Ann Arbor nonprofit works to restore native plants one home at a time

Adapt: Community Supported Ecology offers free consultations, micro-meadow installations, and custom-made native plant garden kits for residents who request their services. 
Daniela Garza knew the raised garden bed on her lawn was getting worse, but hadn’t had the time to fix it up. 

"It was very, very sad," she says. The Rochester Hills resident remembered a Facebook post she saw about an Ann Arbor nonprofit that could help. A free consultation over Zoom with Adapt: Community Supported Ecology dramatically changed how she viewed her yard. 

"I just became obsessed," she says. "I wanted to make a difference."

Garza, a self-described "hands-on learner," fixed up the garden bed herself with Adapt’s advice. Within a year, she became the garden coordinator for Adapt’s new Rochester Hills chapter. 

Adapt offers free consultations, micro-meadow installations, and custom-made native plant garden kits for residents who request their services. Since 2020, the organization has grown from its founding chapter in the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti area to 12 communities across Michigan, Illinois, and Pennsylvania. Co-founder William Kirst, who advised Garza on how to revitalize her yard, says he wants to create cultural change through education and restoration. 
Adapt: Community Supported Ecology co-founder William Kirst.
"What we are trying to do is get individuals more knowledgeable, more experienced, more involved right where they are," he says. 

Adapt Landscapes, the organization’s for-profit arm, designs and installs larger gardens for a fee. This service, along with donations through Patreon, supports Adapt’s free services. In 2023 so far, Adapt has installed 37 gardens and provided 20 kits across all 12 of its chapters.

"We're doing ecological restoration through native plant gardening," Kirst says. He has worked for the city of Ann Arbor’s Natural Area Preservation (NAP) unit and private landscaping companies, doing restoration and prescribed burns. 

Municipal projects like NAP focus on restoring public lands such as parks, preserves, and nature areas. However, private yards are a different story. 

What’s wrong with lawns? 

Garza grew up in Saltillo, Mexico, the capital of a "semi-desert" region where grass lawns were small and rare. When she first moved to the United States, she liked having the kind of pretty, lush lawn that is common in the suburbs.

"There's lots of benefits of one, and I don't blame people for having them," Kirst says. 

Lindsey Kerr, a consumer horticulture educator at the Michigan State University Extension, says homeowners can use different kinds of grass in their lawn that are better suited for a Michigan climate and local soil types. 
Adapt Landscapes planting a garden in Ann Arbor.
"It doesn’t have to be 100% Kentucky bluegrass," Kerr says, referring to the most common type of turf in Michigan. 

The Extension provides science- and research-backed information about gardening and agriculture to residents across Michigan. This includes outreach at local farmers markets and libraries, as well as services such as Ask an Expert

"One of our goals is to help homeowners use less input or use less energy, less chemicals, things like that in their home landscapes," Kerr says. 

Native plant gardening is one of many ways to do this, she says. Lawns can serve many purposes, such as a play area for children and pets or simply a blank space for the eyes to rest.
Adapt Landscapes planting a garden in Ann Arbor.
"But we've probably gone overboard," Kirst says. A 2005 paper estimates that turf grass is the U.S.’ most cultivated "crop," with golf courses, single-family homes, and commercial landscapes accounting for 1.9% of the continental U.S.’ surface. Kerr says lawns require more fossil fuels to maintain and can contribute to toxic runoff from fertilizers and pesticides.

"It's not a habitat for a lot of insects," she adds, referring to both pollinators and "the less charismatic ones," like beetles and grasshoppers, that birds rely on for food. Kirst is more blunt. 

"You’ve created an ecological dead zone where there was once a thriving ecosystem," he says. 

Rebuilding and reconnecting

Adapt’s solution is to replace residents’ lawns with native plants to recreate that ecosystem. Kirst emphasizes facilitating a deeper connection to the natural world. 

"Restoration isn't like a moment that happens," Kirst says. "It's developing an ongoing relationship with the land."

The point of native plant gardening is not aesthetics, but stewardship, he says. 

"We have worked so hard to convince ourselves that we are not part of the ecosystem," Kirst says.
Adapt Landscapes planting a garden in Ann Arbor.
Kerr is hopeful that more homeowners are learning that "the ground does not stop at their property line."

"I think as people become more aware of pollinators, they realize that our yards are all interconnected," she says.

Kerr, Garza, and Kirst caution that native plant gardening still requires work. 

"There’s no such thing as a low-maintenance garden," Garza says. Instead, caring for a native plant garden is just "a different maintenance." 

Kerr and Kirst say a big part of that maintenance is regularly removing invasive plants, which can crowd out native plants and disrupt the ecosystem homeowners are trying to rebuild. There are online resources for identifying invasive species, but these can be overwhelming for new gardeners. Adapt’s volunteers provide guidance to homeowners on which plants to keep and which to pull.

Making the leap

Kirst says one of the biggest challenges for homeowners can be taking those first steps towards native plant gardening. 

"If you start to look into native plans, you have this ‘holy shit’ moment where you're like, ‘There's too much information,’" he says. 

The physical labor involved can be daunting as well. Kirst says it’s not uncommon for homeowners to underestimate how much effort it takes to remove turf. Adapt volunteers must learn how to help homeowners manage their expectations for their yards and themselves.

Garza emphasizes "baby steps" when converting a lawn into a native plant garden. She has focused on adding one new native plant section to her yard per season. Kirst wants homeowners to work at "a pace that makes [them] feel good," rather than taking on too much and becoming discouraged. 
Kat Baskin, Rachel Lipson, and William Kirst of Adapt Landscapes planting a garden in Ann Arbor.
Kerr encourages homeowners to think in terms of the cost and effort of maintaining a lawn – the mowing, fertilizing, watering, and pesticide use that goes into keeping a bright green carpet. But she also wants residents to consider the bigger picture. 

"We as consumers can try to mitigate climate change by planting more native plants," she says. 

Native plants provide habitats for birds and insects whose populations have sharply declined. They do not require mowing or fertilizing. And on lakefront properties, native plants’ longer roots can help reduce erosion.

"We’ve been going in the wrong direction," Kirst says about climate change and conservation. "And we're going in the wrong direction because we're not engaging the most important of all the species that requires conservation, which is humans." 

He sees his work with Adapt as a way to combat climate change by building community, both human and ecological. 
Adapt Landscapes planting a garden in Ann Arbor.
"A lot of what we do is just empower people to make an actual difference right where they live," Kirst says. 

In 2022, Garza helped 12 friends and neighbors add native plant gardens to their yards as part of her work with Adapt. She enjoys seeing their gardens progress and says her neighbors do too. 

"They are excited to bring wildlife into their yards," she says. 

Garza wants other homeowners to remember that plants are "the way to keep our planet going." Kirst hopes Adapt can inspire people in the communities it serves to take action. 

"Be the future you wish to see," Kirst says. "There's no reason to wait for something to happen. Just make it happen right now."

Elinor Epperson is a freelance journalist based in Ypsilanti. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in journalism at Michigan State University, focusing on environmental, health, and science reporting.  

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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