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Native garden comes under attack in Wauwatosa!

September 13, 2023  |  Topics: Issues

By Ed Sternberg

The City of Wauwatosa wants to mow down my thoughtfully planted, carefully maintained and legal native garden.

Garden styles must adapt to climate change. Natural gardens have led garden styles for the past generation or so, but people adapt at different rates. For most of the thirty-plus years that I’ve lived in my modest inner-suburban home, I maintained my yard in conventional style, with a few small natural gardens tucked into lawn in the back yard. The front yard was all lawn, through lack of imagination and fear of upsetting neighbors. In spring, daffodils and tulips still line the walk to my house. Glorious 90-year-old elm street trees attracted birds, gave shade, and were beautiful.

In about 2008, my city repaved my street, and replaced its curbs, cutting off 40% of the elm trees’ roots in the process. The city also widened driveway pans, destroying more tree roots. Soon after, while the sidewalks got maintained, the gas company drilled under the trees to update gas lines, replaced soil with gravel, and seeded the gravel areas with 95% pure (5% weed) seeds. 

The gravel lawn areas never fully recovered, dying in drought, and inoculating lawns with weeds. My elm survived until the next summer’s hot day with a strong dry west wind, which so dried the elm that its crown split and the elm slumped, dying, onto my and a neighbor’s homes.

After a few years talking with neighbors, fruitlessly trying to repair the lawn without poisoning our water, working with the city forester to grow a new tree with protective gardens, and testing native plants over gas company gravel, I finally realized I could use my master’s degree for research in horticulture at UW – Madison to practice a much older tradition: let native plants sort things out, including a few near-southern implants, such as pawpaws, persimmons, and pecans, thrown in for climate adaptation. A few good friends had good plants, good seeds, and good sense, so a new garden was well planned and cost nothing. In fall of 2014, we replaced all grass between the sidewalk and the street with a native garden—a boulevard garden. Between the sidewalk and the house, for shade, we planted trees—a pocket forest.

Spring of 2015 was cold, wet, and muddy. A neighbor disapproved, and complained to the city—which resulted in our first alleged code violation. A few warm weeks later, my plants grew and flowered, and I responded with what the city regarded as a thesis. The city recognized and accepted my boulevard and yard as legal natural gardens, not just a destroyed lawn (Fig. 1 below).

Sidewalk from the north showing native gardens on both sides.
Sidewalk from the north showing native gardens on both sides.

In 2021, six years later, the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin (NRF) heard of my gardens (and the unfortunate complaint and citation), and asked me to lead a charitable NRF field trip to my yard with its gardens and trees. I told them I was honored, but had only taught graduate students and postdocs in physiology and molecular and developmental cancer research kind of stuff. They persisted, and paired me with the chief curator at the Wisconsin State Herbarium. I added a meteorologist interested in native plants and climate change, and so an NRF field trip was born: Tree Sex and the City: Pawpaws, Pecans, Persimmons, Oh my! The field trip meets annually in my new outdoor front living room and classroom (Fig. 2 below).

Outdoor living room and lecture hall.
Outdoor living room and lecture hall.

Last year, the first year we taught that trip, we focused on plant sex, particularly tree sex. The response was enthusiastic, so we’re teaching it again this year. This time, the world is catching up, generally recognizing the value of these ideas, with a few opposing outliers. These adapting gardens ideas are fun, suddenly stylish, and important (Ref. 1, 2, 7): 

••  Pocket forests:

With the death of the elm, my home’s microclimate became hotter. The way the elm died, we could no longer rely only on city street trees for shade. So we planted trees, trees already adapted to warmer climates. We planted pecans, which had been native only as far north as Iowa (just south of Wisconsin), using nuts from trees raised farther north. We planted pawpaws, which were native only as far north as, well, PawPaw, Michigan, on its border with Indiana. And we planted persimmons, which used to be native as north as about the Mason-Dixon Line or mid-Indiana. We planted a butternut tree, which is now big. A small beech tree grows under hazelnut trees in case climates ever return to “normal.” As things have warmed, all these trees are fine for now.

Pawpaws have the largest fruit of any tree native to North America. Their flavor is a blend of custard, apple, banana, and mango. Yum! So far this year, my pawpaws have their biggest crop yet. A first pecan nut is growing. A squirrel nabbed my first butternut a few days ago. All of this going on around the new addition to my house—my stylish pocket forest outdoor living room.

••  Natives in a time of climate change:

Until now, natural gardens have been somewhat synonymous with gardens of plants historically native to where we plant them. This relationship made sense while our climate was stable. The death of my elm changed the microclimate of my yard, right when our global climates started to climb out of what used to be natural.

The idea of natural gardens started in the 1860s, when Frederick Law Olmsted designed Central Park, and later, Milwaukee’s Lake, Riverside and Washington Parks. Olmsted’s idea of natural gardens freed landscapes from old royal box-garden type designs, but with minimal attention to native plants. Sixty years later, Aldo Leopold began teaching how certain aspects of wildness are required to maintain real forests, while Curtis and others at UW – Madison’s Dept. of Botany were figuring out how to restore prairies. Lorrie Otto learned from them in Madison, and around 1980, concerned about dying birds in Milwaukee, founded “The Wild Ones,” now a national organization whose members have fostered natural gardens. With climate change, what’s native also is changing. Whether we want them to or not, our gardens and trees will change with the changing climate, and that will affect the comfort of our homes. Climate change makes the natives restless.

••  Living mulch:

In my boulevard garden, I had to figure out which plants would grow in or near gas pipe gravel patches, where I couldn’t predict what would survive, while keeping a new kind of city tree alive, which in growing would gradually change the habitat. The solution, once you see it, is obvious: Plant a wide variety of native plant seeds and let them sort it out. After all, that’s what a prairie is. Except use more forbs, fewer native grasses, and skew toward short plants, to keep the neighbors happy. And be sure to plant a few mature plants that flower prettily in the spring, so even the slowest adapting neighbors know it’s a garden while the seeds grow (Fig. 2 below).

Street and sidewalk from the south.
Street, driveway and sidewalk from the south.

There are lots of ways to plant a garden. Traditional gardens tend to be collections of prima donna specimens, each in glorious isolation, spatially and biologically, separated by mulch to keep out weeds, and bordered by grass for reasons I don’t know. Prairies create their own living mulch, maintaining soil moisture through their deep roots and collective shade. Living mulch is also getting its day in the sun (Ref. 3). Reasonable communities are adapting such practices into their municipal codes (Ref. 4-6). Wauwatosa already does, and usually honors its own code (Ref 8).

••  The administrators get restless:

By now, you know all this is too good to not interrupt. However, these gardens are now under order from the City of Wauwatosa to be mowed. The City is now, again, ruling that this natural garden and pocket forest at the peak of style, fruitfulness, and municipal service functionality, must be mowed to six inches or less. In spite of what you see in these pictures, all of which is explicitly allowed in municipal code, and prior recognition, the city now alleges these gardens to be lawn grass and weeds. As such they illegally exceed six inches in height, obstruct foot traffic on the sidewalk so you can’t pass without getting scratched, and prevent access to my front door (Fig. 3 below). You be the judge.

Walkway to the front door.
Walkway to the front door.

Planting my gardens and pocket forest has been free. Trips to these gardens are raising funds, all donated to the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin. But defending these gardens is now costing thousands of dollars in legal fees, and will cost tens of thousands if the city in its wisdom “mows” my pocket forest and natural gardens.

Editor’s note: Updated 9/15/23

This matter was to be addressed by the City of Wauwatosa’s Board of Public Works on September 18 but the hearing has been delayed. If you live in Wauwatosa, please contact your alderperson and the mayor and express your support for native yards.

Related story:

Native Species: Our Home is Their Home


1.  Buckley, Cara. 2023. “Tiny Forests With Big Benefits.” New York Times, Aug 24, sec. Climate.

2.  Roach, Margaret. 2023. “Replacing Your Lawn? Instead of a Meadow, Consider a Food Forest.” New York Times, Jul 26, sec. Real Estate.

3.  Roach, Margaret. 2023. “More Plants, More Life, More Pleasure: What Sets the Best Gardens Apart.” New York Times, Aug 9, sec. Real Estate.

4.  “Goodbye to Grass? More Americans Embracing ‘eco-Friendly’ Lawns and Gardens.” 2022. PBS NewsHour. May 6.

5.  Thiele, Rebecca, dir. 2023. “Why Some Homeowners Are Choosing to Replace Their Lawns with Native Plants.” NPR | Morning Edition. Indiana Public Radio: WUWM 89.7 FM – Milwaukee’s NPR.

6.  Ingraham, Christopher. 2023. “Minnesota Cities Can No Longer Mandate Turf Grass Lawns.” Minnesota Reformer, Jul 28.

7.  “Homegrown National Park.” n.d. HOMEGROWN NATIONAL PARK. Accessed May 17, 2022.

8.  “Code of Ordinances | Wauwatosa, WI | Municode Library.” n.d. Accessed August 31, 2023.

All images courtesy of the author. Ed Steinberg is a resident of Wauwatosa.

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