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My 50-50 Challenge

As I was walking this weekend, I remembered when Peter Wimberg decided to count the number of boxwoods he saw on his walk. The number was staggering, and a bit depressing. Not only does an overplanting of one shrub create a boring community landscape, it also leaves the entire neighborhood vulnerable to catastrophic plant loss in the event of a disease, pest, or a harsh weather event. We learned that the hard way last winter with the rapid deep freeze event which nearly killed all of the Otto Lykens and Skip Laurels. While some of those shrubs have recovered a bit, a great number were removed from the landscape and homeowners were left to start anew.

On my walk I decided to take, what I thought would be, a more positive review of the landscape. Instead of counting over-utilized plant selections, I would record all the interesting shrubs: those beyond boxwoods, gold mop cypress, and barberries.  As I set out, very optimistic about the findings I was sure to discover, my mood began to sink like a stone. House after house, block after block, the presence of shrubs beyond the terrible three (boxwoods, Taxus, and gold mop cypress) was scant.  I saw a few azaleas and rhododendrons: a valiant attempt to add color and semi-evergreen foliage to the landscape. These shrubs often leave the homeowner disappointed and a bit dejected. Not inexpensive shrubs to include in the garden, they hold all the promise of southern charm, perhaps conjuring up memories of time spent in Savannah or Charleston. Unfortunately, our soil and climate make growing these beauties a bit of a struggle. If I see one looking fabulous, I take note for it seldom happens.

Many yards I passed were modest in size, flat (that’s a rarity in Cincinnati), and drenched in sun. A few lawns were scattered with children’s toys, a happy sight knowing time was being spent playing outside.  In general though, as I made my way along the streets, I saw opportunities for new or expanded gardens that included bursts of color, great textures, and winter interest.  The yards, as they were already modest in size, ensured that a new garden, one that didn’t call for all of the front yard’s sod to be removed, would be manageable for any family: no matter how busy their schedule may be.

I began to think, what if each homeowner took the 50-50 challenge? What if we replaced half of our sod with a garden planted with nature and then half of those new plants were native? We would reduce the use of chemicals in the front yard by at least half. My hope is that all chemicals would be banned even in the remaining front lawn. The amount of mowing would be reduced, decreasing the amount of carbon emission and noise pollution. Selecting native plants for half of the new planting would ensure dozens of native plants we never clapped eyes on before, would be growing in the neighborhood.

By allowing the use of cultivated plants, we ensure that old tried and true, the easiest to grow plants, that I will attest to always being bedecked with bees and butterflies, would have a home in the new garden as well.  I’ve found that when someone is new to gardening, the greater the plant offering they have to choose from when selecting plants, the more apt they will be to create a garden planted with nature.  By including such stalwarts as Nepeta ‘Walkers Low’, Russian Sage, annual blue salvia, we ensure instant success for the new gardens. Homeowners see, practically from day one, the influx of native bees, butterflies, and skippers. They see that planting with nature doesn’t have to be complicated or overwhelming – far from it. And as the new gardener becomes comfortable puttering in their garden, the more likely they will be to add more plants, year after year, while holding to the same goal of half of the new plants being native plants.

Imagine if several homeowners took up the 50-50 challenge. Now we have a street that was once dominated by lawns and the terrible three transformed to a street with flowers, native grasses, butterflies, birds, plant diversity, and winter interest. We now have a street that is more conducive to nature and in turn is a healthier, more enjoyable environment in which to live.

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