Transformative Landscapes: Wild Yards Project

‘Lawns are nature purged of sex and death. No wonder Americans like them so much,’ wrote Michael Pollan in Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education. Liking might be an understatement. According to David Newsom, founder of Wild Yards Project, there are around 40 million acres of lawn in the USA. Pair this number with another – research from World Wildlife Fund suggesting that around 10,000 plant and animal species go extinct each year – and all of a sudden, David has a grand vision. He will encourage, inspire and support the transformation of petrochemically fuelled, ecologically depleted front lawns into vibrant and wild biodiversity hotspots. ‘I really see myself as a cheerleader, an evangelist for creating biodiverse and compassionate spaces, wherever you live.’

Wild Yards Project is an online platform dedicated to inspiring, educating and supporting people to re-wild their gardens. The seed was sown when David and his partner had their first child. ‘I began gardening because I was mortified by the thought my daughter would never see a butterfly.

‘We bought a little house in north-eastern Los Angeles and the backyard was an intimidating dump. We planted a very rudimentary pollinator garden. As I began to understand the co-evolution of plant and animal species, I began swapping out pollinator plants for plants that were truly of this place – this beautiful chaparral ecosystem. I live 50 feet from a big urban intersection and yet there were hawks coming through, training their young in our yard. There were all kinds of lizards, butterflies, native bees. It was revelatory for me.’

Photo: David Newsom
Photo: David Newsom
Photo: David Newsom

David had never considered gardening before, despite being a keen outdoorsman. ‘It blows my mind now … how I considered “nature” to be someplace else. Out there, not right here.’

He soon came to realise that ‘nature’s best hope is the front yard. It is the most viable landscape to begin transforming how we think about gardens, and how they can protect biodiversity for years to come.’

David has big plans for Wild Yards Project – including an app that will connect yards and gardeners across the world: ‘Wherever you are, if you want to start creating native-based habitat, you can find someone nearby who’s done it.’ But as all gardeners can attest, change often doesn’t happen at the rate we might imagine it should. ‘Are progressive developers and council people dying to hear what we have to say? No, but there are tons of projects underway,’ David says. ‘The notion of what a garden is for is slowly transforming.’

Sometimes, the big problems of our time feel too heavy to lift. Sometimes, as individuals, we feel impotent, unable to enact the change our world urgently asks of us. But projects like Wild Yards, and similarly We are the Ark, led by Irish nature activist Mary Reynolds, remind us that the small things matter. ‘You know, 100 gardens a year are not going to address climate change, or offset in any calculable way the massive rates of extinction happening globally,’ says David, ‘but they’ll make a hell of a difference to thousands of species that are now inhabiting that site. When you have migratory birds coming through your site, when you’ve got a healthy lizard population, a diversity of bugs coming to your diversity of native flowers, you’ve done something. It’s not small, it might just seem small to you.’

This is an extract from Transformative Landscapes, an essay published in Issue One of Wonderground (sold out), a biannual print journal published by The Planthunter. Issue Two is on sale now.

Photo: David Newsom