A Natural Garden Brings Life to its Urban Setting

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The front yard of David Schmetterling and Marilyn Marler welcomes passersby and wildlife alike.

The front yard of David Schmetterling and Marilyn Marler welcomes passersby and wildlife alike.

Text and photograph by Amy Grisak

Gardens surround us by what we love. For David Schmetterling and his wife, Marilyn Marler, this meant bringing the beauty of their native western Montana landscape to their doorstep, along with a myriad of wild neighbors.

“We like living in the middle of town,” explains David, who prefers heading to work or running errands on his bicycle and enjoys the sense of community within Missoula. But with education and careers in the natural sciences, David and Marilyn also appreciate the beauty and cohesiveness of a wild landscape where all of the characters work in harmony. When they purchased their home a decade ago, they resolved to approach their yard differently.

“The main goal of our yard is to create wild habitat right in the middle of Missoula,” he says. “It creates a sense of place and a feeling you’re in the right place.”

A home for the wild
Beyond the botanical abundance, this means creating a haven for wildlife and insects.
“Native plants are what support a greater variety of insects and birds,” says David. And while people often think of their yard as separate from the environment, he is quick to point out that even a small space can make a meaningful impact, particularly to migrating birds.

Typical yards tend to lean towards monocultural plantings, comprising a significant amount of area on a national scale. David points out that when the native plant community is absent, the insects are no longer present. If there are no insects, there are far fewer birds.
And while most gardeners have an uneasy truce with many insects (or they’re still waging war), David delights in them. He was absolutely jubilant when he spotted a bright red aphid, Uroleuconnigrotuberculatum, feeding on his goldenrod (Solidagomissouriensis). Instead of reaching for the hose to eliminate them, he remembered the ladybugs would feast upon them and the birds would take advantage of the ladybugs.

David says they’ve had over 70 species of birds use their diminutive yard, which is less than a tenth of an acre, oftentimes foraging and sometimes nesting. This is particularly striking because when the couple rented a house four blocks away, prior to buying their current home, they spotted only four or five different species of birds. By providing the feathered residents with food and proper habitat, they’ve increased that number by more than 10.

Cultivating a mindset
David and Marilyn also aim to create a different aesthetic and demonstrate that native plants are as beautiful as their domesticated cousins, in their own way and time. Something like the way a chef appreciates local foods when they are in season, the gardeners delight in their native plants throughout their lifecycle of early growth, flowering, curing and going to seed.

And since Missoula receives a scant 14 inches of precipitation a year, with much of it evaporating during the hot summers, water conservation is paramount to both David and Marilyn. Easily 50 percent of home water usage goes toward landscaping in many parts of the country, particularly in the semi-arid west. They wanted to use this precious resource the best way possible, including utilizing rain barrels to gather additional water rather than drawing from the city system.

“We wanted to create a garden that can survive on its own,” David says. “We use less than a third of the water of an average house in Missoula.”

Except for the handful of containers and raised beds that make up the vegetable garden, the area in front of and behind their house receives no supplemental water. There is no need for sprinklers, and the couple can travel during the summer with their vegetables on a timed drip system. Everything else will be absolutely fine.

“We have a small house, but we like to spend a lot of time outside. Our yard is an extension of our home,” David says. “One yard after another looks the same. It doesn’t reflect peoples’ personalities and their interests. That can be turned into a source of enjoyment and pleasure.”

He and Marilyn have done just that. Their outdoor space is replete with special botanical rooms making the small area appear much larger.

Their “cowboy bathtub” nestled just outside of the backdoor is the perfect accoutrement for a summertime soak. Their laundry line sits behind a fence surrounded by pines and fireweed (Chamerionangustifolium). Here they can dry their clothes in the most eco-friendly manner.

Their chicken coop, built completely of repurposed materials, provides their chickens with comfortable quarters, including their own mirror and xylophone. A strawberry bed situated in the design lifts the fruit to a perfect harvesting height.

As if the chicken coop wasn’t ingenious enough in its use of materials, the greenhouse is completely constructed with recycled windows and lumber, including bricks used as heat retaining flooring from the deconstructed Mill Town Dam on the Clark Fork River, an ecological boon to those who love the waterway.

In the back of the lot, a seating area beneath the pines provides a dining space under Montana’s big blue sky. And instead of parking their 1965 Security travel trailer in a garage, they position it as an extra room (as well as their mobile home away from home).

Key plants
It’s easy — and incredibly enjoyable — to head to the local nursery to pick out new annuals and perennials to plant in the prepared gardens, but for David and Marilyn, choosing their plants and installing them was never that simple.

“The first thing we did was removed all of the lawn,” he says. They also began collecting seeds to start plants to create their new landscape.

“Montana has a tremendous amount to offer and we have an incredible floral diversity,” David says. “We have over 100 species that are native to the Missoula area. There’s always something happening.”

He says it starts when the snow begins receding and the sagebrush buttercup (Ranunculus glaberrimus) blooms, soon followed by shooting stars (Dodecatheon), death camas (Zigadenus) and penstemons. Summer arrives with the blooming of arrowleaf balsamroot (Balsamorhizasagittata) and fleabane (Erigeron, zone 3-8).

“In June and July our yard is really showy. It can be really green and lush in a good water year,” he says. “Then things start to cure.”

Rabbit brush, goldenrod and asters dominate the late-summer palette as the flowers and foliage cure, leaving the seed heads for the birds to feed upon as they make their journeys to warmer climates.

“It feels right. It’s in sync with what else is happening. Just looking outside, you know the month,” says David. “There’s always something going on, whether flowers or seeds.”
There is a drawback of having a wildlife garden without the full gamut of resident fauna and natural processes. Fire is an important part of the Western ecosystem, but it’s not exactly a desirable feature for an urban landscape. And David would welcome larger wildlife into their yard.

“We have to do the job of deer and elk by cutting back the plants,” he says.

Spreading the love
For David and Marilyn, sharing their landscape brings them as much joy as spending time in it themselves. Informational signs explain what is growing and why, and they frequently assist other people in creating native plant plans that work for their lifestyles.

“It’s really a source of fun and entertainment as well as learning,” says David.

Whether you add a few native plants to the garden or full-on recreate the natural landscape as David and Marilyn did, it’s immensely satisfying to be part of the natural cycle. Not only will you be rewarded by an ever-changing botanical display, but you’ll open up a completely new world by making an oasis for wildlife.

Many of David and Marilyn’s projects can be seen on their website, montanawildlifegardener.blogspot.com.