American Heroes - Lorrie Otto

Godmother of Natural Landscaping

  • Bret Rappaport
  • Apr 01, 1996
Here's a quiz: What four-letter noun is a "sheared, poisoned, monotonous, sterile landscape," created by human acts that are "immoral," "evil" and "flagrantly wasteful of drinking water and our non-renewable resources?" Hint: You won't find that definition in the dictionary. Those are descriptions offered over the years by naturalist Lorrie Otto, godmother of the movement known as natural landscaping. And the answer lies in that patch of green that Americans spend more than $25 billion a year to create and maintain: the lawn.

For more than four decades, Otto has waged a campaign to conserve natural habitat and its wildlife—starting with her own yard in Bayside, Wisconsin, and ranging as far afield as the national debate in the 1960s over banning the pesticide DDT. "More than anyone else, Lorrie Otto brought the whole idea of natural landscaping to the public's view," says naturalist Craig Tufts, manager of NWF's Backyard Wildlife Habitat Program.

As one might imagine after reading her incendiary words, Otto's goal has never been to make herself popular—but she has perfected an art of diplomacy with which she always seems to make her point in the long run. She started her habitat advocacy in the 1950s by encouraging native plants to grow in her front yard. Her aim then was simply to give her two children an interesting place to play and learn. Soon, the profusion of goldenrods, asters, blackcap raspberries and other plants not normally seen in Bayside yards brought objections.

Then, one day while Otto was home folding laundry in the basement, village workers showed up and mowed down the little bit of wilderness, without notice and without permission. That's when Otto the diplomat emerged. She persuaded village officials to accompany her on a tour of her yard, during which she described the wonders of everything that had been chopped. The authorities then paid her a settlement.

Otto's next big test took her out of the garden. She learned in the late 1950s of plans to develop a nearby 20-acre woodland known as Fairy Chasm. Otto worked for a decade to conserve this native wildlife habitat and its wildflowers, alerting and educating botanists, reporters and neighbors. She finally triumphed in 1969, when the Nature Conservancy purchased Fairy Chasm.

During her fight to save that woodland, Otto began noticing a terrible phenomenon: dead birds. The culprit was DDT, which communities across the country sprayed to control mosquitoes and the beetle that causes Dutch Elm disease. Otto worked hard to raise awareness of DDT's effects, and was even known to carry dead birds to pull out when she wanted to make the point that the pesticide was killing wildlife. In the late 1960s, she was a prime mover behind state hearings that led to the banning of DDT in Wisconsin, and her work helped bring about the national ban in 1972.

Next, Otto turned her attention to natural landscapers who ran afoul of local weed and lawn-height ordinances, assembling a team of experts to help defend the gardeners in court. In a landmark case in 1976, the team successfully helped defend U.S. Forest Service biologist Donald Hagar, who was charged with violating the weed ordinance in New Berlin, Wisconsin. By the time the trial was over, the defense had shown that Hagar's wild yard did not create a fire hazard, was not a health menace and did not depreciate local property values. The case helped set a precedent for similar cases around the country, with Otto often helping the defense.

But most of all, Otto's influence has altered the way legions of Americans see their yards. First, she makes people see carpets of grass as unnatural, sterile places that require several types of killing—of weeds, insects, fungus and competing plants—usually with poisons. And she points out that lawns consume both the oil that fuels mowers and far more water than would local native plants. Most of all, Otto helps people appreciate the alternative to lawns—beautiful natural environments that provide habitat for all manner of wildlife. "People should be forced to have natural plants, not grass," she has said.

Today, Otto, at 77, seems untiring. Her yard is a nationally recognized showpiece, with hundreds of wildflower and grass species, in bloom from early spring to late fall. She is active in the Wild Ones, a national group of natural landscapers, hosts cable television shows and lectures around the country. And if you're lucky enough to get a tour of her yard, she's apt to dig up a plant for your own garden.

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