Create your own personal park in your yard

In this article with Universal Press Syndicate, RJ Laverne, manager of education and training for Davey, tells homeowners that the first step to creating your own backyard park is to plant some trees. 

Posted: August 19, 2016 

By Marty Ross 

The National Park Service turns 100 this year, and it's something to celebrate in a big way. Visit a park and let the beauty and majesty of nature overwhelm you — and then take your sense of the uplifting experience home with you. You can't recreate Yosemite or Yellowstone in your backyard, but the powerful lessons of national parks are meaningful even if your own private park is a tiny courtyard in town.

Mark Swartz, a park ranger and coordinator of the park service centennial, draws a lot of his thinking from Frederick Law Olmsted, the great landscape architect and designer of New York's Central Park and many other important parks. In his writings in the late 19th century, Olmsted actually helped lay the groundwork for the National Park Service, Swartz says.

Visiting a national park "is like a time-out in your life," Swartz says. Yet parks are not lonely places: They bring people together in discovering nature and their place in it. Naturally, visitors want to hold on to the feelings national parks inspire.

Olmsted understood the spontaneity of nature, which is completely different from designed spaces. For him, a naturalistic garden would be the best private refuge, Swartz says, but "we all have our own interpretations of what inspires us and restores us." There are other cues to follow.

The National Park Service works hard in many ways to set a good example for home gardeners, says Charlie Pepper, an NPS landscape maintenance and sustainability expert. The Park Service has instituted practices to reduce the use of pesticides and other chemicals in parks, for example. "We're managing the quality of plants in our landscapes," Pepper says, and gardeners can do that at home, too.

Native plants and pollinator plants are increasingly important in national parks, Pepper says. Native plants are naturally adapted to local climates and conditions. They are resilient, and not likely to require fertilizers or pesticides, and they do not depend on supplemental watering.

The National Park Service also has a pollinator program and establishes plantings with the express purpose of supporting birds, bees, butterflies, bats and other pollinators, whose habitats have been threatened by development and widespread use of pesticides. Pollinator plants and the insects they attract "improve the richness of the plant palette," Pepper says. Among other initiatives, the NPS is monitoring bee diversity in Boston, keeping an inventory of butterflies in the Rocky Mountains, and planting for pollinators to help keep apple trees healthy in the historic orchard at Adams National Historical Park in Massachusetts.

New planting and maintenance practices also have improved experiences for visitors, Pepper says, describing a change at Valley Forge, where many acres of land were once mowed every two weeks during the growing season. Now, native-plant meadows have replaced much of the turf grass, increasing biodiversity in the park and reducing its carbon footprint. The meadows are full of life, and views of the tall grasses are serene. "They evoke the sense that this place is important: They convey the qualities and patina of an older landscape," 

One of the best ways to create your own personal park is to plant a tree, says R.J. Laverne, education specialist with the Davey Tree Company, a partner with the National Parks Foundation, an organization that supports the Park Service. Beautiful trees in your garden and neighborhood have both physical and emotional benefits, he says. They make an urban or suburban landscape more pleasing and natural. Good trees change the whole character of a neighborhood.

You don't have to plant a mighty oak, not to mention a majestic redwood, to get the desired effect. Small ornamental trees — or even trees in pots — are said to help reduce stress and increase your ability to concentrate. If you have room for it, plant a tree that will grow into a large specimen, Laverne says, but there is no single perfect choice. "It's like asking a car dealer to recommend the perfect car," he says. "Maybe the Ferrari is the way to go. Maybe the mini-van. Maybe the pickup. It depends."

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