Fascinated by Ann Arbor's vanished prairies, he recreated one in his own front yard
When Bob Grese turned the front lawn of his house on Ann Arbor's west side into a prairie, his neighbors didn't know what to make of it. They had been very happy the year before to learn that a landscape architect had bought the run-down property, an eyesore on the street. And they had since become fond of the mild-mannered, smiling Grese, who brought delicious natural foods to their neighborhood potlucks. But they had expected something a little different from his landscaping efforts than five-foot-tall grasses.
Grese (pronounced GRAY-see), thirty seven, is an associate professor in the U-M School of Natural Resources and chair of the landscape architecture program. He started his prairie three years ago as a teaching tool. His small house, built in the 1920's, probably as a garage, is set back on its lot, dwarfed by a long front yard. Grese planted the area nearest the house as a woodland opening, with wildflowers. The middle section is prairie, with five kinds of grasses and an assortment of prairie flowers (black-eyed Susan and other cone Cowers, bee balm, ironweed), tapering off again into a woodland opening near the street. He put trees at the front to give it a more landscaped look, and planted the front edge of the yard with natural ground covers—wild strawberry, dewberry, and Virginia creeper.
In growing his prairie, Grese is going one step further back than his Old West Side neighbors who work to restore their houses to their original appearance. He is reconstructing a landscape that existed before Ann Arbor was settled. Looking at old survey maps, he has identified a prairie that was here when John Alien and Elisha Rumsey platted the town in 1824. It began where Slauson school is, just a few blocks from Grese's house on Charlton.
Grese started his prairie by burning (with city permission) the vegetation already in his yard. Burning suppresses European lawn grasses and woody plants and puts nutrients back in the soil to help the native plants thrive. Whenever possible, Grese likes to begin his prairie projects by burning. He never has any problem getting volunteers to help. "Burning holds a real enchantment for people," he says. "There's a primal attraction to fire."
Dark-haired and slight (though muscular, probably from biking and hiking), Grese knows his own attraction to prairies is not widely shared. "It's easier for most people to appreciate forests rather than prairies," he says. As part of a small but growing movement of prairie restorers, Grese wants to change this. He has helped schoolkids set up prairies at Thurston Nature Center and Leslie Science Center with "stomping parties," where the children themselves sow the seeds of wild grasses and flowers. He has led workshops on prairies and is active in several state and national environmental organizations.
Grese especially enjoys leading field trips to remnants of prairies past. There were once prairies and oak savannas (woodland openings) throughout this area. Alien and Rumsey reportedly picked Ann Arbor as a town site because of the oak openings along the Huron River. The southeastern part of the city was a wet prairie (which explains why basements in that area often flood). Grese has found many prairie remnants around town: along the railroad tracks between Dexter and Ann Arbor; behind the Catherine McAuley campus on Huron River Drive (called the Shanghai prairie because turn-of-the-century Chinese workers mined gravel there); on drain commission land between US-23 and Platt Road; Dow Field in the Nichols Arboretum; and in parts of Barton and Gallup parks.
Grese's serious interest in prairies began when he was in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin in the 1980's, where he studied and helped with an experimental prairie. But his interest in plants and nature goes back to his grade-school years, when his family lived on two and a half acres in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Neither his parents (his father was a Lutheran minister) nor his ten siblings were particularly interested in nature, but Grese loved the wooded area around his childhood home, where the grass grew wild. "I was enchanted with the place,'' he says.
At Washington University in St.Louis in 1973, Grese began studying architecture, but decided he was more interested in the grounds around the buildings than in the buildings themselves. He switched to landscape architecture and transferred to the University of Georgia, where he received his B.A. Once he began working, the job he liked best was recording the route of the trail along Pennsylvania's Lehigh Canal for the Historic America Engineering Record. Bored with-the everyday mechanics of landscape architecture and wanting to learn more about plants, he returned to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, where he earned a master's in 1984. He taught two years at the University of Virginia before coming to the U-M, where he won tenure earlier this year.
Besides his interest in prairies, Grese has pursued two other specialties: children's nature education and the history of landscape architecture. The period of landscape history that Grese has focused on is, appropriately enough, the prairie landscape movement, a counterpart to Frank Lloyd Wright's prairie architecture. He's an admirer of Jens Jensen, a leader of the movement, which encouraged the use of native plants in landscape design. Grese's book, Jens Jensen: Maker of National Parks and Gardens, was recently published by Johns Hopkins University Press.
Grese is a softspoken individual with strong convictions about local issues that touch on the environment. He thinks conservation efforts such as protection of wetlands or Ann Arbor's recently proposed natural features ordinance are steps in the right direction, but he emphasizes, "We need to protect [the environment] as a larger continuum. It makes no sense to protect wetlands and then pave right up to them, to not protect the upland."
As for the natural features ordinance, Grese worries that it could go too far and indiscriminately protect everything—including "weed trees" that he thinks should be cut down to make room for the restoration of native species. (Debate on just what the ordinance will cover is continuing.)
He would like to see the city's forestry department concentrate on planting trees indigenous to this area (white and bur oaks, chestnuts) instead of imports like zelkova trees. Although the zelkovas are meant to replace the city's vanished American elms, Grese complains that "they don't have the grace or charm" of the native species.
Grese's vocation is also his avocation. Although he likes folk music, he finds he's too busy working in his gardens (he has two besides the prairie) to go to many concerts. Part of him seems nostalgic for a slower-paced American past. After an inner struggle, he decided to give up his car, a 1980 Datsun. One day last February, he drove it to Town and Country auto recyclers on Wagner and bicycled back home.
Grese's own prairie is sometimes a shock to people who see it for the first time, bursting up above the neatly mowed lawns along the street. Former neighbor Mary Jo Gord says that when she and her husband were selling their house on Charlton recently, many prospective buyers mistook Grese's residence for an overgrown and abandoned house.
But over time, his neighbors have become accustomed to the prairie. Although no one has followed his example and begun their own, they enjoy the offerings of his—increased butterfly populations in the summer, more birds in the winter, the grasses turning various colors in the fall, and the snow making changing patterns in the winter.