Claire Merrick, Marketing & Public Relations Manager
From the interview that inspired Restoring Biodiversity: One Woman’s Journey, get ready to embark on a fascinating journey that will motivate you to create your own Wild Back Yard. Marcia Carsten’s mission to create a biodiverse and sustainable Wild Back Yard is a testament to the power of individual actions in promoting conservation and supporting native wildlife. Her passion and dedication have not only transformed her own landscape, but have also become a beacon of hope for others seeking to Grow a Wild Back Yard. Learn more in the Q&A below:
Please tell us about yourself.
I am a former teacher and retired business owner with two children and three grandchildren. My husband and I hosted six wonderfully unique rescue dogs in our home in a giant pack for many years. We have been lifelong campers and hikers and recently acquired an Airstream to travel around the country. I love native plant gardening, pollinator/native plant habitat restoration and education, reading and spending quality time with good friends and family.
What inspired you to grow a Wild Back Yard? How long did it take to achieve your goal?
Growing up in a small Midwestern town years ago, I took for granted the calls of meadowlarks and bobwhites, the background drone of insects and nightly displays of fireflies in the fields that surrounded my home. But like most people, I failed to notice that every year, bird calls became less frequent, insects less obvious and fireflies no longer flickered over evening lawns. I never thought to connect the hybrid plants with which my neighbors and I were now filling our yards, and the chemicals used to keep our lawns’ green perfection, with the loss of the birds and insects of my youth. And then, eight years ago, I had what can described as a real “lightbulb moment.”
It happened at a Twinsburg Garden Club meeting. Twinsburg Naturalist Stanley Stine gave a presentation that included gorgeous photos of flowering native plants and the insects that depended on them for survival. It was a revelation. He offered some native plant catalogues to anyone interested in learning more. I took them all.
Until that moment, I had been a conventional gardener. Like most people I knew, I regularly visited garden centers searching for new, pretty plants for my gardens. I knew little about local native plants or their connection with native insects and other wildlife. I no longer remembered what a native meadow looked or sounded like. My garden was filled with beautiful, hybridized perennials and non-native trees and bushes. But sitting in that darkened room, I suddenly realized that the plants I was growing had no function other than to be pretty. They supported none of the incredibly important native insects, birds and other wildlife which had populated my youth and were rapidly disappearing from my city.
Stanley became a friend and mentor, and I embarked on a journey that changed my life. His presentation inspired me to begin to change not only how I gardened, but to learn all I could about native insects and the native habitats that support them. I became an Ohio Volunteer Pollinator Specialist and Certified Volunteer Naturalist and a Xerces Ambassador. I joined the board of Friends of Hudson Parks and began a movement in my community to educate residents and elected officials about the need to create and maintain diverse native habitat to support our native wildlife. Our Friends of Hudson Parks volunteer group began to work in partnership with our local park board to change how our city manages their natural areas to conserve and restore native habitat in our parks to increase biodiversity. Our group has helped create two new pollinator meadows and helped to arrange funding for the removal of acres of invasive plants that had begun to take over areas of our parks.
What specific native plants have you added to your back yard, and how have they helped to increase the presence and diversity of wildlife?
I have so many native trees, bushes, grasses and flowers in my yard that I couldn’t begin to list them all. I only purchase plants from native plant nurseries (nurseries that specialize in Ohio native plants) that do not use any pesticides (herbicides, insecticides etc.). There are some great nurseries in northeast and central Ohio that I purchase plants from. My actual back yard is filled with mature native oak, cherry, beech, maple and tulip trees, as well as small trees and bushes like spice bush, witch hazel, pawpaw and various dogwoods. I dug a vernal pool between the back and front yards to aide with drainage. It also serves as a wonderful habitat for native wetland plants like buttonbush and creatures like toads, frogs and salamanders.
The entire front yard is a series of native perennial gardens filled with flowering native plants and grasses, understory trees like redbud, American plum, nannyberry, gray/red osier, silky dogwood and larger maples and oaks. We had some drainage problems in our front yard too, and I dug a small vernal pool and planted native willows, iris and asters around it.
How have you addressed the challenge of reducing non-native species coverage and invasive seed pressure in your back yard?
I simply dig out or cut out any invasive plants like Buckthorn that pop up in the yard.
How has your use of native plants in your back yard reduced your ecological footprint, improved sustainable landscaping practices and impacted the quality of habitat for wildlife?
My yard is now filled with fireflies, native bees, wasps, butterflies and other pollinators, toads, frogs and other amphibians, birds, chipmunks, squirrels and the occasional raccoon and fox. My yard buzzes, cheeps, chirps and hops from spring to fall. It is an incredibly diverse and interesting yard filled with things to watch and enjoy.
How have local resources supported your efforts to create a more biodiverse and sustainable backyard landscape?
I have taken every class and webinar available from OSU Extension in Wooster run by Denise Ellsworth, Program Director for Pollinator Education in Ohio. I have also watched all of the Western Reserve Land Conservancy webinars. Stanley Stine had many wonderful walks and talks in Twinsburg before they discontinued their naturalist program in 2020. There are also wonderful books by Doug Tallamy, Heather Holms, etc. about native gardening. I also have used and read all the resources on the Xerces website.
The Friends of Hudson Parks worked with US Fish and Wildlife Private Lands Division to create both of its meadow projects.
What advice would you give to other residents who are interested in creating a more biodiverse and sustainable backyard landscape?
I would suggest people who want to learn about biodiversity/habitat creation/and native plants and insects go to the OSU Extension website to watch some of the wonderful webinars on growing native gardens and using native plants in their yards. Xerces website also has wonderful resources and links to their YouTube channel where they have many interesting videos on native gardening. Western Reserve Land Conservancy has also hosted many webinars the last few years and those can be found linked on their website.
What have been the most significant challenges you’ve faced in using native plants in your back yard, and how have you addressed them?
One of the hardest parts of native gardening is finding plants that are grown by native plant nursery owners without the use of pesticides. The best of these nurseries sell second or third year plants grown in native soil so they are hardy and ready to be planted to survive their first winter. Summit Metro Parks also has native plant nurseries listed on their website.
I have also had to learn how these native plants adapt to the enriched garden environment. Many times, they will grow larger or taller than in the wild when they have access to the extra nutrients in our enriched soils. I don’t use any chemical fertilizers on my plants. I just allow the leaves to remain in my gardens and don’t cut off the fall flowers until early summer after any overwintering specialist bees that use those stalks for homes have departed. I leave the stalks, either in my garden or stacked in the back yard. I have found through trial and error that some native plants are very adaptable to differing light or water needs. The best way to learn is to experiment in your own garden. I use native plant guides to get an idea of the light, water and soil requirements for the native plants, and then try them in similar situations in my own yard. But many wetland plants like marsh milkweed will do just fine in normal garden soil, and even do well in partial sun. Most native plant-specific nurseries have lists of plants with information about site requirements for each plant.
How has your backyard landscape changed since you began using native plants, and what benefits have you seen as a result?
My yard is now alive with native creatures and beautiful blooming plants. It is vibrant and interesting and attracts neighbors as well as native insects and wildlife. Pesticides are harmful to the environment and to people. Native plants don’t need insecticides or herbicides. My yard doesn’t ever suffer from pest invasions as my native beneficial insects and native birds (as well as snakes/frogs and toads) take care of any problem insect that might try to get a foothold. Occasionally the non-native invasive pests like Japanese Beetles do visit, but my native plants recover well and are hardy enough to put out new growth after an infestation.
What most excites you about the Wild Back Yards initiative?
I think this is a wonderful program. I hope more people will consider not only growing native plants, but reducing and eliminating their use of dangerous pesticides. There is a great hand out called Buying Bee-Safe Plants on the Xerces website that discusses how homeowners can find bee safe plants that don’t have systemic insecticides or other chemicals added to their soil or sprayed on them.