Tracy Evans admitted that her front yard, with clumps of big bluestem prairie grass topping out about seven feet and an array of other native plants like milkweed and coneflower, is “the reversal of curb appeal.”
And she allowed that sometimes its untidiness might get some passers-by thinking that it is a yard full of weeds.
There is a personal enjoyment, yes, but more importantly, a purpose, even an urgency, she contended.
“This is what we did to bring nature to us, that we couldn’t find elsewhere,” Evans said about the Mechanicsburg home she shares with her husband, Andrezej Bartke, the director of geriatric research at the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine. “I’m an outlier, but I want to bring more people with me, back to nature.”
Since 2003, Evans’ home has been part of a Department of Natural Resources program called Illinois Acres for Wildlife, which is for small landowners. Under the agreement, the couple planted trees, shrubs and flowers, many native to Illinois.
The one-acre plot includes several American chestnut trees, which are listed as endangered after a blight wiped out between 3 and 4 billion of the trees in the first half of the 20th century. The trees were prolific from the Upper Midwest down South to the Appalachian Mountains, she said.
Big bluestem, or turkeyfoot, is a grass that once covered much of the Great Plains, Evans added.
The couple also purchased in 2011 a 226-acre farm about three miles west of their home. About 80 acres are maintained as prairie, Evans said, and an agreement with the federal government says none of the land can be developed in perpetuity.
Now Evans, who has a research associate appointment at the Illinois State Museum Research and Collections Center after retiring as a biologist from Natural Resources, is encouraging others to get involved in planting native species, no matter if they are in the city or in rural areas and no matter the size of the plot.
The main thrust is stabilizing pollinators and insects that feed birds, Evans said. Pollinators are more than just bees and butterflies and can include wasps, flies, mosquitoes, beetles and ants, she said.
The native plants, which can also include black-eyed Susans and smooth aster, give pollinators a source of nectar and increase the trees that bloom, Evans said.
“We’ve taken away from (the pollinators’) habitats,” Evans maintained, “through agriculture, lawn care (practices) and housing developments. Without pollinators, we don’t have food, period.”
Evans said maintaining the area at their home requires work. Native invasive species like poison ivy, grapevine and honeysuckle can be “a pain,” she admitted.
Every February, the plot is mowed so it can start fresh again.
The benefits have been plentiful. The area has attracted mink, groundhogs and skunks, all caught by a trail camera. This past spring, a deer gave birth to triplets in the yard, a rare occurrence, she said.
“I’ll admit this is messy, but it’s really glorious to see it in full bloom,” Evans said. “We look down on this mass of yellow (from black-eyed Susans, goldenrod and sunflowers).”
The Acres for Wildlife program is a voluntary program that commits landowners “to protect and improve habitat on their land as they are able,” according to the DNR website. Landowners retain property control and have access to DNR biologists for resource assessments and management plans.
The program is funded through the sale of habitat stamps that hunters and trappers are required to purchase, said Mike Wefer, Wildlife Field Operations Section Head for DNR.
“This is a handshake agreement between the department and landowners, that they’ll tend to maintaining recreational (land),” Wefer said.
Some of the plots that are part of the program, he said, are on land that has been purchased for hunting or fishing and then set aside by the owners. Some farmers are also part of Acres for Wildlife, Wefer added.
Depending on what’s planted, the grounds “can be very attractive,” Wefer said, though he’s also heard of municipalities and other jurisdictions coming down on landowners over weed ordinances.
Those interested, Evans said, can get native plants and plugs through sales from the Illinois Native Plant Society and Lincoln Memorial Garden.
Evans added that people don’t have to plant on the same scale they do, but every little bit provides an alternative.
“What I hope out of this,” she said, “is for people to show tolerance. You don’t have to do this, but if your neighbor chooses to do it, don’t harass them. We try hard to prevent from offending people. We know people are offended by weeds, but they’re not weeds.
“If you join your corner to (someone else’s) corner with native plants, you’ll be able to create more life for creatures who share the planet with us.”
Contact Steven Spearie: 788-1524, [email protected], twitter.com/stevenspearie.
For more information about the Acres for Wildlife program, visit www.dnr.illinois.gov/conservation/wildlife
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