Wild Ones   Green Gables: An American Landscape Designed With Nature in Mind, Part 2  
By Richard J. Ehrenberg

Green Gables 1993

When the Ehrenbergs bought this property in 1993, Richard, a landscape architect, was able to look past the lawn, lawn, and more lawn, and recognize the potential. Although it looked nothing like the storied “Green Gables,” that was what he named it. Click here for large view.

The last issue of the Wild Ones Journal published an “introduction“ to my naturally landscaped residential yard in Whitewater, Wisconsin. Fourteen years have passed since the inception of a dream to make Green Gables a reality by converting a traditional landscape of lawn and foundation plantings into an environment of native plants and wildlife, i.e, an American landscape. The dream became a reality as the result of planning, which is the focus of this article. The planning and design factors I will talk about may help you in planning your dream. In future articles there will be more detail about various aspects.

Planning for a natural landscape is different from planning a garden or creating flower gardens in one’s lawn. Lawnscapes are fairly simple to plan. Plop down a tree or shrub here and there, locate a flower bed or two, grow a hedge around the property, crowd plants next to the house, and mow the rest. If the plants do not fit well together, simply limit their growth by pruning or shearing. Natural landscaping, on the other hand, is the creation of an environment which looks like, feels like, evolves like, and smells like nature. It may or may not be showy, but it will be alive with the seasonal changes of the climatic region and the activity of its wild creatures.

The first and most important step in planning is deciding what plant communities are best for the site, and will provide the aesthetics one wants. By “aesthetics” I am referring to selection of the view one wants to plan for: open sunny views of a prairie environment, versus a shaded canopy of a forest, versus a blend of forest edges with open views, or dappled sunlight through a scattered canopy of vegetation.

The second step involves determining what human activities to plan for, and how best to incorporate them with a minimal impact on the natural landscape.

The third step in planning is deciding how to link the human activities and provide access to and through the yard, since extensive lawn areas may not be available to walk on.

Planning Step No. 1 One major reason for purchasing the .80-acre lot by Trippe Lake was to be able to design my own naturally landscaped yard. The yard on first sighting consisted of a lawn edged on both sides by straight rows of spruce trees and lilac shrubs. Four trees provided shade by the lake shore. The house and separate garage were bathed in sunshine. Nothing in the yard stood to limit potential planting plans.

Green Gables is located in a large swale between two glacial drumlins, close to lake water level. The resulting rain run off from the higher topography provides above-average moisture. However, the sandy loam soil assures no standing water shortly after, even heavy rainfalls. Only near the lake’s edge does one find moist soil. I quickly decided the north, shady front of the house would be a deciduous forest in order to provide the aesthetic of a vegetative screen between the house and the city street and to avoid shading the more secluded south end of the yard. The overlapping shade from the front-yard forest would shade the on-street parking spaces – an added benefit. No evergreens would be included since the only two which are native to southeastern Wisconsin, would quickly be shaded out by the faster-growing deciduous trees.

The back yard, looking south from the house, would become a prairie-plant community of species adapted to well-drained, fertile soil. A forest environment suited to moist soil conditions would be restored near the lake shore in order to provide the aesthetic of privacy and shade. Moisture-loving wildflowers would provide the necessary ground cover.

Planning Step No. 2 At this point one needs to evaluate one’s life style: what activities do you want to provide for the enjoyment of yourself and your family? If playing football or baseball with your children is important, you may want to find the nearest park for such activity, or settle at this point for lots of lawn.

My neighbors’ four grandchildren played all kinds of games in their lawnscape, but were often in my yard running down the paths as well, presumably enjoying nature, or the simple pleasure of running through unfamiliar terrain.

Viewing and otherwise experiencing nature is the number one human activity in my yard. This occurs each day when one might stroll the paths for relaxation, checking to see what the weather is like. It happens when one walks to the garage, to the lake, or to the car. Nine additional activities were included in the plan for Green Gables.

The next five of these activities are nature related. An area for visiting with family and friends, or times for solitude, would be located by the lake within the shaded tree canopy. Cookouts, with the warmth of a campfire, the breezes off the lake, bright stars at night, were all anticipated experiences by the lake. A bird-feeding station needed to be located near the house and beside a path for easy accessibility. Bird houses and bat houses would be scattered in the yard as needed. A patch of native wild black raspberries would be planted along the lake path. Easy access for picking makes these delicious July delicacies available while on a stroll to the lake. A bench for spontaneous relaxation, contemplation, or for inhaling the beauty and smells of nature was located along a path near the house. The final nature-related activity included a fishing and boat-docking pier at the end of the lakeside path.

Of the remaining four activities for which I planned, the childhood experience of swinging on a rope-supported wooden swing had to be included. A section of pathway would do double duty as the runway, thereby not requiring any land to be taken away from nature. An area, 30 feet x 50 feet, on one side yard was set aside for games of croquet, badminton, a movable tennis table, and for throwing tennis balls for our dog. The detached garage has to be provided for as an active destination for parking the car, for going to the workshop, and for storage of gardening tools and supplies: two paths provide access. Finally, a vegetable/flower garden and orchard of dwarf apple trees were combined in one location, near the garage for easy access to tools.

Green Gables 2007

After 14 years, Green Gables bears only a passing resemblance to its former self. A young woodland blocks the view of the house from the street, and paths meander through a prairie planting in the back yard. Click here for large view.

Planning Step No. 3 A path system to connect all activities and to minimize impact on the plant communities was an absolute necessity. The design ties the whole landscape together, and determines how one views the yard as you move through it, defining to some degree the “feel” of the site.

Natural landscaping, if it is to function well, plans for nature and for people. There should be room for us to enjoy our yards and room for nature/wildlife to coexist. We need to live side by side. For too long Americans have excluded nature, and destroyed habitats in order to plan only for their own needs and wants. Homeowners, especially those who have retired, often come to realize that nature in their yards adds to the human experience. Properties become more interesting and rewarding places when nature is preserved and included.

For many years Green Gables has enjoyed the company of a resident groundhog. During two summers there were youngsters romping around the yard, running to their in-ground nesting sites whenever they saw a human approaching. Nature provided all the green vegetation they needed to survive. The large burrow in the ground, surrounded by a mound of dirt, was well camouflaged by prairie plants, thereby not offending anyone’s aesthetic sensibilities.

Planning for natural landscaping provides habitat for wildlife, and allows the beauty of nature to be part of our yards and our lives. We create a “habitat” for ourselves.

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Richard J. Ehernberg, of the Madison (WI) Chapter, is a landscape architect.


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