Franklin becomes first Tennessee Smart Yards Community

By KATE COIL
TML Communications Specialist

The city of Franklin has become the first Tennessee Smart Yards Community as part of a pilot project to expand the University of Tennessee Extension Smart Yard’s program beyond individual backyards.


The Tennessee Smart Yards program involves homeowners and residents across the state to incorporate lawn and property management guidelines that yield healthier, more sustainable landscapes through tactics like planting native species, using organic mulches, and composting.


Andrea Ludwig, associate professor in the University of Tennessee’s Department of Biosystems Engineering and Soil Science, said the program began about a dozen years ago with pilots in six different counties across the state.


“Tennessee Smart Yards started as part of a grant through the Tennessee Department of Agriculture’s 319 program, which works to put practices in the ground and provide education in communities to prevent non-point source pollution,” Ludwig said. “It’s targeting watersheds with streams that have impairment in them. The Tennessee Water Resources Research Center secured the grant to educate homeowners recognizing that homeowners play a major role in land stewardship in a lot of areas where there is impairment due to pollution. With that seed funding and the vision from the water center, they picked up on a model out of Florida and adapted it to Tennessee.”


Bob Ravener, committee chair for the Smart Yards program with the Franklin Downtown Neighborhood Association, said the neighborhood associate wanted to participate in a program that both encouraged natural landscapes and served as a showcase for the historic neighborhood.


“We are always thinking about ways to continuously improve our natural habitat and try to find ways to energize more people and do more things while learning,” Ravener said. “I did some research and came across Tennessee Smart Yards. That program is basically a paint-by-numbers guide. We started talking with Andrea Ludwig about how the program had evolved and if it could be expanded into a communitywide effort.”


Ludwig said the  program combines the knowledge from both the agriculture extension offices with the municipal stormwater and watershed agencies to benefit local communities. By getting entire communities involved, Ludwig said the program can have positive benefits on issues like stormwater runoff and maintaining clean watersheds.


“One yard can make a difference for the individual homeowner,” she said. “If we can get communities involved, it really concentrates conservation efforts and compounds the benefits we can see. A lot of it is just small changes or things people may already be doing. If we can as communities really concentrate these efforts in areas that are approximate to waterways or create corridors in between parks we really start to see watershed or landscape level change. We can buffer entire streams with native vegetation and have bigger tracts of land where we can have our buildings and infrastructure but also have areas for natural processes.”


The program is built on nine foundational principles of stewardship and responsibility: right plant, right place; manage soils and mulch; water efficiently; reduce, reuse, recycle; use fertilizer appropriately; manage yard pests; provide for wildlife; protect water’s edge; and reduce stormwater runoff and pollutants.


Each one of the actions under these categories is worth a set amount of points or “inches” toward the Smart Yard Designation. There are 72 “inches” available, but homeowners only need to do 36 to obtain their Smart Yard.


“The program is very action-oriented, trying to get homeowners to evaluate what they do in their space,” Ludwig said. “We want them to have a better lens of stewardship, conservation, and how they can work with nature more in every day practice.”


Ravener said the program is on a level even beginners can understand.

“A lot of people, like me and my wife, want to do the right things but don’t have the time, knowledge or expertise,” he said. “It was simple, straightforward point-by-point way that even novices like myself could do it. It basically tells people for all intents and purposes you are probably already doing a lot of the things you need to. It offers other ways to expand your knowledge into the things you can do. We put a one-page newsletter together with deeper links for people who wanted to do more.”


The program launched in Franklin’s Downtown Neighborhood Association in March, and Ravener said he and members of the association are working with city officials to expand the community pilot program into other Franklin neighborhoods.


“We all want to do something to make a difference,” Ravener said. “This is an example of how yard-by-yard and community-by-community you can make a difference in what we plant, what we irrigate, what we take out, and what we ultimately attract. It definitely shows that one person can make a difference in what they do in their own backyard.”

Ravener said Franklin is already reaping benefits from the program.


“Especially in an urban setting or downtown community like we are, there is still a lot of natural growth,” he said. “We are improving the environment all around us. The more native species you have around the less water run-off you have and the less irrigation you need because they are more adapted to the natural climate. It has brought in more pollinators that keep those native species expanding, and reduces all the invasive species that are so prominent now. It feels like I have more birds’ nests in my yard than I’ve ever had. We also have a lot more pollinators around than I can remember in just this one season.”


Community pilot programs are being planned in the eastern and western regions of Tennessee. Once this pilot effort is complete, Tennessee Smart Yards plans to produce a playbook on how entire communities can gain Smart Yard certification.


Ludwig said the community program is still in its pilot stage, but will soon be available statewide.


“Communities can feel free to link our program on their websites, because all of the resources we have are available to any Tennessean right there, right now,” she said. “As far as the community part, we are wanting to provide a bit more structure and a more formal application process so communities know what they are getting into and what the expectations are. We also want it to be flexible for them. We are learning from our pilot communities this year, and definitely by the end of the year we will have a more formalized process. Any municipality can request a presentation about the program now.”


For more information on the Tennessee Smart Yards program, visit https://tnyards.utk.edu/.