The alley that runs between the 3600 blocks of Morton and Harrison avenues in Brookfield is pretty typical – a rough stretch of gravel framed by garages and fences and lined on one side by utility poles — until you get to Daniel Gerdes’ garage.
Bursting with the blooms of native plants like milkweed, wingstem, obedient plant, liatris, cup plant and prairie dock it has become a haven for wildlife – monarch and swallowtail butterflies, who are drawn to their host plants, and other pollinators drawn to nectar.
“I love the idea of using just a dead space that doesn’t have an apparent value and turning it into something really special,” said Gerdes, who moved into his Morton Avenue home with his wife, Jenny, and daughter, Tessa, five years ago.
Gerdes started transforming the roughly 50-by-3-foot strip that runs behind his garage and rear fence into a prairie three years ago. In that short time, it’s become special enough to have qualified as a Monarch Watch-certified monarch butterfly waystation.
Monarch waystations must meet specific criteria, including square footage and percentage of native species.
“This garden was certified last year with about half as many plants, so I think I’d do even better this year,” Gerdes said.
What was once just a bed of lava rock is now a garden framed by railroad ties he bought from Menard’s and packed with plants that attract pollinators and other wildlife. Some hug the ground or grow just a foot or so tall. Others have thrust up six-foot tall spikes of flowers.
A centerpiece of the garden, however, is not a plant at all. It’s a converted bee box that serves as a butterfly incubator, which is tended to daily by Gerdes and his 5-year-old daughter, Tessa,
Now in its second year of use, the box holds monarch and swallowtail caterpillars, that complete their life cycles there and which Daniel and Tessa release into the wild as butterflies.
“There’s usually a butterfly waiting for us to come out and we release it into the air here,” Gerdes said. “Last year we had only under 10. This year we’re going to be upwards of 50 at least.”
According to Gerdes, only about 5 percent of caterpillars survive if left alone in the wild. His garden in back of the garage as well as his backyard and side yard gardens draw plenty of birds, which feast on the monarch caterpillars lounging on stems of milkweed and the swallowtail caterpillars munching on the ferny leaves of the rue.
The caterpillars inside the incubator are hungry creatures and Daniel and Tessa replenish it with milkweed and rue stems, taking the critters off the spent stems and putting them back on the new ones.
Maintaining a prairie, even one as narrow as Gerdes’ is a big job.
“I’m out here every day at least an hour a day,” Gerdes said. “Every morning and evening I’m out here working on something.”
Gerdes isn’t your typical home gardener in that respect. He not only has laid out, planted and maintains his own gardens, it’s also his day job. For the past 20 years Gerdes has worked as a landscape designer for a large Chicago firm.
While plants are an inescapable part of his life, however, planting with pollinators in mind is not necessarily a regular part of his job.
“I work for one of the biggest companies in the city and we do not necessarily do ecological landscaping,” he said. “Most of the industry doesn’t do ecological landscaping. It’s just not the norm for the past 50 years.”
Having grown up in the country, Gerdes said his childhood was filled with wildlife. When he and Jenny moved to Brookfield five years ago with Tessa, who was then an infant, he saw his suburban lot as a blank canvas to try a new project.
“We moved into this house and the landscape was kind of barren, some random daylilies and some bushes and that was it,” Gerdes said. “I started dipping my toe into the native plants and put my first couple of plants in the yard and was just kind of blown away by the instantaneous igniting of wildlife that happened in and around those plants.”
The first order of business was replacing a strip of daylilies from his south fence line and planting a mix of native and non-native plants, including roses, swamp milkweed, red switchgrass, prairie dropseed and a fledgling red oak.
Gerdes then removed a large concrete slab that took up a good portion of the backyard to extend the native species north of the driveway, planting chokeberries, dogwood, summersweet and others.
The side yard north of the house is slowly being transformed into a micro-forest, said Gerdes, which will eventually have its own canopy, understory and ground-level plants. He’s even brought elements of the forest, like pieces of moss and deadwood logs, “tucking them into the landscape to create little microenvironments for wildlife.”
Those backyard efforts are what inspired, three years ago, the garden out back in the alley.
“I thought, I have this raw space in the alley that is literally just weeds and rocks right now. Let me see what I can do with it,” Gerdes said. “And I set out on the idea that I’m going to try to make the ultimate pollinator garden. It’s still a work in progress and is taking up a lot of my thoughts and time right now.”
So, what’s been the reaction to all of this new wildlife being attracted to the family’s property on Morton Avenue? Mostly positive, says Gerdes, though not universally enthusiastic.
“People have a strange relationship with bugs, so it’s been controversial,” Gerdes said. “It’s been generally very supportive …but I think one of the biggest hurdles with going in the direction in your garden is that you have to kind of change your idea about insects and change your whole comfort level with them, because it’s not just going to attract the pretty ones. It’s going to attract all the things people are usually trying to drive out of their yards.”