House on the Little Prairie, Ann Arbor, MI
Featured Site Created By Drew Lathin
Who says small parcels can’t have it all? Drew Lathin went 100% native with his home landscaping on about one-sixth of an acre. Drew planted a shortgrass prairie in his backyard, and even performed small prescribed burns on it to mimic the grass’ positive response to wildfire (no longer as common an occurrence in developed southeast Michigan). In addition to removing his non-native lawn and replacing it with a native one, he also created a naturalistic pond! Prairie, native lawn, small pond, native flower beds, and not to mention the rain barrels, compost bins, and brush piles…all of this can be found on less than one-quarter of an acre in an aesthetically pleasing, neighborhood-friendly design.
Drew’s neighbors might have thought that he was crazy for digging up his lawn and setting it on fire, but the results can’t be denied. After the improvements, more birds started showing up, attracted by the many bugs, butterflies, and amphibians in Drew’s new landscape. He even attracted a Belted Kingfisher and a Great Blue Heron to his pond! Drew has since moved on to start his own landscaping business, Creating Sustainable Landscapes, LLC, but his work on this property remains a fine example of good habitat stewardship, stormwater management, and aesthetic accomplishment. This house on the little prairie is proof positive that even small parcels can make a big impression.
What work has been done to improve this site for birds and other wildlife? How long did it take?
The whole yard was transformed to one using only native plants. In the back is a shortgrass prairie and pond. In the front are traditionally designed native perennial beds, buffalo grass lawn, and three rain gardens, one of which takes water off the street.
The work (play!) took about three years. I started the work in the spring of 2006. In that year, I did the back yard, including prairie, pond, and a vegetable garden. In the next two years, I moved around the sides to the front when, in 2009, I installed the buffalo grass front lawn.
What are some successes that you've seen since the improvements were made? (alternatively, "What are you most proud of, or excited to share about this site?")
Lots of insects and butterflies abound. This attracts lots of birds. Notable sightings were a Great Blue Heron (which I chased away so it wouldn’t pierce the pond liner) and a female Kingfisher which I saw pluck a fish out of the pond. This landscape never needs to be watered, not even last year during extreme drought and heat.
There is a vegetable garden next to the prairie and pond, yet there is no need for pesticides of any kind. Toads that breed in the pond eat all the slugs, and all the insects in the prairie eat other insects that might want to munch on veggies.
Are there any tough decisions that had to be made regarding its management? How were they handled?
I knew how to build the prairie and pond in the back, but it took a year of thinking about what to do with the front. I finally settled on a design that integrated with the rest of the neighborhood–buffalo grass lawn to mimic others’ lawns, and traditionally designed native perennial gardens in front of the house.
Installing the buffalo grass was easier than you might think. I did herbicide the front lawn with Roundup in early spring. I bought small plugs and planted them in mid May on 18-inch centers. Buffalo grass spreads through above-ground runners and establishes easily and quickly over the course of a summer. It requires full sun, prefers medium soils that can contain some clay or sand, and should be watered the first year. Other than that, simply reduce weed pressure. I started burning the spring of year three.
Most municipalities require a burn permit to do prescribed burns, and I was able to get one in Ann Arbor. As is true with all burns, you should have a burn plan that specifies the objectives, methods, required weather conditions, and contingency plans. Other than that, I waited for the right conditions in the spring, invited my neighbors and taught them about native plants and burning while I did it. If you are uncertain about what you are doing, hire a professional burn contractor to carry out the plan.