Laurie Otto, Prairie Queen

Lorrie Otto, Prairie Queen

At our last Northern Kane County Wild Ones meeting last month, Bret Rappaport presented a program on Lorrie Otto.

Who is Lorrie Otto?

She’s the inspiration for Wild Ones, widely acknowledged as the heart and soul of the natural  landscaping movement.

by Carol Chew, Mandy Ploch, and Bret Rappapport

After graduating from the University of Wisconsin, Lorrie married Owen Otto, a psychiatrist, and moved to a suburb, north of Milwaukee, a block from Lake Michigan.   A 20 acre ravine was under threat of development and Lorrie led the fight against it and won.   It took a decade, but in 1969, The Nature Conservancy took title to the twenty acres.  During that time she also led the fight against   DDT being sprayed from an airplane in order to rid he area of mosquitoes.  In 1967, the state  of Wisconsin became the first state in the country to ban DDT.

The house the Otto’s bought came with the typical suburban landscaping: large lawn, and non-native trees and shrubs.  They removed the alien plants including the sixty-four Norway Spruce on the property and planted asters, goldenrod, and ferns, not only in the back yard, but the front yard, as well.  The village took exception and had the ferns mowed down.

Lorrie sued and won.

And that’s how it began.

“We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, but rather borrow it from our descendants.” Lorrie Otto’s words aptly summarize her life and legacy. In the last decade, the natural landscaping movement took root and spread from coast to coast. Lorrie Otto planted the seeds of the movement.

I took most of my information from the following article:read further about Lorrie:

back-yard fernsMy Back Yard in May–north side of garage.  Lady Fern, Virginia Waterleaf, Penn Sedge, Curly-styled Wood Sedge.

In 1997, after hearing a lecture by Lorrie, a group of 9 women in Milwaukee began meeting monthly to discuss native plants and natural landscaping. Calling themselves the Wild Ones, they formed the first chapter; there are now 56 chapters, nation wide.  They are mostly in the Midwest: Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan; but there are chapters as far east as Connecticut and California in the west.

June Keibler, Trish Beckjord, and I started Northern Kane County Wild Ones in the fall of 2009; we now have 96 members and still growing.

Wild Ones promotes environmentally sound landscaping practices to preserve biodiversity through preservation, restoration and establishment of native plant communities.  Wild Ones is a national not-for-profit environmental education and advocacy organization.

Wild Ones continues to lead the natural landscaping movement as we explore, teach, and change the practice of gardening in our communities and around the country to using native plants.

I moved into my Sears bungalow in the fall of 1997.  Having learned about native plants for the past few years, I decided to create gardens using only plants indigenous to my area.  I have, however, what most of you don’t.   My bungalow was built in 1927–builders did not remove the topsoil in those days and I have deep mesic prairie soil–not clay as newer houses have. I began my first garden the following spring, starting with the front entry walk and the sidewalk.

front sidewalk June

Front sidewalk on south side of my house in early July.  Butterfly Weed, Wild Quinine,  Prairie Coreopsis, Wild Petunia, Prairie Dropseed.


west side ysrd july

My west side yard in late July–Purple Coneflower, Showy Black-eyed Susan, Rosin Weed, False Sunflower, Cup Plant, Blazing Star, and Joe Pye Weed in bloom, plus Prairie Dropseed and Big Bluestem.

Sept front parkway

My south-facing front parkway in September with Aromatic Aster, Prairie Baby’s Breath, Showy Black-eyed Susan, Prairie Dropseed.

west side all over Oct

My west-facing side yard in October.  New England Aster, Smooth Blue Aster,  Prairie Dropseed.

Thank you Lorrie Otto.

Only a small portion of our land can ever be publicly owned.  As more and more open areas are developed and are turned into subdivisions, what the homeowner plants becomes ever more significant.  The use of prairie plants to create prairie, savanna, and wetland gardens in ordinary neighborhoods and subdivisions of city, town, and suburbia will eliminate the use of fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and supplemental watering, and vastly reduce the use of gasoline powered lawn and garden tools.  Our planet will be healthier and so will we.  While what we do in our own yards may seem trivial, it may eventually be the most consequential of all.

Horticulture and gardening for the last two centuries have been about the subjugation of nature.  We are learning to garden with nature.  It costs less to live with nature than to be locked in a constant battle with her—a battle that cannot be won since a short-term victory surely hasten our demise.

Bret Rappaport

Chicagoland Gardening, Sep-Oct 1997


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