The grass on Fiona Solkowski Becker’s side of the fence may not be greener than her neighbor’s grass, but it is definitely taller. When Becker, a 1995 Millikin graduate, moved into a neighborhood not far from downtown Indianapolis, her neighbors were accustomed to neatly mown lawns rather than the conglomeration of native plants soon fostered in Becker’s front yard.
A conservation planner with The Nature Conservancy, Becker had recently transitioned from a hands-on job restoring prairies to an office position and a city home. Planting a tall grass prairie in her front yard was her way to stay connected with the outdoor life she loved. She saw it as “a tiny natural habitat in the pocket of the city.” Her neighbors feared it was a newly installed breeding ground for mosquitos.After a few complaints and citations for “tall grass and weeds,” Becker joined with the mayor’s office of sustainability, SustainIndy, and embarked on her five-year effort to create a city code friendlier to native planting and rain gardens. In 2010, they succeeded and Indy residents can now register their native gardens for exemption from the vegetation height restriction. Becker proudly displays a sign declaring her yard a registered native planting area.
Through that quest, Becker found other benefits: “It was a learning experience for me on how to educate people who live in the city about nature,” she says. “It was a good way to start a conversation about how plants actually work.” Educating people about nature is her lifelong endeavor, both professionally and and personally. Becker began working with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in Indiana as a preserve steward restoring prairies and wetlands (above). “When prairies don’t have their natural regime … when houses start to encroach on natural areas, or something has changed in the natural cycles, prairies turn to woodlands,” says Becker. “There isn’t a lot of prairie left, especially in Indiana.” To help set up a habitat where native plants can grow, Becker spent most days wielding a chainsaw to remove woody trees. “I had awesome biceps!” she laughs.
That experience eventually led to her educational role with TNC as a conservation information manager, where she works with a Global Information System (GIS) to interpret data layers, maps and information to aid in communicating about conservation planning. As a potter, dancer and singer in her personal life, Becker enjoys the opportunity to mold the information into stories and visuals that make the ideas accessible to the general public and those who may fund the project. “I have to create maps or present data in a way that is interesting and pleasing to the people looking at it,” she says. “I have to capture their attention.” Becker also gives presentations on planting native gardens in small urban spaces as part of her work with TNC and on a volunteer basis with the Indiana Native Plant and Wildflower Society. She finds her master’s degree in education from Lesley University useful for this: “I use my educational degree in a non-traditional kind of way.”
Since the city code change in Indianapolis, Becker says “there are definitely more ‘native’ plants showing up in yards and around offices.” She sees a growing interest from her neighbors, too. “More and more folks are moving into the neighborhood who are interested in plants that are native to Indiana and are lower maintenance than a lawn,” she says. “I happily share plants or advice with them!”With Becker teaching her neighbors about prairie plantings, in years to come she may no longer be able to claim the tallest grass on the block.
Amanda Hamilton '14 was a writing intern for the alumni office during spring semester and is continuing to write for Quarterly part time.