Holly Jones is creating her own butterfly effect. She’s not looking to stir up a typhoon on the other side of the world. But she may be altering bird migration patterns in Carmel, Indiana, not to mention the attitudes of once die-hard devotees of green-carpet lawns and precision landscaping.
And it’s all because she tore up her manicured suburban plot, dug a big hole in the front, piled her kitchen waste in the back and replaced the tidy cover of buzz-cut grass with food beds, saplings and native flora that many refer to as weeds. The result? A prolific fruit orchard and productive vegetable patches in her backyard and, in the front, a rain garden and a Wildlife Sanctuary certified by the Hamilton-County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD).
For as long as she can remember, Jones has been reclaiming grass yards and transforming diversity-starved spaces into personal-sized wildflower meadows and industrious food gardens. Jones, executive director of Indiana Urban Forests Council (IUFC), advocates for trees as a profession. And in her career, she’s championed the environment in numerous ways: as geologist, teacher, natural resources manager, sustainability consultant, environmental planner and water quality specialist, to name a few.
But wherever work has taken her, building a sustainable yard has been a constant, “nurturing body and spirit,” she says. For her and her daughter, Indigo, and for the minions of friends with whom she joyfully shares her bounty.
Even on a bleak mid-winter afternoon, Jones’ yard stands apart. The colorless landscape doesn’t do justice to the 150-some species of plants that grow here. But the tangle of tall grasses, brittle flower heads and dried seedpods are indicators of the life potential under the soil. A small sign declares the space’s habitat status to passersby.
Of microclimates and rain gardens
Jones carries out her duties as official wildlife steward — part of what she signed on for with Hamilton County’s SWCD — which include hosting individuals, friends, school classes and interest groups who want to learn more about building and maintaining a sustainable yard. A tour highlight is her own private microclimate, which permits the growth bordering her front porch to survive and even thrive in January.
“I have a 1960s house,” she says. “Even though I’ve done what I can to add to its efficiency, there’s a lot of heat loss.” The result is “a little strip of Tennessee right here in Indiana.” She catches herself, remarking that now that the U.S.D.A. has announced its new plant hardiness zones, “that might make it Louisiana.”
Sheltered from cold winds and warmed by seeping heat, bright green patches of arugula flourish, and thin, withered blades give away the location of shallots, onions and garlic. Hardy herbs hang tough, all conveniently positioned outside the kitchen door.
Another prize feature of Jones’ front yard is the rain garden. Planted around the dip are water-loving native flowers and grasses, while young trees, bushes and other plantings spoke outward. What her rain barrels don’t collect from her downspouts, the steep depression about 10 feet from the house captures, allowing the runoff to be absorbed into the ground, where it’s filtered and put back into the soil.
The rain garden keeps runoff from streaming along asphalt surfaces, picking up chemicals and pollutants before it pours into the streets and sewers. These contaminated waters cause flooding, sewage overflow and polluted rivers and streams. According to the Hamilton County SWCD, rain gardens can remove as much as 80 percent of the sediments from storm runoff, and can soak up 30 percent more water.
The plant whisperer
The backyard, which is not part of the wildlife habitat, is given over to growing food. In a shallow pile, kitchen scraps — with some help from the army of worms and warmth created by layers of mulch — are turning into nutrient-rich compost, which will feed her beds in the spring. Scattered plots are marked by metal bars Jones has recycled from broken bed frames and box springs. A couple of peach trees, bent from overabundant harvests of the past summer, bow low amid trellises and grape arbors.
Jones, who admits she’s averse to “neat and orderly,” tends a rambling space: there are no straight rows in her garden. “I lean toward the wild side in my personal tastes, anyway,” she says. Her gardening philosophy is equally unbridled. She talks of listening to her plants. “You have to pay attention — they’re giving us indicators of what they need.” She encourages a laissez-faire approach and the wisdom of letting expectations go. “It may be a bad year for apples. Let things be. When you garden, you have to let go and follow nature as your guide.”
And herein is the beginning of the circle of life that delights and astounds her. The captured rain water nourishes her soil. Which supports the native wildflowers and feeds the garden. Which attracts birds, bees and butterflies to the seeds, nectar and pollen. Which in turn helps spread the plant population.
Jones recalls the sudden influx of butterflies that followed her original planting. And hummingbirds — neighbors began calling her the hummingbird lady. Species of birds not seen in the neighborhood prior to the transformation of her yard are now returning year after year.
“It actually is changing migration patterns,” she says. “It amazes me that I could have such an impact.”
Changing one yard at a time
When she first began her yard makeover, Jones was concerned about the neighbors’ reaction. So she knocked on doors, distributed fliers and explained what she was doing. “With only one or two exceptions, my neighbors have been really positive.” She keeps up wtih the public relations efforts. She shares food, offers plant divisions and points out the communal benefits of rain gardens and wildlife spaces. (How about lower property fees because of less investment of storm water mitigation?)
“I think I’m doing important work,” Jones says. “I think we can effect change if we have these conversations. Slowly … yard by yard. There’s such a potential ecological cost benefit. If we even do just a little bit, it would add up to a huge change.”
Her crusade for sustainable yards is just one aspect of Jones’ advocacy for all things natural. As executive director of IUFC, she works to connect Indiana residents with their trees, pushes for legislative change, and endeavors to get grants and federal funds for groups pursuing tree-planting programs. “Trees need our help,” she says. “Trees are connectors between soil, water, and air — they’re a very sophisticated engineering mechanism. We’re not taking care of them. I’d love to see fruit and nut trees on public lands … imagine community orchards.”
She reflects on a well-known lawn-treatment company that sports a butterfly logo on its service trucks. “This is a creature who can taste with her feet and can detect one particular plant from 12 miles away. She is not landing on the treated lawn. That is a crazy icon. That doesn’t happen in nature.”
What does happen? The butterfly seeks out a generous environment. One hot, drought-plagued day last summer, Jones remembers how a light breeze brushed across her yard.
“My yard was moving with butterflies and hummingbirds and the plants. It’s a prairie. It’s full of life. It’s vibrant … It’s not grass.”
How to turn a boring lawn into a dynamic wildlife habitat
Do you have native plants and trees in your yard? Nectar-bearing flowers? Berry-producing trees and bushes? A brush pile? Chances are your yard may already meet the requirements of a certified wildlife habitat. A few organizations in Central Indiana offer backyard conservation and wildlife programs for homeowners.
Indiana Wildlife Federation: To qualify as a habitat recognized by IWF, says Barbara Simpson, executive director, a yard must include four resources for native wildlife: water (birdbath, rain garden), food (plant seeds, berries, nectar), shelter (evergreen trees, dense bushes), and a safe place to raise young (trees, birdhouses). Obtaining the official designation is easier than hanging a birdfeeder. Register online here. There’s a $20 fee, and within four to six weeks, you’ll receive a certificate and yard sign declaring your property a wildlife habitat. Call 317.875.9453 (WILD) for more information.
SustainIndy: Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard established this office as part of the city’s Department of Public Works in 2008. As part of its efforts to reduce storm water pollution and conserve water, SunstainIndy offers information and resources to encourage residents to plant rain gardens and install rain barrels. You can register free online. Certification and a sign for the yard will arrive in the mail.
Fall Creek Watershed Partnership: The Backyard Conservation Program provides technical and educational assistance to individual landowners as well as communities, companies, and schools in Hamilton, Hancock, Madison and Marion counties. This includes a site assessment and conservation plan, with recommendations on adding conservation components such as rain gardens, bio-swales, trees, and more. The FCWP also offers some financial assistance with cost-sharing programs. Visit their website, or call 317.773.2181.