By Christina Balsano Wichmann
This year, the Conservation Foundation celebrates its 50th anniversary of preserving and restoring open spaces, protecting rivers, and promoting stewardship of the environment in DuPage, Will, Kane, and Kendall counties. The beautiful preserves we enjoy, including Greene Valley Forest Preserve, St. James Farm, and Hidden Lake Forest Preserve are here today thanks to the work of the Conservation Foundation and its early founders and supporters. At present, the Conservation Foundation is executing a multi-year plan that will connect existing open spaces together, extend trail linkages, and preserve remaining natural areas.
Since 1997, the Conservation Foundation headquarters have been the historic, 60-acre McDonald Farm on Knoch Knolls Road in Naperville. The farm is also home to Green Earth Harvest, the Conservation Foundation’s all-organic shareholder farm. The farm’s crops include arugula, carrots, cucumbers, lettuce, onions, peas, radishes, tomatoes, and much more.
The farm also partners with family farms for pick-ups at McDonald Farm, including Flat Tire Farm (Michigan-grown fruits); Hufendick Farm (humanely raised meats, eggs, and milk); Sweet Pea’s Stems (fresh-cut specialty flower bouquets grown at McDonald Farm and the owner’s own yard); and Thyme & Place Herbs (fresh-cut and dried herbs and teas).
McDonald Farm serves as a showcase of conservation in action to inspire others. Natural beauty welcomes visitors when they come up the long drive: wetland and prairie restoration areas filled with birds such as goldfinches, grasshopper sparrows, redwing blackbirds, and the solitary great blue heron; bluebird nesting boxes, which are cleaned and monitored by staff and volunteers; organic vegetable patches for the spring through fall harvests; a 25,000 gallon rainwater harvesting system; a children’s sensory garden that hosts summer camps; a butterfly garden with monarchs, swallowtails, and red admirals fluttering about; and greenhouses, barns, and two historic farmhouses used for offices, education programming, and of course, farming. When the sun sets and all is quiet on the farm, a herd of deer regularly come to graze and poke about. Later at night, hooting from a great horned owl or the yippings of a coyote pack can be heard from the farm.
One of the Conservation Foundation’s most popular programs is Conservation@Home, an initiative that encourages a new way of thinking about traditional private landscapes. Jim Kleinwachter, program director, regularly collaborates with homeowners to achieve Conservation@Home certification or to assist with plant selections in their yards.
Four things Jim suggests that we can do to improve ecological balance and bring nature into our yards are the following:
- Incorporate native plants into existing flower beds
Native plants are very hardy and adjust to a variety of conditions. The plants have deeper root systems that need less watering, while also restoring nutrients into the soil. Popular specimens for sunny conditions are Black-eyed Susan, Blazing Star, Butterfly Weed, and Coneflower. Popular specimens for shade are Northern Maidenhair Fern, Virginia Bluebells, Wild Geranium, and Wild Ginger.
- Install a rain barrel under a downspout
Rain is soft water and full of minerals that helps plants grow far better than chlorinated tap water. The collected water can be used to water plants or fill bird baths. A rain barrel can also be part of a plan to manage runoff and land erosion. Plus, it can reduce your water bill costs!
- Reduce the area of grass
Grass is from Europe and has zero value for wildlife or water absorption during heavy rainfall. It needs a lot of water during the summer months to maintain its color and health and herbicides for those who want it weed-free. Larger flower beds add beauty and create habitat for a variety of creatures, including bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, and rabbits.
- Install bird feeders, bird baths, bird houses
Create a nature haven in your yard with one or all of these. Certain seeds attract certain birds. For example, cardinals love black oil sunflower seed, mourning doves love white millet, black-capped chickadees love shelled sunflower chips, and goldfinches love Nyjer seeds. Safflower seeds are a good option to deter squirrels from eating everything up. Bird houses need to be a specific size for the type of bird you are hoping to attract. Birds in Naperville that will nest in bird houses include the black-capped chickadee, downy woodpecker, house sparrows, and screech owls.
Using native plant garden design and sustainable landscaping practices, more homeowners are creating patchworks around Naperville that support wildlife, provide clean water and air, and protect our region’s biodiversity. The Conservation Foundation hosts events throughout the year and even invites you to take a tour of their headquarters for inspiration.