres of prairie plantings.

Someone mentioned my “garden.” I don't have one. By definition, a garden requires continual husbandry, the removal of weeds and the attending of desired flowers and such. I'm too lazy for this, and five acres is way too big for any sort of garden landscaping.

I prefer to allow native species, unaided, to do their natural, ecological things, which means I need to add no fertilizers, water, or pesticides to my native grasses and forbs. While my neighbors are mowing, spraying, and fertilizing throughout the summer, I'm sitting on a chair savoring a fine beer while watching my grasses wave in the wind.

Many, of course, prefer to live by a pond or lake, entranced with a view over a body of water. Although I've got Lake Erie four miles to the north, there are no nearby lakes or ponds along which I could build my house. (And if there were, I couldn't have afforded such.)

Instead, I delight in my created lakes or ponds of waving grasses, which I find to be even more entrancing than pond water. As the photos show, my expanses of grasses present multiple aesthetic delights in each season, equal, I believe, to anything a body of water can offer.

Yes, I do mow the lawn areas around my house. But not as often as the neighbors. My grass gets rather high before I lop it off. I mowed for the first time last week, after a multitude of dandelions and violets went to bloom. I've mowed them off, but they will be back. Personally, I have no culturally-induced imperatives to maintain “weed-free” turf, as though lawn “weeds” were pathogenic contagions.

My particular approach to native plants landscaping involving the expansive use of native prairie grasses and forbs is not for everyone (probably not even for many). For my first 20 years here the neighbors quietly castigated my landscaping efforts, although at the start I carefully screened the property with borders of native white pines.

But now, the ease and floral glory of the approach is being recognized. Several landowners along the road have engaged me to recreate or adapt my concepts in their yards. Fortunately, it’s not the last half of the 20th century anymore. The clipped, sterile, contrived, and artificial “look” of the golf course is no longer the single model for well-regarded landscapes.

My design firm now designs such landscapes for both private residences and commercial and institutional clients. The monotonous uniformity, along with the high maintenance costs of conventional “Three T’s” landscaping (turf, tar, and trees---conventional mowed lawns with scattered trees with “nice” roads or streets), is slowly passing. Finally, Americans in all regions are beginning to recognize the beauty and utility of locally-native plants when used in creative designs.

Remember, there is not a single turf grass species native to North America. Mowed lawn is an imported artifact of European estates where expanses of turf where used to illustrate wealth.

I'm not against lawn. I've got quite a bit myself. And I'm not against “tar”---roads and such. We must have roads and parking lots. But if we are to live a more “green” life, it’s time we all begin to more creatively and intelligently use the plants native to our local regions, in design schemes that emulate and model local ecosystems. In my area, there were a few tallgrass prairie openings in the local Ohio forest. Consequently, I've planted both local prairie grasses and native forest trees, as shown in the photos.

For me---and now many others---this works. The model is no longer the golf course or European estate. It’s nature herself.

--John Blakeman

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