A Garden Chat With Lorrie Otto

Article and interview by Doreen Howard. Photos by Ney Tait Fraser.

Don’t be misled by the musical voice and kindly face of the lady who looks like everyone’s favorite grandmother. At 87, Lorrie Otto is still a force to be reckoned with.   Just ask the Wisconsin State Legislature and the United States Congress. After repeatedly finding dead birds around her Milwaukee home in the 1950s and ’60s, following then-routine municipal spraying of the pesticide DDT, Otto successfully spearheaded a charge to ban its use – first in Wisconsin in 1970, and then in the entire country in 1972. She also began advocating the use of rain barrels and, later, rain gardens to address the problem of water-polluting urban runoff. And in the late 1970s, she inspired the founding of Wild Ones, a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to promoting and restoring natural, native landscaping.

After decades of educating people about why nature knows best, Otto still works tirelessly to spread her message. She views suburban yards, with their neat lawns, as “the tyranny of tidy minds,” and dares their owners to replace turf with plant communities of native wildflowers, trees, and wildlife-attracting shrubs that don’t need to be maintained with pesticides, herbicides, and noisy, air-polluting machinery.

Garden writer Doreen Howard visited Otto at her home in Fairy Chasm, a Nature Conservancy wildlife refuge, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to see a prime example of natural landscaping in a suburban setting, and to talk about her ongoing mission.

Doreen Howard You began landscaping naturally in your garden in order for your children to have an interesting place to play and learn.   Why is it important to teach children early about nature?

Lorrie Otto In our society, children are not encouraged to bond with nature. Instead, they are taught that the way to treat nature is to cut and kill – mow the lawn and kill the insects – to create an acceptable landscape. It’s all so mean and bleak. The real irony is that the   suburbs will become diverse and beautiful only if we landscape naturally – in such a way that our yards become enchanting places for children to explore. In a natural landscape, children can find twigs with bracket fungi on them, broken branches they can use to make tepees, leaves with galls growing on them, and so much more.

DH How do you suggest parents create natural landscaping?

LO First and foremost, get rid of the lawn and replace it with native trees and wildflowers. Don’t prune shrubs that produce berries, so the berries can form and provide food for birds in the fall.   And keep fallen leaves and other plant debris on the ground so they have a chance to rot and provide nutrition for the soil – don’t remove them just to be tidy.

DH Do you have favorite native plants you’d like to see more widely planted?

LO Yes. Every school yard should have bottle gentian (Gentiana clausa). It’s entertaining for children when bumblebees burrow inside the blossoms and make each one vibrate as they collect the flower’s yellow pollen.   Another favorite is cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum). Its leaves come together at the base, clasping the stem to form a “cup” that collects dew and rain, providing bees and other insects a place to drink. And   its yellow flowers provide insects with nectar and pollen when they bloom in midsummer.

DH As gardeners, what is the worst thing we do to our environment?

LO   Maintaining the suburban lawn. I call it the “lawning” of America.   It shows a disregard for the natural beauty of the land, and lack of knowledge about the harm a lawn mentality has inflicted on the environment. Lawn chemicals, for example, poison the water, kill birds, and destroy soil biology. At Wild Ones, we have been trying to educate people to preserve and restore the natural landscape for more than 20 years, and we are still fighting to change traditional thinking.

DH What do you think will be your greatest legacy to the next generation?

LO   For years, I thought it would be abolishing the use of DDT in America.   Now I think I’ll be remembered for teaching people to take care of the Earth.  I’ve lived so long that I’m seeing the results of what I did. Many people tell me they were children when they first heard me talk about taking care of the planet. Now they are doing it and teaching their children how to do it.

This interview, originally published in the September/October 2006 issue of The American Gardener magazine, is reprinted with permission of the American Horticultural Society (www.ahs.org).