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Bringing Nature Home in Newton Highlands

Highbush Blueberries

Completed Summer 2009
Total Cost: approximately $10,000
Primary Designer: Fran Peterson

The Site Before:

Even before the initial consultation in late February, I was excited about this project, because the prospective clients had indicated that they were interested in creating a bird-friendly garden.  During the first meeting, they explained in more detail that they wanted to transform their typical suburban back yard into a sanctuary for native wildlife in keeping with the ideas presented in the book Bringing Nature Home by Douglas W. Tallamy.  They felt that the back yard of their lovely Victorian home had little to attract birds or even family members to it. The yard included only sparse non-native plantings, a heavily mulched hillside, a functional stairway, and an isolated bird feeder. I thought  the space begged for life sustaining additions.

The Design:

As I laid out a plan for the backyard, I found that the steep slop surrounding this backyard posed two particular challenges.  One was the need to move a lawnmower from the back yard lawn area to the front yard.  To solve this, we’d need to create a grassy path that could meander through the plantings on one of the less steep portions of the hill.   The other challenge came in the form of the unattractive and excessively wide steps that ran from the end of the driveway, down the mulched hillside.

The clients and I considered replacing the stairway with stone steps, but decided to leave the original pressure treated stairway in place, as we wished to avoid disturbing and relocating a potentially toxic hazard.  I realized that I could place plants inside the steps to create a narrower path which follows a softened curve better suited to the naturalized look we were aiming for.   This approach reduced the overall cost of the project and left us with more resources to put toward plant material.

The design  reduced the lawn area.  For the perimeter, I selected a diverse collection of native plants, known specifically for their attractiveness to wildlife.  In particular, I chose blueberries (high and low bush), serviceberry, and chokeberry to provide fruit for birds.  My selections also included  native grasses such as wild sea oats since their edible seeds provide high nutrient food for local fauna, flowering perennials such as Foamflower to attract insects, and evergreens such as red cedars to provide  hiding places for birds and small mammals.


Prior to installation, we removed an unwanted wooden swing that had been standing unused in the yard for some time.  Rather than simply disposing of the swing, we found it a more suitable home elsewhere.

In July, installation began with the slope, where the Grove Hill Gardens crew painstakingly spread a natural jute mesh for erosion control.  This netting is particularly useful as it is strong enough to substantially reduce erosion, but the weave is loose enough that it is easy to pull apart to create an opening in which to plant perennials.  As the plants grow in, creating a network of roots for lasting erosion control, the jute net will decompose and disappear.

As in other projects, we wished to avoid disruption of the soil structure and biology.  That means we stuck to manual labor for planting–it is more work, but lower impact than most machinery.  Heavy equipment can cause soil compaction which leads to poor drainage and inadequate aeration, both of which can result in unhealthy plants over time.

As a special touch, our client asked us to install a birdhouse built by his daughter:


The clients say that the renovated back yard is like having an extra room. They are enthusiastic about spending more time sitting and working outside.  An e-mail from one of the clients assured us that they were happy with the results:

“…we are VERY pleased with how the job turned out…I, personally, had no idea how nice this could be”

As the plants fill in and begin to produce seeds and berries, and to attract insects with their blooms, we all hope to see more birds of diverse types visit throughout the year.

Before and after photos:

The stairway



We removed the unwanted swing and found it a more suitable home

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