How Farmers Inspired Me to Do More with My Backyard

By Katie James, Iowa Soybean Association

Des Moines residents Katie and Andy James are transforming their urban oasis by putting conservation practices to work. Taking cues from the ways farmers protect their land, the Jameses’ have found these same principles work in the city.

“I want to leave this land better than I found it,” is a phrase often heard from Iowa’s family farmers.

And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from Iowa farmers, a little innovation and forward-thinking can go a long way in making a big impact.

June is National Pollinators Month, paying homage to the critical role bees, butterflies and other insects play in crop production and the entire ecosystem food chain.

As my work with farmers over the last several years has shown me – every patch of ground is an opportunity to be creative and think beyond yourself!

Conservation at Work in an Urban Setting

This lesson proved helpful when, two years ago, my husband and I bought our first home in Des Moines. With an acre and a half backyard, the unique opportunity to “have land” in the city ignited a spark in my farm-girl heart. Coupled with my first-hand experience of seeing farmers implement innovative conservation practices, it didn’t take long for me to begin seeing our new property as an opportunity to make a difference.

My husband and I began the process of converting nearly an acre of our yard to native prairie in fall 2019. Just like farmers do with Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land or with their own prairie or pollinator strips, my husband and I viewed our typical turf-grass lawn as a vehicle to a more meaningful and creative piece of land.

That fall, we began clearing existing vegetation on the part of our yard that would soon be prairie. In this full-sun area, we broadcast seeded a mixture of native wildflowers, grasses and sedges in December, directly onto the bare ground. Most native seeds require winter sowing, as they rely on the change from snow and cold to spring warmth to know it is time to germinate.

Like anything worth doing, establishing a prairie takes time and patience. In year two, we’ve seen many more flowers bloom and revel in the surprise and joy of finding a new prairie species making its home in our “yard.”

Birds, Bees, Butterflies and More

“To make a prairie, it takes a clover and one bee. One clover and a bee, and revery. The revery alone will do, if bees are few.” – Emily Dickinson

The most meaningful impact from our little prairie has been the rewarding feeling of increased sightings of native bees, monarch butterflies, swallowtails and other vital insects. And what happens when you create an insect habitat? You see more birds! We’ve witnessed a noticeable increase of bird species in our yard that love the variety of new insects making their home in our new habitat.

Whether it’s creating pollinator habitat, leaving land for wildlife, prioritizing soil health with each planting season and even recycling drainage water, farmers have a lot to teach us about being more mindful with the resources we’re given.

Farmers taught my husband and me that there’s so much more to owning land than just growing grass. Because of forward-thinking farmers, we don’t till our garden, and we prioritize soil health.

Other conservation practices we’ve implemented include:

  • Establishing a privacy fence of native tallgrass species
  • Creating a rain garden to capture excess stormwater
  • Ensuring every bush, flower and tree we bring home is a native species (to ensure maximum pollinator benefits)
  • Establishing two milkweed patches
  • Utilizing recycled rainwater from five rain barrels, which hold up to 275 gallons
  • Practicing mindful mowing, never more often than every two weeks and never less than 4 inches tall

Urban dwellers can make a difference for wildlife and pollinators while beautifying communities in a sustainable and enriching way.

Whether it’s cover crops, prairie strips or other conservation practices, farmers across Iowa are passionate about conservation.  It led us to consider the ways we use our yard. No matter how small, every effort makes a difference!

We all have a stake in our environment. Let’s begin with what we do at home!

Keep up with Katie and her husband’s farmer-inspired conservation journey on Instagram: @backyard.conservationists