Going wild in the city

by Linda M. Hasselstrom



A skunk, red-tailed hawk, rabbits, squirrels, robins -- all have dined in my city yard, within sight of Wyoming's Capitol dome. But when we moved to this corner of a busy one-way street in Cheyenne, Wyo., 15 years ago, the yard was a mess. The parkways, those supposedly green spaces between the street and sidewalk, were covered in black plastic and gravel, a tangled mass of prickly foliage.

After we hacked away the muddle, the soil was gray and hard as concrete. I managed to dig in lawn clippings from friends who didn’t use poisonous chemicals, and added dried cow manure from my South Dakota ranch. Then I scattered seeds collected on walks or bought from catalogs. Walking my dogs, I pinched slips from plants in the neighbors’ yards. More than 200 species went into that ground, though not all survived -- even with doses of nourishing "manure tea." Some folks want me to poison some of these plants that are considered invasive in some places; instead, I exercise by pulling excess foliage. Anything green can provide mulch and shelter for insects and birds -- especially in August, since I refuse to use precious water for plants I can't eat.

Within three years, I’d established a healthy assortment of perennial native grasses and flowers, beautiful as well as useful. Flax, chicory, larkspur, and Centaurea montana matched the house’s blue trim. Purple coneflower -- echinacea, helped prevent colds. Among columbine blooming in a dozen colors, I picked gaillardia and shasta daisies for bouquets all summer. Evening primroses snapped open at dusk, attracting large, lime-green luna moths.

Eventually, I began growing my own herbs for cooking. Evenings we sit in a homemade arbor breathing perfume from thyme, tarragon, horehound, sage and oregano. Tomatoes, basil, salad herbs, and rhubarb replaced sand and playground equipment in the back yard.

Each spring, as the blooms begin, their fans gather. Cars pull over at any hour of the day, and from my study window I can hear excited debates about species. We’re near the state Capitol, so government workers change their power-walking routes to include our corner. Evenings, dog-walkers come from blocks away to ask questions. One woman drives from outside town every spring when the pasque starts to flower. Another woman pulled up, snatched open her car door and called, "May I let this butterfly loose in your garden?" She’d driven blocks out of her way to reach a place she thought the insect would enjoy. Two children who’d picked flowers without my permission were ordered by their mother to sing a thank-you song. One night the headlights of two police cars aimed at a 6-foot primrose also illuminated two officers staring at it.

Everyone is invited back in autumn to collect seeds, and told the plants are native to this arid region, and require almost no water or care. So I reasoned that a sign or two would allow me to inform even the folks who didn’t stop. One friend said she’d gotten her city yard certified as wildlife habitat by the National Wildlife Federation. Just join, she said; fill out the form.

I’ve sometimes been frustrated by organizations that seem to exist only to urge me to send more money. The wildlife federation is different, she said; the habitat sign would encourage other people to help animals and plants, and save water at the same time. Sadly, six months later, my junk mail file is three inches thick, but I have no sign. Twelve mailings have brought note cards, gift wrap, a children’s magazine, promises of more free stuff, and a notice that the sign would cost another 25 bucks. All this clearly cost more than my membership fee, but no one answered when I wrote to express my disappointment.

Meanwhile, the critters in my yard thrive, thriving, gobbling seeds and nectar, dancing in the water bowls, hiding among bushes and rocks. Food, water, shelter: That’s what wildlife needs in the city.

I’ll continue as I always have, encouraging folks to appreciate this Great Plains country, its native plants, its wildlife, and especially its water. You might want to do the same in your yard – with or without a sign.

Linda M. Hasselstrom is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She lives in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and conducts writing retreats on her ranch in South Dakota. © High Country News