When Carolyn Linville and Larry Holgerson bought their ranch-style home in suburban Wheat Ridge, Colorado, twelve years ago, they viewed the double lot as both an asset and a liability. “We really liked the fact that we had this big old honking yard,” says Carolyn. “However, we weren’t wild about the idea of mowing the grass in this big old honking yard.”
Their solution? “Get rid of as much grass as possible,” Carolyn explains. “Our only grand plan, our defining mantra, was that we minimize the grass.” Everything else, she admits, was a crapshoot.
The result is a thriving backyard ecosystem that includes a vegetable garden, a potato field, and a pond—home to goldfish, several koi, and half a dozen frogs. Around the pond, Carolyn has planted self-proliferating plants such as purple phlox, coneflowers, ravena grass, bee balm, and lamb’s ears; over the years these have crept out into the yard and eaten up grassy areas. And that’s just fine with Carolyn, who points out, “You don’t have to mow a purple coneflower.”
The eight-by-four-feet pond, which serves as a focal point for the backyard, was another tactic in the no-mowing strategy. Carolyn and Larry hand-dug the watering hole, which is three feet deep to provide a frost-free zone for the fish. Just for the heck of it, Larry threw in a couple of tadpoles ten years ago, and they’ve proven to be much more valuable than whimsical. “Over time, we realized that the frogs were leaving the pool and going off to forage on insects,” says Carolyn, who now has virtually no bug problems in her yard. Strawberries, which have spread from her vegetable garden to the edge of the pond, are free of the slugs and roly-poly bugs that once ravaged them. “The frogs take care of the insects,” she says. “It’s a win-win for all of us.”
In addition to admiring their soothing evening chorus and delighting in their pond frolicking, the accidental herpetoculturists have come to value the frogs as friends. As the two oldest, Dark Eyes and Elvis, have matured, they’ve learned to recognize Carolyn and Larry’s voices. The couple had a running bet as to who could be the first to actually feed one of the frogs—a bet that Carolyn is proud to have won.
“Dark Eyes was more at ease with us than the others, and occasionally I would throw worms or nonbeneficial insects out to the little island where she typically sits,” she says. “She came to see me as a food source. And one day, I put out my arm and dangled a worm, and she jumped up and grabbed it out of my hand.” Carolyn was shocked; the frog was shocked. But over time, both got used to the practice, and now it’s become something of a routine: Carolyn stands near the pond and dangles the worm; in less than the blink of an eye, Dark Eyes leaps up, grabs the worm with her sticky tongue, devours it whole, and returns to her lily pad. She never touches Carolyn’s finger.
One potato, two potatoes
Another huge chunk of grass, once a hard-to-mow area between the existing garden and the house, has given way to Carolyn’s potato field: twelve feet by fifteen feet planted with ten different varieties of potatoes. The quirky patch—not something you find in most suburban gardens—was just another fluke, Carolyn explains.
“It was such a large area to take over for a garden; it would have been difficult and expensive to do eight kinds of vegetables,” she says. “I just happened to get a catalog in the mail that had 150 varieties of potatoes, and I kind of got suckered in—I always end up overordering. So I used the whole area for potatoes.”
Just like the frogs, Carolyn has come to love her potatoes. (“It’s probably my Celtic background,” she admits.) They thrive in her clay soil, require little maintenance other than water and an occasional dose of organic fertilizer, and sprawl to fill the space that she has in abundance. The frogs take care of any Colorado potato beetles that might be attracted to the plants, and the spuds stay in the ground until Carolyn’s ready to dig them up. “In September and October, when everything else is long gone, you get potatoes,” says Carolyn, who stores them in the unheated garage and brings them out as needed. They show up at her table all winter long, roasted and stirred into soup.
The successful potato field is just another example of the merry hand of fate, she points out. “If I had listened to people talk about growing potatoes, I never would have tried it,” she says.
This lack of planning and foresight might make for a chaotic landscape, but Carolyn and Larry’s yard is calm and quieting—a true oasis in the suburban landscape. With all that time they might have spent mowing, they relax on the little back porch next to the pond. “Whenever we have anyone over here in summer, they just stare into the pond, look at the fish, look at the cats looking at the fish—they become mesmerized,” Carolyn says. “Nobody feels any stress. I just don’t think you can have a pond with fish and frogs, that bubbling and gurgling water sound, and get completely stressed out.”
All the more amazing because every aspect of this space happened by chance. “Most of our lives seem to be run by happenstance,” Carolyn points out. “You just throw stuff out there and see what takes. It’s not very logical, but it works.”
Mara, W.P. Breeding and Keeping Frogs and Toads. T.F.H. Publications, 1994.