We Bought a Home with a Sterile Suburban Yard. Our Journey To Bring Life Back is Just Beginning - Modern Farmer

We Bought a Home with a Sterile Suburban Yard. Our Journey To Bring Life Back is Just Beginning

When we bought our first home, we had grand plans to create a productive and pollinator-friendly oasis. Then the reality of poor soils and extreme weather hit.

The author in front of her new home.
Photography courtesy of Jessica Andreone.

My husband and I bought our first home in a small West Virginia town in January 2023. The bright green dwelling sits in the middle of a dead-end street where retirees claim most homes as the original dwellers. From 1978 until now, our house had only one homeowner. So, for the past 45 years, the yard has been a neatly mowed lawn with a single tulip tree. 

We had grand plans to install a curated pollinator garden in the front and a vegetable garden with a managed meadow in the back. Since I started my career in the environmental sector, I have preached to anyone who looked in my direction about planting native plants. I boasted about how indigenous flowers would aid pollinators that suffer from habitat loss, store greenhouse gasses and create a buffer against drought and heavy rains. I knew that the US’s 40 million acres of lawns contribute to greenhouse gas emissions through consistent mowing and drink up to nine billion gallons of water daily. If I kept the non-native lawn, not only would I be going against my convictions, I would have to step down from my soapbox and admit to being a fraud. 

However, practicing is different from preaching. When we started the quest to revitalize our property, we did not know the extent that our soil was compacted and how climate change was affecting our new town. 

Crop plants growth is stunted from compacted soil.

When I was younger, I helped my mother with her vegetable garden. I found joy in the feeling of dirt in the creases of my hands and the flavors of homegrown produce that embedded in my memories. We had to fight clay each year, but we still produced a hefty bounty. I wanted to continue the tradition at my first house, and I had no worries when I noticed clay on my new property. However, my childhood garden bordered a wildflower-speckled knoll and the upstate New York wilderness. Now, I am in a suburb dominated by mowed lawns with low plant diversity.

While my husband and I were prepping a plot of land for growing vegetables, it was rare to find roots that spanned more than two inches deep. We would pull up mats of sod to reveal clay that lacked deep-running shoots from nearby plants. The solid mass proved impenetrable to the new growth and my trowel—now bent at an obtuse angle from my efforts. The plants that did penetrate seemed to be struggling due to the lack of drainage and air pathways. 

Livestock, heavy machinery and hikers along mountain paths create compaction, not just lawns. However, lawns consist of just a few grass species whose roots mainly hit the same shallow soil level. With greater plant diversity and organic matter, networks of microbes can create ample water and airflow at different depths in the process. 

A meadow of native plants can promote healthy soil and draw in pollinators.

With our budget, the simplest way to grow native plants was to allow a managed regrowth in the backyard. We decided that the trick to successful naturalization without getting in trouble with a town council was to cut back non-native grass stems and remove harmful plant species such as round bittersweet. The outcome was a meadow of purple petals of self-heal, buttery flecks of common yellow wood sorrel and ivory dapples of chickweed. The medley in this section promotes a healthy food web and draws in pollinators that will assist the vegetable garden. Plants are only as good as the microbes supporting them, though.

To build sustainable soil structure with plenty of bacteria, fungi and protozoa, we made compost by processing kitchen scraps in a tumbler. The design makes it easy to add fodder and we got the added satisfaction of hearing materials tossing like a giant rain stick. When the compost is mature, we mix it with dirt when planting. It will take a couple of years to see a difference in the compaction. Our corn, cauliflower and cucumbers failed to reach their full potential in this first year of treatment. The efforts have already been worth it, though. By composting our food waste, my husband and I have made our trash less rancid and decreased our greenhouse gas emissions—a responsibility we do not take lightly in the wake of a hot winter. 

This February, our small town reached a high of 77 degrees Fahrenheit. The average high temperature for that month was 62 degrees Fahrenheit. Typically, it’s 45. Temperatures continued to stay high through the rest of the winter and spring. The warm climate activated late-spring flowers to bloom earlier than they should have. The misalignment of blooming and awakening wildlife means less pollination and less food for animals throughout the food chain. By late April, the inside of our greenhouse was regularly reaching nearly 100 degrees. 

It will take years to see a difference in the property’s soil compaction.

The sustained temperatures persuaded me that mid-April would be a safe time to put the plants into the ground. Then, the last week of April and the first week of May saw a slow-moving low-pressure system and below-freezing temperatures at night. My small town’s 2,014-foot elevation made it low enough for temperatures to rebound from the frost during the day, reaching the 50s. The mountain towns to the northeast, such as Snowshoe, experienced record-breaking snowfall, accumulating 15 inches of snow. My colleague’s children had snow days three weeks before summer vacation. Then, as if the cold spell was a fluke, temperatures rose to 80 degrees within the week.

The acute freeze turned the leaves on the peppers and the tomatoes dark brown and soft. A few still had one green leaf left. I managed to rescue these by propping them out of the soil and putting them back into the greenhouse in pots. However, these plants remained stunted and never grew more than a foot high. The native, non-crop species in the yard looked a little worse for wear for a day or so but were mostly left unscathed from the frost. While compacted soil is simple to overcome, climate change is not.

We are beginning to see how the battle between soil and plant durability against severe weather is taking place. Our yard is in the early stages of becoming more sustainable and resilient. We are assisting a network of life that is rebuilding soil structure and plant hardiness. As the property heals, it has a fighting chance against climate change. I am lucky I am an annual vegetable grower, so I do not rely on chilly winters like orchard growers do. I am instead part of the 41 percent of households who savor each fruit produced from the labor of our backyard gardens—knowing that the bounty of next year’s crop is still uncertain.

Jessica is a freelance writer and a youth environmental advocate for the state of West Virginia. When Jessica is not writing, birding, or hiking with her husband at New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, she is creating graphic art of America’s cryptid creatures.

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9 months ago

Dandelions break up soil nicely. Might take a year

9 months ago

Good reporting. I wish more people would convert their lawns and I look forward to hearing about your progress.

Anne Connor
9 months ago

Beautiful essay!

7 months ago

What a captivating journey you’ve shared, Jessica! Your commitment to transforming a sterile suburban yard into a thriving ecosystem is truly inspiring.
The challenges you’ve faced with soil compaction and unpredictable weather underscore the importance of resilience in sustainable gardening. Your approach, from promoting plant diversity to crafting compost, showcases a genuine dedication to environmental stewardship. It’s heartening to witness your property’s evolution and the positive impact on local biodiversity.
Looking forward to following your continued success in nurturing both your garden and the surrounding ecosystem.

4 months ago

Please people, there is no such thing as “climate change”. This is a hoax perpetrated world wide by governments and WHO -World Health Org., WEF -World Economic Forum, UN-United Nations., etc. Go to Geo Engineering with Dane Wigington to find out what is really going on.

4 months ago

Chicory is good for a long root, a pretty flower and coffee, should you need it!

angelina Rogers
1 month ago

Very happy to hear your story and hopefully you will have every success in future.