Backyard Paradise: The Hull family has turned their land into their own nature center

Published 4:54 pm Tuesday, August 23, 2022

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It’s not very often that one can step outside their home in Austin and immediately feel a sense of country and yet, the Hull family gets that experience each time they leave their back door.

Provided, of course, you get past the relaxing atmosphere of the backyard and its fire pit, decorative plants, trees and shrubs.

Located just over a berm that hems in the Hull house and manicured lawn is a field of wildflowers, more trees, a garden and even more shrubs. Invisible to those standing before the berm, the property opens up into a spread of color and natural landscape, cut through with mowed paths, and including benches to sit and enjoy the sunsets that paint the sky at the end of the day.

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“I kind of quasi call it the N. Jay Nature Center, after the Jay C. Hormel Nature Center,” joked Neal Hull, of the backyard paradise. And he’s not far off.

If you can push aside the neighboring houses and the cows that make their pilgrimage over to visit the people walking the paths, then a stroll through the Hull’s very own property is akin to walking through the natural prairies of Austin’s own Nature Center. 

Green grasses reach high and blow lazily in the breeze, while cutting through are dots of color where the wild cone flowers and sunflowers reach skyward.

“I love purple cone flowers,” Hull said.

It’s easy to be amazed by what you see when walking through the wilder portion of the Hull’s property, but it also serves as a reminder of the work the family has put into getting this far.

The house was built in 2004, but the Hulls moved into the home in 2015. It was a far cry from how things look today.

“Outside of the landscaping in the front, there really wasn’t anything in the back other than the circle patio and the fire pit,” Hull said. “We came up with some ideas, Brian Dolan came out and drew up some plans. Then, over the course of time, we got it done. It’s fun to watch it grow now. You plant small pots and whatnot and think they’ll never grow, but now they are really filling out and look really nice.”

However, a different tact was taken when working with the land beyond the berm. Looking at working with a prairie restoration group, Hull eventually took the advice of the neighbors and began work as a family, making use of most anything the family might come across.

“It took some playing with it,” Hull said. “It was just an open field — growing up with weeds and grass. I remember the day we took a piece of cardboard and sketched out kind of the outlines and I got on the riding lawn mower and Sara started walking. I just mowed behind her and mowed paths.”

Hull said that every year he treks over to Albert Lea Seed House, returns to add to the sprawling landscape.

“Each year it gets a little bit better and a little bit better,” Hull said.

There’s a note of nostalgia to the work the family puts into the wilder portion of their property. For Hull, that feel goes back to when he was young and spending time doing much of the same thing with his father.

“I would say that most of it came from my dad,” Hull said. “We always had a big garden growing up. It was just one of those things. It was something to do and it didn’t take a lot of money to do it. Just the passion to go out and nurture and care for it.”

In some ways that connection is still there, including many of the tools Hull uses, including a tractor.

“I have this old tractor, I have this old tiller that he bought,” Hull said. “That’s what I use for the garden. I have this old hoe. It’s just kind of this connection of what I remember doing with him when I was growing up.”

That value of time spent is now being shared with Hull’s own children. With a remote-feeling destination so close, it’s not uncommon for the family to embark on a quick walk into the field.

“Jarrett will sit here and say, ‘dad let’s go watch the sun set,’” Hull said. “It’s been fun to get him involved. It’s fun to get him involved because that’s what I remember doing with my dad, handed down from generation to generation.”

A walk through this chunk of land usually rewards the family with not only a quaint and solace-filled walk through the thriving vegetation, but it also includes animals of all sorts. Monarch butterflies will flit from flower to flower, deers are not uncommon and countless birds can be seen flying through the sanctuary or nesting in bird houses along the fence line of the adjoining farm property.

Many of the these plants and animals will also carry into the fall where the colors become even more vibrant,

“There’s an abundance of goldenrod, which blooms in the fall,” Hull said. “You try to get a mix of early, mid, late stuff that blooms. It’s the colors and something to do. It’s my happy place. It’s that place where if you are stressed out you can go out and just chill.”

The development of the land has been a trial of patience for Hull and his family. Many of the trees, Hull admits, will be fully enjoyed by homeowners down the road.

But it continues to build and the Hulls will continue to find more to add to fully realize the pristine version of the prairie in their own backyard.

“The sunsets are spectacular out here,” he said. “It’s just one of those things.”