Front-yard garden

A recent trend, wilding or “rewilding” attempts to turn back the clock. It returns tamed spaces to earlier times when native plants thrived in sunny meadows, dark forests and along meandering riverbanks and shady streams. With this biodiversity of plant life, insects, birds and mammals flourished. It’s a far cry from modern times when lists of rare and endangered plant and animal species continue to grow longer.

As a home gardener, rewilding my urban property comes with a bit of extra pressure. While I still want to create a beautiful space, my garden now needs to help our planet to heal. That’s okay with me. At times, gardening sometimes calls for new directions. These days, as we battle climate change and a global pandemic, it’s probably time for a reboot.

Having gardened for over 30 years, my focus is changing. I’m no longer keen to create dramatic ornamental flowerbeds, buy exotic plants or have a perfectly manicured lawn. I’m no longer in a battle to conquer weeds. A few years ago, I gave away my whipper snipper. The lawn mower barely gets used. Instead, slowly and gradually, I’m learning new ways to garden that are outside the box and, quite frankly, sometimes a little outside my comfort level, too.

Some days, admittedly, unanswered questions remain. For instance, how far back in time should rewilding go? Before my 1960-something suburban house was constructed, this landscape was a farm. Cows wandered the fields and seasonal crops grew. Before that, it was the original, unceded territory of the Algonquin people – eastern woodland hunters who fished, hunted deer and moose and collected edible plants. Long ago, giant beavers and mastodons reportedly roamed this land.

Gardening gloves on, I’ve decided that simple is good. Gardening on the wild side can be done with careful thought and planning, along with a mixture of native and non-native plants best suited to my sun, soil and water conditions. My long-term plan is to create healthy soil, conserve rainwater and attract more bird, butterfly, native bee and pollinator species.

The author’s front pollinator garden.

Knepp Castle Estates, West Sussex, England

The History of Rewilding

In her thoughtful book Wilding, author Isabella Tree explains that the word “rewilding” was first coined in the 1980s. However, it was made popular a decade later by conservationists who emphasized the importance of large-scale projects that linked hotspots of biodiversity in nature. Ecological cores and corridors were returned to nature in order to connect them. One of the most ambitious rewilding projects in North America is a wildlife corridor encompassing over 502,000 square miles that links the Yukon to Yellowstone National Park.

In parts of Europe – Portugal, Poland, northern Greece, central Spain, north Finland, the Balkans and other countries – some agricultural areas are also being rewilded. It happens sometimes when farmland, especially marginal land, is abandoned because of insolvency, civil unrest, war or other causes.

Tree writes from personal experience. At her home, Knepp Castle Estate in West Sussex, England – a 1,400-hectare family estate owned with her husband, Charlie Burrell – the couple has brought the land back to nature after years of traditional agriculture using pesticides and heavy machinery. It was a carefully planned evolution that lasted nearly two decades and was often contentious among locals.

Species on the edge of extinction, including birds such as the nightingale and turtle dove, rare butterflies, insects and mammals, are steadily increasing in numbers on their property. Suddenly, Knepp has become a biodiversity hotspot. It is attracting the widespread interest of conservationists, environmentalists and the public.

Knepp Castle Estates, West Sussex, England

Wild garden.

Rewilding in Sunny Spaces

Urban rewilding is more recent. Most home gardeners do not have large parcels of land. We might have a front and back yard, or maybe a patio or balcony garden. However, given the long-established tradition of growing grass that covers vast tracts of lawn space across North American, rewilding can make a difference. Meadowscaping – so-called because it reshapes lawn into an urban meadow – offers a workable alternative in any sunny space.

Just as bees work together to create a hive, meadowscaping within a community will create cores and corridors of wild flowers, native trees, shrubs and grasses. These areas go a long way to protect and preserve native songbirds, pollinators and other species. If removing an entire lawn seems overly ambitious, then removing even just a patch will create a wild space and is a garden project that any weekend warrior can accomplish.

Bumblebee on golden-colored coreopsis

When I used a no-dig technique to remove the turf on my own front lawn a few summers ago, covering the sod with layers of newspaper, topsoil and mulch, it wasn’t long before plant life started to fill in those empty spaces. By the end of summer, bright wildflowers bloomed in profusion, tall grasses blew gracefully in the wind, and tough groundcovers started to spread.

Native bees – bumblebees, leafcutter bees, non-stinging mason bees and small halictid bees – soon found a new home here. By the next summer, I saw monarch butterflies, skippers and painted lady butterflies. As birdsong grew louder by the day, I watched as small songbirds swooped down to catch flying insects in these new spaces.

A bumblebee on coreopsis.

Left: Black currants growing on the shrub. Right. Orange-colored dried crabapples.

Rewilding in Shade

My shady backyard with an old crabapple tree, tall spruce and eastern cedar hedges seemed an ideal space for forestscaping, a rewilding project that mixes tall evergreen and deciduous trees with shrubs, tough perennials and hardy groundcovers to replicate a forest. I applied leaf mulch and compost to the soil to enhance it. I planted edible fruit and berry bushes to create a miniature food forest, invariably shared with birds.

It may take years to get it right. In my yard, black and red currants now grow in abundance with chokecherries, gooseberries and serviceberries. Birds enjoy the pagoda dogwood. Elderberry, ninebark and a dwarf willow attract pollinators. On the ground, wild ginger and trilliums grow. Woodland strawberries and, indeed, even a few stray dandelions grow beneath this shade canopy.

Left: Black currants provide tasty backyard treats for birds.
Right: Robins, cedar waxwings, cardinals and other birds eat dried crabapples.

Left. Yellow milkweed blooms. Right. Purple coneflower blooms.

Rewilding Near Water

Rewilding helps protect the land and nearby natural waterways, too. In urban landscapes, polluted runoff that would otherwise be diverted into storm sewers can be absorbed instead by plant roots.

Taller plants play a valuable role. Turf grass has short roots and therefore is less effective at diverting rainwater than plants, shrubs and trees with longer, more complex root structures. Using rain barrels, creating dry creek beds, redirecting downspouts to gardens and planting a rain garden also help to prevent water pollution.

Left. Yellow milkweed blooms. Right. Purple coneflower blooms.

Front-yard garden

A Lasting Lesson

One lesson came unexpectedly. At the end of the day, I realized that it’s almost impossible to get rewilding right. Ultimately, we can’t return to the past. But for nature and for the human spirit, rewilding is a healing process. It teaches us that we can make a difference, even in a small space. Taking off my gardening gloves and washing my hands yet again during these days of self-isolation, I enjoy a good lather of soap and a strong feeling of hope.

Julianne Labreche

Julianne Labreche is a freelance writer and garden enthusiast who volunteers as a Master Gardener in Ottawa-Carleton.

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