Wild Ones   A Conversation with Sara Stein  
With Cindy Crosby

In this conversation, Sara Stein shares with Journal readers some of her gardening philosophy, a few tips for native landscapers, and some encouragement for the Wild Ones organization.

Sara Stein photo.Wild Ones: You write in Noah’s Garden that you came into gardening “backward, from the wild verges instead of through the garden gate.”

Sara Stein: I started out as a traditional gardener, knowing nothing about gardening. My husband and I were young and vigorous, and we transformed our land from weedy to lovely lawns and bedding. We very quickly noticed that we lost the birds, butterflies, and wildlife we used to have when our yard was a mess! So, we started transforming our now-neat, cultivated place back to the wild.

WO: By “wild,” do you mean you let it go back to how it was when you originally purchased it?

Sara: No. When we first bought the place, it had lots of invasive aliens, such as bittersweet and multiflora roses. It was not a nice native place; actually, it was not native at all. It was overgrown and weedy. Transforming it was quite a job.

WO: What do your neighbors think of the change?

Sara: Well, they haven’t complained, but they haven’t taken to it, either. They haven’t been influenced by my yard. Every year when we burn, we invite our neighbors over and nobody comes. I think it is because my five or six acres are back from the road, and most of my neighbors have large acreages. People don’t know each other well here.

WO: Would it be different on a smaller lot?

Sara: On a small property, next to a road, your neighbors can see your flowers and butterflies, and you can have a lot more influence. I have a little place in Maine, on a dead end street, on a saltwater tidal inlet. The whole town can see it from across the water, and many people walk down the little road for the view. So it’s more influential.

WO: What kind of landscaping are you attempting there?

Sara: They’ve put in nine ugly pump stations smack on the road. Everyone was upset when they went up. I’m doing the landscaping for them – all native plants and grasses.

WO: What’s happening on your own property these days?

Sara: Neglect. We burn. Other than that, we try to keep track of invasives like buckthorn and bittersweet. We monitor them. We also keep the paths cleaned up through the wetland, and take down dead branches and pile them up. Someone comes in and helps us now. We’ve been here 25 years, long enough to watch the landscape develop. It changes on its own. You plan the planting, and the plants do what they want.

WO: It’s been a little more than a decade since you wrote Noah’s Garden. What changes have you seen in attitudes toward native landscaping?

Sara: Most of the changes are incremental. There are more articles about it, more interest in native landscaping, and more native plants for sale in nurseries. When I speak, the audiences are larger and more varied.

WO: Such as?

Sara: I did a keynote talk, “Home Ground Ecology 101,” for several thousand members of the Ecological Society of America. Ecologists are usually interested in what is already in the landscape, rather than thinking in terms of what could be planted. The idea of making an ecosystem is new to them.

WO: Some of the attention you have received has been negative. Wasn’t your criticism, in Noah’s Garden, of writer Michael Pollan’s planting of a Norway maple followed by him criticizing your gardening philosophy and the “natural garden movement” in the New York Times?

Sara: (laughs) He called me a “Plant Fascist.” Now my husband introduces me as “The Plant Fascist.”

WO: What are people’s attitudes toward native landscaping in the East?

Sara: There is far less interest here than in the Midwest. There’s still so much woodland here, still so much uncrowded space, that people think it’s OK the way it is. And in the new developments no one does any gardening at all, not even flower beds. Maybe one ornamental oval. They have a landscape service. They aren’t interested in nature, and their children don’t play in the yards. There is a general anxiety among parents about things that happen outdoors – they worry about kidnappers or ticks. And, if they only have a lawn, there’s really no place for them to play.

WO: If you were to offer one bit of wisdom to those attempting native landscaping for the first time, what would you say?

Sara: Very simple. Everyone has an ugly, over-trimmed hedge or foundation planting. Substitute it with something fruitful, and you’ll have birds right away. For example, my niece, who has children, put in a raspberry hedgerow. Her kids think this is the most wild and fantastic thing – to pick fruit and eat it! Or you can plant a small-fruited crab apple tree. It will attract a whole flock of robins, or maybe some bluebirds. Do anything that gives you a quick, cheap return on your money.

WO: What else?

Sara: Put in a little water spot. In Maine, I made a quarry pool. The frogs came the minute the water was turned on. Even in just a little pool, children will see things right away – frogs, dragonflies.

WO: Those are simple ideas.

Sara: You can’t ask people to do a whole yard. Most of them don’t have enough labor or money. But you can do one good deed for your yard, and make a dramatic difference.

WO: This makes native landscaping seem approachable.

Sara: If you ask people to go native all at once – to change everything – it’s terribly difficult for them. But you can ask them to think about planting a tree, and to choose that tree wisely. Maybe plant an oak tree with acorns. The money they spend is the same.

WO: Do you think native landscape aficionados can become too demanding?

Sara: The idea can become too “precious,” too “cultish.” Native landscaping should be easy. Everyone can be encouraged to do one little thing.

WO: What is the biggest challenge facing our country in the area of biodiversity?

Sara: There aren’t enough resources, and we have too many people. And here I am with four kids and six grandkids! But there are too many people. There’s no easy solution to that.

WO: Are there things the Wild Ones can do as an organization to better promote native landscaping?

Sara: The more visible your projects, the more you will get people to come and see. Write about biodiversity. When ornamental grasses became popular in gardening, the fad began with magazine articles. Everyone had ornamental grasses for sale. People look at gardening magazines. Go for every kind of publicity you can get.

WO: What encouragement would you offer the Wild Ones?

Sara: Of any group around, you have done the most serious work. Keep at it, even though it’s an uphill job.

Wild Ones thanks Sara for her inspiration, which continues to push us “uphill”!

Interviewer Cindy Crosby writes about the tall-grass prairies of Illinois in By Willoway Brook: Exploring the Landscape of Prayer (Paracletes Press, 2003), and is a member of the DuPage Wild Ones Chapter.

For a listing of Sara Steins’s books:
Click here.

Return to Sara Stein page.

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Updated: Oct 19, 2006.