In Praise of Wild Ones

Urban Virginia Meadow in Fall photo-Catherine B. Zimmerman

I was getting to the finish line, writing the last chapter of Urban and Suburban Meadows, when I began to reflect on how long the movement to preserve natural landscapes, like prairies and meadows, has been around.

In the Beginning

In the latter half of the 19th century, visionaries like John Muir, commonly acknowledged to be the “Father of the National Parks”, advocated to safeguard wilderness areas. He also founded the Sierra Club. Muir wrote extensively about conservation and the natural world. I got to thinking, what would John Muir say about meadows versus lawn? I might have predicted his response but was not expecting this wonderfully descriptive gem!

“One may at first sight compare them with the carefully tended lawns of pleasure-grounds; for they are as free from weeds as they, and as smooth, but here the likeness ends; for these wild lawns, with all their exquisite fineness, have no trace of that painful, licked, snipped, repressed appearance that pleasure-ground lawns are apt to have even when viewed at a distance. And, not to mention the flowers with which they are brightened, their grasses are very much finer both in color and texture, and instead of lying flat and motionless, matted together like a dead green cloth, they respond to the touches of every breeze, rejoicing in pure wildness, blooming and fruiting in the vital light.”

John Muir, The Mountains of California, 1894

John Muir was an early visionary, along with Henry Thoreau. Both articulated a belief that there is a fundamental inter-connection between humankind and nature.

Early 20th Century

Ado Leopold, took up the environmental-conservation mantle in the 1930’s with his work in conservation landscape and in his writings.  “The Sand County Almanac is a collection of essays in which he attempted to “weld” the concepts of ecology, esthetics, and ethics. An integrated understanding of these ideas was what Leopold termed the Land Ethic.” Natural landscaping is the manifestation of the Land Ethic. The Land Ethic is summarized in Sand County Almanac:

All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. His instincts prompt him to compete for his place in that community, but his ethics prompt him also to co-operate (perhaps in order that there may be a place to compete for).

The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively, the land.

In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.”

Bret Rappaport, The John Marshall Law Review Volume 26, Summer 1993, Number 4

Fast forward to the 1960’s.

With environmental awareness primed by the work of the National Wildlife Federation, Rachel Carson and the Environmental Defense Fund, homeowners were planting with native plants, creating natural landscapes. But most municipalities had a cookie cutter landscape mentality that did not include native plants. Strict weed ordinances were enacted to squash the movement. But one, dedicated, Wisconsin naturalist, Lorrie Otto, fought back and won. She worked to educate the town officials about the value of native plants and diversity over non-native, monoculture lawns. Fighting weed ordinances and promoting natural landscapes became her crusade. Using her pocketbook, contacts and fighting spirit, she was instrumental in helping to change many restrictive ordinances. Lorrie was regarded as a key environmental leader, especially in her work to help ban DDT, and in 1979 she helped found Wild Ones – Natural Landscapers, Ltd.

Lorrie Otto, among her wildflowers! photo-Ney Collier

Ah, Wild Ones!

They kept popping up everywhere during my research.

Wild Ones was not established as a garden club, or a typical native plant society of that era. The Wild Ones mission is more akin to the tenets of the Land Ethic. They aren’t out to tame the land and shape it to their needs. They aren’t native plant collectors or cataloguists. “WO are interested in knowing the native plants that grow in the places where they live, AND in planting them in their home landscapes to recreate the ecosystem services that the plant community is capable of providing, cleaning our air and our water. The plants interact with all the life forms that have lived with them for tens of thousands of years in mutually supporting and limiting ways. The birds, the bees, and all the other insects, pollinate the plants and spread their seeds while the plants feed all the life stages of the insects and animals.  Beyond our own land, we encourage, by example, our neighbors to add native plants to their flower beds, however small. The goal is to recreate in cities, healthy strips of land, which are home to a maximum diversity of life, both above and below the soil. Eventually they may become wildlife corridors that run through city blocks and parkland, benefiting all of us.” Maryann Whitman, Editor Wild Ones Journal

Wild Ones believe “natural landscaping is…

  • more beneficial than toxic to all the creatures (including humans) involved- choosing organic methods over poisonous ones
  • more enlightened than trendy – reviving ecosystems rather than planting indiscriminately, for the eyes only
  • more joyous than tedious – growing ever-changing plantscapes instead of mow-me-every-week turf grass.
  • more alive, attracting a diversity of life that have fewer and fewer natural places to call home”

Wild Center, Neenah, WI. National headquarters for the Wild Ones is surrounded by prairie gardens, rain gardens and woods. It exemplifies the Wild Ones mission. photo-Catherine B. Zimmerman

What’s so different about this thinking?  Today, lots of environmental/native plant society groups adhere to these concepts.  Here’s where the praise comes in.  Wild Ones has steadfastly maintained this mission for over thirty years.

Wild Ones has grown from the original nine members to over 3000, a national non-profit organization with 53 chapters in 12 states.  They take their wildness seriously. Instead of fighting city hall they have become part of city hall.  Wild Ones are locally active on city councils, park commissions, sustainability committees and planning boards, bringing the Wild Ones’ environmental philosophy to the decision making process.

Chapters are continuing Lorrie Otto’s battle to change weed ordinances. Recently Appleton, Wisconsin, Cincinnati, Ohio and Minneapolis, Minnesota residents benefited from Wild Ones tenacious efforts, working with their cities to define beneficial native plants versus noxious weeds and were able to amend the weed laws. Wild Ones website offers help to change ordinances in your municipality.

Mid-west chapters are searching for prairie remnants and working with owners of the land to preserve endangered species by providing trained volunteers to help manage the restoration. If restoration is not in the owners’ plans, then the volunteers ask for permission to do plant rescues and seed harvesting, so the ancient genetic material is not lost to bulldozers.

Where Wild Ones Chapters exist, they organize native plant rescue digs in old field remnants savannas, woodlands and wetland sites where development is planned.  Rescued plants find safe haven in gardens of Wild Ones or public sites such as schools.  Here are some Wild One gardens to consider.

A polite planting at an entry door, planted in sweeps of color. The large leaves of the prairie dock can match wits with any large leaved hosta. 6-foot tall yellow flowers add to the dramatic statement—or the flowers may simply be cut and no one will be the wiser. The orange of the butterfly-weed is in contrast to the green at that time of year. The asters will bloom for fall color. photo- Andy Stahr, Ottawa

This native planting is in the photographer’s side yard, on a corner lot. The 20-foot wide space looks much bigger than it is and tall plants in the center of the bed along the sidewalk provide a dappled screen for summer privacy in this sitting area. The plants may be chosen from a broad palette to have color throughout the growing season. photo-Pat Hill, Elgin, IL

The tall native sunflowers and golden rods fronted by short goldenrods, provide a privacy screen for the sitting porch during the summer. The plants were chosen for the very easy care they require—none. photo-Susannah and Lon Roesselet, Bayside, WI. If you would like a tour, call Susannah and Lon at 414-247-9846.

In addition to leading by example, planting their own wildlife habitats, Wild Ones seek opportunities in the community to promote natural landscapes and stewardship.  They take on restoration projects such as The Restoration of Sooty Acres by the Cincinnati chapter.  This is a multiyear undertaking to remove invasive plants and return the Cornelius Hauck mansion grounds (part of the Civic Garden Center and Cincinnati Park) to wildflower gardens and a showcase to highlight native plants.  The chapter is working on partnering with master gardeners, garden clubs, university students and corporate volunteers to accomplish the restoration.

Wild Ones and volunteers use organic methods to remove vegetation.


Newly planted native shrubs.

The Lorrie Otto Seeds for Education Grant Programaims to involve our future stewards, children, in hands on learning and understanding of the natural world. Small grants are given for stewardship projects that range from out-door classrooms, rain gardens, bird sanctuaries, and pollinator gardens to wetland meadow restorations.

Students at Hugger Elementary School in Oakland, MI, collect native plant seeds in their outdoor prairie classroom.

A chance meeting between two strangers, one of whom was a dedicated Wild One, resulted in an outdoor classroom for Hugger Elementary School in Oakland MI. It helped that the other person was an environmentally involved parent at Hugger. Parents and school had the full attention of local Wild Ones who helped get the principal, teacher and maintenance staff to buy into planting a natural habitat at the school and provided grant money to help build an outdoor classroom.   Wild Ones assisted with contacts at native plant nurseries and with technical support on design, site prep and planting.  Students are benefiting by maintaining the planting and seeing the connection between humans, plants and pollinators and learning about the important role they can play in ecological stewardship.

Super swampers celebrate wetland planting.

Definition of a Super Swamper: Graduate of Blossom Home Preschool who continues to care for The Buhr Park Children’s Wet Meadow Project.

Twelve years ago preschoolers from Blossom Home Preschool in Ann Arbor MI, with encouragement and energy from teacher Jeannine Palm, embarked on an environmental odyssey to restore the adjacent acres of Buhr Park to a controlled wetland.  It was obvious to students and teachers that a low area of the park was constantly flooded and should be restored to a wetland ecosystem. With help from the Lorrie Otto SFE grants, native plant expertise and volunteers from Wild Ones, the original wetland restoration has been expanded threefold. Today, one of the first Super Swampers sits on the Washtenaw County Council.  Wild Ones in action!


Understanding ecosystem services!


Wild Ones education tools include school programs, talks, seminars, classes and the Wild Ones handbook, Landscaping with Native Plants. The handbook is a wonderful resource guide that goes beyond the how, where and why to plant natives to advice on getting neighbors to buy-into more bio-diverse, sustainable landscapes. The handbook is also a key component on the EPA Greenacres web page, available free.

For Wild Ones, it’s all about advocating, educating and preserving and restoring natural landscapes. If you want to become a Wild One member or form a chapter in your community, start by visiting Wild Ones.

Wild Ones, living the Land Ethic, teaching the Land Ethic and loving it!

Wild Ones gather for annual membership meeting at the Wild Center in August. photo-Bonnie Harper-Lore

Great thanks to Maryann Whitman and other Wild Ones who contributed to this blog!

© 2011, Catherine B. Zimmerman. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. If you are reading this at another site, please report that to us

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    About Catherine B. Zimmerman

    Catherine Zimmerman is a filmmaker and sustainable landscape designer based in the Washington, DC area. She has recently authored Urban & Suburban Meadows, Bringing Meadowscaping to Big and Small Spaces, and is putting the finishing touches on a companion video.

    The book, video and Catherine’s Meadow Project are her efforts to help people rethink their pesticide-ridden, manicured, monoculture lawns and return their land to beautiful, natural habitats for native plants and wildlife. Also see the Meadow Project Facebook Page.

    Catherine is also thrilled to join The Wild Ones as an honorary board member. The Wild Ones mission of environmental education and protection of biodiversity through the preservation, restoration and establishment of native plant communities fits perfectly with Catherine's goals of promoting native plants and wildlife gardens.


    1. mwhitman says:

      Catherine, I’ve been a member of Wild Ones for 17 years and you, a new Honorary Director, have changed my prespective on the natural landscaping movement, and Wild Ones’ role in it. Thank you. You are a wise lady.
      I look forward to many more posts from you…and the rest of “the NPWG team”.

      • Catherine B. Zimmerman says:

        In my journey to learn about ecosystems, natural landscapes and ecosystem services, I was fortunate to join the Wild Ones. When I attended the annual membership meeting, I knew I had come home to a family of like minded naturalists who walk the walk. Talk is fine, and enlightening at times, but I am about action. The Wild Ones mission really reflects an action oriented approach and I hope, in this blog, I have touched on some of that amazing action.
        Catherine B. Zimmerman recently posted..WE ARE GROWING!

    2. Tim Lewis says:

      I echo what Maryann posted. I really like how you tie such great people like Muir and Leopold (two of my inspiration heros) to Wild Ones because of Wild One’s mission. Your article is interesting, enlightning, and very inspiritional. It is an article that all Wild Ones members and friends should read. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and for being one of our honarary directors.
      Tim Lewis
      National President
      Wild Ones Natural Landscapers

      • Catherine B. Zimmerman says:

        The perspective I think is important is that we have not arrived here, perhaps at a tipping point in attitudes toward the healthy environments, without a strong history of activists like Muir, Leopold, Carson, Otto and organizations like Wild Ones. We are fortunate that there is so much more good science on environmental issues and groups, like Wild Ones, willing to spread that information to the average homeowner. Keep up the good work!
        Catherine B. Zimmerman recently posted..WE ARE GROWING!

    3. Julia Vanatta says:

      Catherine, I so enjoyed meeting you at the conference. Thank you for articulating my own passion for Wild Ones and our mission to educate others. We can all make better choices about how we care for the patch of land we call home… building corridors of healthy communities for all plants and animals.

      • Catherine B. Zimmerman says:

        I like that concept, taking our patch of earth and connecting it to the neighbor’s patch, and another neighbor’s patch of earth until we have created a quilt of natural habitat. It’s one small way we can make a big difference.
        Catherine B. Zimmerman recently posted..WE ARE GROWING!

    4. Donna VanBuecken, Executive Director Wild Ones says:

      Catherine — we were so delighted to have you join us at the WILD Center (Wild Ones Institute of Learning and Development) this past August and to participate in our annual membership meeting. Your blog posting above so perfectly discusses where we are as a society with the environmental movement. Thank you. Please let you readers know that they are invited to stop by the WILD Center at any time to veiw our native landscaping. We are open to the public. Address is 2285 Butte des Morts Beach Road in Neenah, Wisconsin. 877-394-9453 The grassses are really starting to turn their beautfiul bronzy red right now. Fall is my favorite season.

      • Catherine B. Zimmerman says:

        The Wild Center’s natural landscape is a lovely example of what any home owner can do to create habitat. I recommend a visit. Walking through the prairie plantings is a treat.

        I agree with you about the grasses. As today marks the first day of fall and we have a soft rain falling here in Maryland, I look out to the grasses in my meadow planting. They both brighten the rainy day and provide interesting movement. Happily that will continue through fall, into winter. Viva the grasses!
        Catherine B. Zimmerman recently posted..WE ARE GROWING!

    5. Hal Mann says:

      Catherine – WOW! I’ve been a member for just one year now, but this blog post really encourages me to get more active in spreading the world. This makes me feel like there is hope. Nice job, as always. I didn’t get to the annual meeting, but it was terrific to meet and talk with you at your recent presentation in Westerville, Ohio. It’s been fun for me to retell your Vivian story. Can’t wait for the upcoming video.
      Hal Mann recently posted..Walk with Me

      • Catherine B. Zimmerman says:

        It’s interesting what the cumulative affect can be if we all do something to heal the earth. I agree, it gives me hope, especially when I see kids becoming involved in native garden projects.

    6. Mary Jo Adams says:

      Excellent…of course! I should email this to all of my rural neighbors who think that it is necessary to re-create the suburban lawn surrounding their suburban-style house on their once “wild” rural 5 acres, which used to have wonderful native plants already there!

      • Catherine B. Zimmerman says:

        We don’t know how rich we are until we’ve lost it!
        Catherine B. Zimmerman recently posted..WE ARE GROWING!

    7. Janet says:

      Great article! Thank you!

    8. Kit Woessner says:

      Great summary of natural landscaping thought and action. We Wild Ones will continue the struggle in a flat-green-lawn world.
      Wild asters are in their glory right now. Nature is providing this dazzling show, not only in our yards, but along roadsides and in undisturbed ditches. I hope those who consider these plants “weeds” are paying attention…..

      • Catherine B. Zimmerman says:

        Take pictures and document the dazzling show. A picture is worth a thousand pleas to consider native plants-better yet-a video so they can see in living color!
        Catherine B. Zimmerman recently posted..WE ARE GROWING!

    9. maryann whitman says:

      Ney Tate Fraser, a photographer and long time friend of Lorrie Otto, provided the photo of Lorrie above. She reminds me that an annual conference that Lorrie was instrumental in establishing, will occur on Oct. 15, 2011, in Milwaukee at Cardinal Stritch University. Keynote speaker will be Dr. Douglas Tallamy, who will explain how our gardens and landscapes are part of the ecosystems
      that sustain life (including humans), the role of native plants in our ecosystem, and
      the consequences of failing to provide habitat for creatures at the bottom of our food web.
      Register online: (copy and paste the URL)

    10. Marcia DeClerk says:

      Thanks Catherine for all the good words for Wild Ones. It is a great organization to belong to. My yards is alive with all kind of insect, birds, frogs, and animal activity. They are so much fun to watch. More people need to experience this.
      Thanks again.

      • Catherine B. Zimmerman says:

        I totally agree. I just walked in from watching a pair of gold finch chow down in the meadow garden. It’s like having a living, breathing home entertainment center…
        Catherine B. Zimmerman recently posted..WE ARE GROWING!

    11. Barbara Olson says:

      Thanks Catherine for showing the timeline establishing the native plant movement and the people who made it happen, including yourself! The pictures were a good addition to the article and I can’t wait to see the video that you are creating. Our Grand Rapids, Mi. chapter is putting a video together now also that we hope to share with other chapters, showing the importance of native plants.


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