Urban wilderness: Creating a native habitat in town

Who needs a manicured lawn when you can establish an environmentally beneficial plant ecosystem in your yard? Photo: Devin Floyd Who needs a manicured lawn when you can establish an environmentally beneficial plant ecosystem in your yard? Photo: Devin Floyd

When Devin Floyd and his team at the Center for Urban Habitats design gardens, they don’t just think about which plants will bloom in which season. Their approach is far more complex, encompassing the request that client David Wimberley made when he first hired them in 2014. “He came to us because he wanted to maximize the natural potential of his property to support wildlife,” Floyd says.

Supporting wildlife means supporting a whole food web, which starts with native plants, in particular species that form plant communities. Those communities, in turn, must be suited to the conditions where they’re planted—sun exposure, drainage, soil types. It goes, literally, as deep as the bedrock.

“The basic Piedmont Prairie occurs on greenstone bedrock,” says Floyd. “It’s really rich.”

In re-establishing a prairie plant community on Wimberley’s Park Street neighborhood property, CUH worked from lists of the indicator species for that ecosystem:  “Little bluestem, early goldenrod, butterfly milkweed, narrowleaf mountain mint, Indian grass, big bluestem, and more,” Floyd says. “It’s a really diverse assemblage—at least 100 species growing with those others.”

Beginning the project with a survey of the niche habitats on Wimberley’s land, CUH realized that it was looking at a wide variety, from upland forest (in the front yard, under a huge white ash tree) to prairie to wetlands.. Wimberley envisioned most of his half-acre being devoted to native gardens, which would absorb any stormwater. Characteristically, CUH did not take a conventional approach to this problem.

“You can handle a lot of stormwater if you dig a deep hole and fill it with rocks,” says Floyd. Instead, the team performed some shallow grading to create low spots where water could be absorbed by plants well-suited to that task: several different sedges, white turtlehead, cardinal flower, golden ragwort, swamp rose, winterberry, and wild indigo shrub.

Heavy rain overwhelmed the initial designs and plantings, with water draining into a pond on a neighboring property. “It’s a continuous landscape; there’s no hedge or fence,” says Floyd. “We got a contract to do plant-community restoration on that property as well. It’s a fairly big pond and it’s been there at least 150 years. Prior to that it was probably an upland swamp.” When he and his team found species lurking from that old community, they shepherded them. 

Establishing a robust ecosystem in an urban setting requires more than 100 plant species—Carolina rose is a good choice for the mix. Photo: Devin Floyd

Five years into the project, the landscape hums with life and color. “Diversity in flora translates directly to diversity in insects,” says Floyd. “The sheer numbers of species of beetles, flies, bees, and butterflies is really high, and on the back of that come the predators—assassin bugs, jumping spiders. It trickles up very quickly. There’s bird, amphibian, and reptile diversity.” Wimberley has even photographed red foxes through his living-room windows.

“It is a much more subtle landscape than a traditional professionally landscaped yard,” Wimberley says. “It helps to have a real interest in the specific plants, the plant communities, the plant and animal interactions.”

Along the front of the property, the challenge is different: to plant a native garden that won’t rile the neighbors or earn Wimberley a citation under the city’s weed ordinance. Floyd and Wimberley have worked with city officials more than once to get penalties waived. “There are some hurdles to overcome,” Floyd says. “Insofar as truly supporting wildlife, it has to become easier for people to do. The definition of ‘weed’ within city code is a problem.”

“The idea that we can coexist with wildlife even in urban spaces is very plausible, and it can happen very quickly,” Floyd adds. “It just comes down to making room for nonhumans in an intentional way.”