'Going native' could make Kalamazoo a Homegrown National Park

Gradually the perfect grass lawn is being scorned rather than desired. There’s increasing awareness that such lawns use inordinate amounts of water and harmful fertilizers, insecticides, and pesticides; they are not home to pollinators like bees, moths, and butterflies; and they restrict what could be a beneficially diverse environment. 

Many ecological scientists are saying it’s now critical that we replace much of that grass with native plants.

Among these scientists is Douglas W. Tallamy, a professor of entomology at the University of Delaware. His book, “Nature’s Best Hope,” was published four years ago; it has been a bestseller and is very popular among people concerned about the world’s fate. In it, Tallamy contends that replacing half of the lawn grass in the United States with native plants and trees would greatly improve the earth’s ability to sustain people and wildlife.

“What if each American landowner made it a goal to convert half of his or her own lawn to productive native-plant communities?” he writes. “Even moderate success could collectively restore some semblance of ecosystem function to more than 20 million acres of what is now an ecological wasteland. How big is 20 million acres? It’s bigger than the combined areas of the Everglades, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Teton, Canyonlands, Mount Ranier, North Cascades, Badlands, Olympic, Sequoia, Grand Canyon, Denali, and the Great Smoky Mountains national parks. 

"If we restore the ecosystem function of these 20 million acres, we can create this country’s largest park system. It gives me the shivers just to write about it. Because so much of this park will be created at our homes, I suggest we call it Homegrown National Park.”  

Donna Perry Keller holds a copy of “Nature’s Best Hope.”An evangelist for Tallamy’s proposal is Kalamazoo resident Donna Perry Keller, a retired middle-school teacher who is president of the Audubon Society of Kalamazoo. She already was slowly converting her home lot of almost an acre to native plants when she came across Tallamy's writing. 

Her first reaction was, “I have to make sure other people read this book.” She organized a discussion meeting in her Winchell neighborhood; it was held in February 2022 and about 40 people attended. From that meeting came the creation of Winchell Native Plant Enthusiasts, a Facebook group that now has 101 members.

“I’ve said I don’t know how many times in this process that when people know better they do better. That’s why a book like the Tallamy book is so impactful,” Keller says. “Once people read it and understand the impact that they can have — this idea of Homegrown National Park. It was such a moment for me like, ‘Oh, that makes so much sense, of course.’ I think it resonates with people.”

Keller says her mother’s house has two garden beds. “She has one that’s always been beautiful, lots of blossoms but not native. She has another bed that we gave her for Mother’s Day. We went out and bought a bunch of native plants and planted them. My husband said yesterday looking at the native bed versus the non-native bed, ‘Just look at how many pollinators are in the native bed.’ We might have seen one in the other bed and in this one there probably were 40, and it’s not a big bed. It just is astonishing!”

BEFORE: This is what a portion of Mike Weis’s home lawn looked like in October 2020.One speaker at Keller’s book discussion meeting was Mike Weis, 52, of Kalamazoo. He had just started a business offering consultation about biodiverse lawns and gardens and also doing installation of them. “It was sheer great luck that the meeting happened at that point because I got a ton of business from that and mostly from people who really are concerned about the lack of biodiversity and habitat and no space for pollinators. They don’t want their yard to be part of the problem,” Weis says.

Because of his wife’s move due to a new job, Weis was a newcomer to Kalamazoo in 2021 when he founded Dropseed Native Gardens and Ecological Restoration. Weis came from Chicago where his job was photographing billboards to prove to customers that their latest advertisements were up. However, he had been interested in ecology and native plants since 2005 and in Kalamazoo, he found part-time work with a native-plant nursery. The owner mentioned increasing requests from customers for help in starting their home plantings, so Weis decided to try it.

AFTER: This is the same view in July 2023. Not visible at the top of the slope is some grass lawn.“It has snowballed, just word of mouth. I thought I’d be fishing for work,” Weis says. “I didn’t know how much demand there would be but it’s very high demand and I think I’m completely booked through next summer.”

The Kalamazoo area has many parks and nature preserves and home yards can be connecting corridors between them. Weis says, “So you start adding native yards to those barren spots in between, which were mostly just lawns and nonnative shrubs, kind of dead zones for wildlife. By adding yards in between those larger preserves you’re creating a thoroughfare for wildlife, birds, and pollinators. So this is a lot more substantial than I thought it was when I first began. This could really make an impact.”

Quyen Edwards with the native-seed library at the Portage District Library.Portage resident Quyen Edwards’ enthusiasm extends to raising caterpillars in her garage from butterfly and moth eggs. Her yard has many host plants, which are what pollinators need for their life cycle.

“We use the monarch as an example because it is iconic. Monarchs need milkweed in order to complete their life cycle,” Edwards says. “But you could take any of the thousands of species and insert a different name of a butterfly and a different plant and that’s true also. It’s concerning because if people don’t realize that that’s the case and plant those plants and feel OK about insects using the plants in their yard as food, we’re in trouble.”

Edwards is assistant to the director of the Portage District Library, where she has worked for 14 years. The recent enlargement and remodeling of the library has included using native plants for all landscaping. There even is a seed library where patrons can get free seeds.

The Kalamazoo Area Chapter of Wild Ones held a plant exchange in September. “Not all of the seed libraries across the state contain native seeds so I am very proud of the fact that our seed library is making native-plant seeds accessible to our community,” Edwards says. “I know the origin of all the plants in the library’s Monarch Waystation and my own yard so I am confident that what I am sharing is Michigan genotype. . . . My goal is to have this year's native seeds collected, cleaned, and in the seed library starting the first week of December.”

Edwards confirms that native plantings are increasing. “Every year I hear more people talk about it, express more interest in it, support the things we’re doing here at the library,” she says. “I have plantings and signs in my front yard and people are interested in talking.”

Chad Hughson, owner of Hidden Savanna Nursery, holds an aster.The native plants nursery where Mike Weis worked part-time is Hidden Savanna Nursery, located west of Kalamazoo at 18 N. Vankal St. Owner Chad Hughson, 50, says it became a full-time business in 2008 with an emphasis on wholesale customers like landscapers, conservation districts, nature centers, and zoos. “Wholesale has kept going but retail has definitely increased more than wholesale,” Hughson says. He figures that currently, 65 to 70 percent of his sales are retail.

“We have grown every single year since we started,” he says. “In the last four or five years we’ve seen a lot more younger customers. In a way, I feel like we’re accomplishing more for the environment, by getting all these people to start changing their yards. It may be just a tiny piece of land but that starts adding up.”

“Going native” isn’t limited to homes and buildings like the Portage library; it can involve a neighborhood — Kalamazoo’s Vine neighborhood, for example. A few years ago aging trees, mostly maples, were being removed by the city but not replaced. Starting in the fall of 2021, two Vine residents, Mitch Lettow and Joe Byars, took action.

Joe Byars (left) and Mitch Lettow at a corner of Vine and Oak streets in Kalamazoo.Byars says, “Both of our yards had been turned into pollinator gardens so it was a natural progression. Mitch actually did work on a corner of Vine and Oak streets before we met and then we ended up doing all four corners as a group. We decided we were going to plant all native trees plus doing pollinator gardens.” The two men plus two other residents are the core work group and they are joined by friends and neighbors for tasks like planting and weeding.

Lettow is the stewardship director for Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy, but his work in the neighborhood has no connection with that organization. Byars is a registered nurse. Financing for the Vine project comes from the nonprofit Building Blocks of Kalamazoo, which describes itself this way: “Building Blocks of Kalamazoo empowers residents, one block at a time, to enhance the quality of neighborhood life.”
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