Natural yards aren't for everyone

This is my love for nature," said Marty Kraft, who in the 1970s allowed the front and backyards surrounding his Kansas City home at 57th and Charlotte streets to return to a natural state. In natural yards, a profusion of native plants are allowed
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This is my love for nature," said Marty Kraft, who in the 1970s allowed the front and backyards surrounding his Kansas City home at 57th and Charlotte streets to return to a natural state. In natural yards, a profusion of native plants are allowed
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House & Home

They’re not tidy, but natural yards provide a boost to the ecosystem with native plants

By Roxie Hammill

Special to The Star

June 30, 2017 08:00 AM

Marty Kraft’s leafy property near Rockhurst University poses an invitation to passersby.

“Sense the changes in your body as you enter the Urban Wilderness. This is why nature should be preserved,” says a small card at the corner entryway. Farther on, a sign proclaims partnership with the Missouri Department of Conservation.

If you do go up that path, you’ll find no city or state park. It’s just a front yard. But it’s also one of the longest-running among Kansas City’s “natural yards.”

Perhaps you’ve seen others. These are yards with a profusion of native plants allowed to grow and spread as they would in nature. Maybe they have some traditional lawn, maybe they don’t. They are the kinds of yards that can — and do — get their owners in trouble with neighborhood homeowners associations and city codes enforcement.

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To some eyes, they look unkempt. But natural yards and native plantings are gaining a following among people concerned about the environment and willing to risk blowback from neighbors. They say the natural plantings conserve moisture, provide a habitat for this area’s birds and pollinators and take less work to maintain.

“Native plants work for us 24/7 if we choose to use them,” says Kathy Gates, president of the Kansas City Native Plant Initiative. That group is sponsoring a tour of one Crestwood home’s gardens. “Unfortunately we’ve gotten away from native plants and chosen things that have little value to nature.

“Turf has about as much value as asphalt to nature and to the ecosystem. But we need it if we’re going to play croquet or have a place to walk,” she adds.

Kansas City’s prairie plants, for instance, have root systems that can go as deep as 20 feet and take in eight inches of rainfall without runoff, she says. Native plants do about everything better than traditional lawns, from sequestering carbon to providing a home for butterflies and birds, say some of the people who have natural yards. And they don’t require much in the way of mowing or tending, except for clearing out some of the dead brush and flower heads.

Native plantings have been popular with cities at least since former Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes promoted rain gardens a decade ago. They’re favored by bigger facilities with large areas to cover, such as Sporting Kansas City. Gates says that based on anecdotal evidence, she believes they’re also becoming more popular with individual homeowners.

But natural yards aren’t universally loved. It’s not unusual, say people who have them, to get a complaint from a neighbor, with a follow-up visit by a city codes enforcement officer. Kraft has spent time explaining his yard to the city and even coaches others through the process. So has Donald Jonas, of Overland Park, who successfully defended his berms of native grass and shrubs a few years ago.

Both Jonas and Kraft say they make an effort to talk to their neighbors about the yards, and the neighborhoods have come to accept them. Kraft’s neighbors held the annual block party right in front of his house last year so kids could run through the trees and bushes, he says.

Natural yards take on about as many forms as there are people who plant them. Kraft likes the woodlands, and his yard reflects that. Jonas loves to see the grass seed heads waving in the wind. Jill DeWitt, whose Crestwood yard is on the tour, already had tall trees but wanted to make more space under them for birds and wildlife.

DeWitt developed her yard by gradually planting native species since 2000, when she moved in. Now she can look out over swaths of bluebells, prairie pussytoes, wild blue indigo, wild ginger and Solomon’s seal. She has kept enough grass to tie her lawn in with the neighborhood, she says. But she may put in some sedge, which is a type of native plant similar to grass that needs only minimal upkeep.

Because the change was gradual, DeWitt says, she hasn’t had to deal with unhappy neighbors. She and neighbors put the same woodland flowers in a nearby triangle median.

“There’s still people who prefer yards be all lawn,” she says. “It took a long time for us to adopt that trend, and it’s probably going to take the same amount of time to change to something that’s more respectful of the ecosystem and better for the climate.”

DeWitt’s is the only yard on the Native Plants Initiative tour this year. But hers isn’t the only wild yard story.

Kraft’s experiment with alternative gardening dates back to 1975, after the former high school biology teacher moved back into his parents’ home.

While mowing the traditional lawn, Kraft says, he began thinking about the thousands of insects he was chopping up.

“It seemed artificial — made up with no thought to the ecology or the earth. It was fashion,” he says.

He tried growing an edible landscape for a while. After that, he put in smaller trees and shrubs. “I’m a woodlands kind of guy,” he says. He still has the food garden, but it’s at another location, where he teaches sustainable gardening to others.

Kraft doesn’t own a lawnmower now. “It’s a whole lot less maintenance, but there is maintenance,” he says. He still has to clear sidewalks, and he can’t let trees get close to the foundation.

Roberta Vogel-Leutung has developed natural yards for 14 years, first in a small yard and then at her current home about two blocks away in midtown.

A desire to stop the erosion pattern washing dirt out of her yard started her down the natural garden path.

“I have an environmental science background, but I never thought about how it applied to my yard,” she says. Her revelation came one day as she stood in a checkout line and picked up a magazine called “Wild Garden.”

From there, she got busy. Her very small first yard was eventually covered in native plants, and the erosion stopped, she says. Developing the current yard has been harder because she has had to clear out a lot of invasive species, such as honeysuckle. It is now filled with 30 to 40 species of prairie perennials like wild geranium, coreopsis, wild hydrangea, Echinacea, garden phlox and bee balm.

Vogel-Leutung says she loves working from home on the porch, watching the butterflies and birds.

“More and more I’ve seen how important it is that we create these kinds of places in the smallest spaces,” she says. “It really helps the wildlife, in the city, to have places to be. They need lots of us to have these patches for them.”

Jonas didn’t start his natural yard with the background of a horticulturist intent on planting native species. He just wanted to enjoy the outdoors, he says. And he wanted his house not to flood.

Jonas’ house on Broadmoor Street in Overland Park sits on a slope that funnels water from the neighborhood into his front yard during heavy rains. The front part of his home had a water line three inches up from the flooding.

“Everything was about getting the house out of the water,” he says.

He knew about the water-retaining powers of native root systems. So besides bringing in soil to raise the house level, he added berms to create a low-lying area in front with a distinctive swath of tall grass.

A neighbor complained and Jonas got a notice from the city, but he was able to convince them that the yard is intentional and allowable.

It’s more than just a flood control measure, though. Jonas says he has always loved the outdoors and enjoys all the birds, insects, snakes and other wildlife that he sees. He especially likes the tall grass.

“When you see a big hand of wind wave through it, that’s it for me. I’m home,” he says. “It’s good for your karma — no, it’s good for your soul.”

Interested in going to a native landscape? Here are tips from people who have walked the walk.

Tips for going wild

▪ Start small: People with natural yards agree that it’s easier to get neighborhood acceptance when the transition is gradual. Put in an area of natives one year, then expand a little bit year by year. That way you also can learn more about how the plants will fare. Jill DeWitt advises beginners to start by planting around a tree.

▪ Have borders and edges: Boundaries create the sense that the yard is being managed, not overrun and out of control. Contours and berms are especially nice. A connecting pathway of grass also helps it feel like a yard, not a thicket.

▪ Keep it clean: Trash or litter will not help your case with city codes or homeowners associations. And if you are composting, it’s best to keep the more unsightly elements hidden from street view, Donald Jonas says.

Above all, gardeners say, make the yard look intentional. Jerry Anderson, who oversees codes enforcers in Overland Park, says as long as a yard has edges and a cultivated look, it probably will not be cited.

“If it looks like you’re trying to cultivate something I think we’d work with you,” he says.

Native Garden Tour

8 a.m. to 11 a.m. July 8, 525 E. 54th St., Kansas City; free admission.

Two programs: 9 a.m. — the garden from the perspective of an expert, Tom Schroeder, longtime member of KC Wildlands; 10 a.m. — the garden through the lens of entomologist Betsy Betros.

Native plants from Green Thumb Gardens will be available for purchase, and experts will be on hand to answer questions. More information at kcnpi.org/2017/06/01/gardentour.