How going native in your own yard can give you a truly green thumb.
“The existential crisis of our time” is a weighty descriptor for climate change. The kind that sounds alarmist and immediately makes those already worried feel sort of helpless. What, aside from recycling and calling on your government representatives and signing petitions, can any of us do? And for those who’ve yet to accept the role man has played in our changing climate, well, for them it closes the conversation. Which, if the goal is convincing people of the need for action, seems counter productive.
Loaded though it may be, it is nevertheless serves an apt purpose: as a clarion call requesting an answer from governments and industries, while also weighing upon us to hold them accountable for those answers. Dole, for example, recently announced their bold, new commitments to food security, waste and emissions reductions. Which is commendable, and we, the customers and shareholders, can help make sure they honor those commitments. That’s good progress and it’s an action we can take. But is that a lasting action for us? As good as it is, does it really feel satisfying?
Yet there is a way we can be active — without signing a petition or being a climate activist — that provides tangible benefits, all from our own yards.
I recently wrote about feedback loops, describing them, mostly, on a larger scale. Now, I want to bring them all the way down into your backyard to show how you can quickly see the effect of these cycles and begin to make real, meaningful change every time you go outside. It will likely challenge your preconceived notions of what our own personal green space should look like, or how it should function. But once you start to notice the possibilities you’ll see so many ways you can work both beautifully and beneficially with nature.
There are numerous reports detailing the possibility that we’re living through our planet’s sixth mass extinction. Whether or not it qualifies as a mass extinction the numbers suggest the current extinction rate of species (~1 every 20 minutes by some accounts) is 1,000x faster than the historic natural cycle. Much of this is due to industrialization, like destroying the great forest of Borneo for palm oil. However, a lot of species loss is happening both literally and figuratively in our own backyards.
Development that doesn’t tend to the natural environment destroys it. How that happens in urban environments is clear. But suburbs or even small towns like the one I live in? That wasn’t always so clear to me. Because you look out at these neighborhoods and see green grass, bushes and trees, a park around the corner, or flower- and tree-lined main streets. But look closer. The grass, and landscaping, is almost always non-native, meaning much of our suburban development replaces plants and grasses designed to thrive in our area with plants and grasses that were designed to thrive somewhere else. This, it turns out, is a very important distinction.
From the air we breathe all the way down into the soil beneath our feet native plants evolved in response to their respective areas. They feed the local bees and insects, whereas other plants — though they produce flowers — may not. Native plants do not need fertilizers (though they’ll feast on some organic mulch) and fewer, if any, pesticides.
Pesticides are a problem both of industry and non-native plants. Bugs and weeds are often overlooked in environmental action, in part because their importance in our own yard is downplayed. We’re taught to eliminate them altogether, yet they play a vital role. Both in our delicate ecosystems and in our lives. Did you know a weed (the rosy periwinkle) provides the alkaloids that cure most cases of Hodgkin’s disease and acute childhood leukemia? Or that a Norwegian fungus is what gave birth to the organ transplant industry? They are all part of the very things that enrich our soil, clean our water, pollinate our plants and help create the air we breathe. And they often don’t exist everywhere but rather only in very certain locations. There could be a medical marvel out your back door that we don’t yet know about. If we’re not careful then it could soon be gone forever, if it’s not already.
Again, nature is a series of interconnected systems dependent upon one another. The birds, bats and bees of your area have spent thousands of years pollinating the trees and plants around you. Other plants and flowers that we bring in are not necessarily ones they’re programmed to know what to do with. And what they are eating may be laced with pesticides from lawn and crop treatments. Combine those factors with the removal of the plant life they do know, and the entire ecosystem is threatened.
So, what are native plants and how are they better-suited to your own ecosystem than other plants? That answer takes us back to feedback loops. Starting with the soil they grow in. Soil can change from area to area, from sandy to loamy to clay to peaty to chalky and more. Plant life evolved in your area to thrive in your soil. From there insects and animals learned to feed off of, help propagate or find shelter within those various plants, trees and flowers. So a plant that we buy at a garden center because it looks great and is “perfect” for where we want to place it may not be beneficial because the insects don’t know how to feed off of or pollinate it, or the animals don’t use it for shelter, or it’s not designed to thrive in your type of soil and so you need to fertilize it.
In addition to needing fertilizer it may also require pesticides to eliminate the pests that have hitched rides on it into your yard. Pests that don’t even naturally exist in your area — like the Spotted Lanternfly here in Michigan — that can decimate plants, crops and bugs because they have no natural predators or systems to keep them in balance.
You may say to yourself, but I have no problem fertilizing or spraying some pesticide. OK, but you should know some things. First, pesticides are designed to be toxic — to kill living things. We’re not immune. You think RoundUp is just a weed killer, yet it’s been linked to cancer in people and different court cases against it have recently either ruled in favor of plaintiffs or been settled by Bayer, RoundUp’s new parent company. (It should be noted, despite these cases that it’s still on shelf at your local home improvement store.)
Fertilizer, meanwhile, contains nitrogen, an element needed in soil to keep it healthy and feeding plant populations. But here’s the thing: soil that is healthy and home to native plants doesn’t need nitrogen added to it. And nitrogen in higher levels turns toxic, ending up as runoff (along with the chemicals from pesticides) into our streams, lakes, rivers and, eventually, oceans. There is, for example, a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Its size fluctuates, but has gotten as large as 9,000 square miles (or the size of New Jersey), and it is powered by the nitrogen- and phosphorous-laden runoff into the Mississippi of fertilizer chemicals from industrial farms.*
Of course, plants that don’t naturally thrive, that require fertilizer and pesticides, also require more water. And water is something that may be scarce or rationed in your area, or something you now pay more for.
All of that is important, but, of course, yards are as much aesthetic creations as functional ones. So perhaps the most visible reason to go native is diversity. It’s what creates more room for more life to thrive. Some plants feed bugs, some are pollinated by bees; some trees offer shelter for birds, others bear fruit; some grasses yield grains, others provide shelter for rabbits and critters, and, in a healthy ecosystem, on and on it goes. The more varied the plant life, the hardier the entire ecosystem is. And that interplay of life is something you can witness in wonderful, astonishing display while sitting on your deck.
Of course, there is a lot we don’t see, but our own observation can be a good barometer. If your yard includes those native elements that the insects and animals in your area are familiar with then you’ll likely start to see them flocking to your yard, propagating and thriving. That’s what we want. The opposite is what we currently, unwittingly encourage: ecosystem loss. This does irreparable damage, and not just to honeybee populations (though certainly that). Once an ecosystem is thrown out of its balancing feedback loop we often start to see a cascade of effects. Species die-off (like the honeybees) is one, but so is soil erosion, increased susceptibility to floods or wildfires. The natural fertilization of crops and plants is threatened. Invasive species enter the picture. You get the idea.
All this because of a type of yard we’ve been taught is beautiful and preferable. I won’t deny the aesthetic appeal of our lawns. A freshly mowed green carpet can be a very pleasing sight. But it’s not the only way a lawn can be beautiful, and you don’t need to give up your lush grass either. A yard can look great and be beneficial — useful not just to nature but to your family as well. It’s time we recognize that the whole natural food chain and the natural environment around us is affected by our development. Even, and especially, when it comes to our yards.
I can remember being a child and filling one-third of a pint-sized jar with lightning bugs (I now realize I should have let them go, or never caught them to begin with, but I was a kid and it was the 80s). Now I go into my yard on a summer night and I can pretty much count how many are lighting up the evening sky. This change has certainly happened within our lifetimes. At a pace that is light speed for nature, but slow enough for us that we may only notice if we stop to take stock and compare our memories with our observations.
The truth is going native does require some effort, and expense, on our part. It may even challenge our learned definition of a beautiful yard. But it can be done in a way that is balanced and beautiful, providing the aesthetic appeal you rightly desire for your own yard with the nourishing balance your ecosystem requires. The trick is that not only does “what’s right” vary by region but it’s also intensely personal. I can’t tell you what to have in your yard no more than I can tell you what color to paint your living room. But with a little effort we can all have beautiful yards that are beneficial, give back and support the abundance of nature around us.
Where to start?
• With the US Forest Service! They offer links to Native Plant Society’s and Botanical Clubs in every state.
• Pollinator gardens are a great way to attract and assist bee populations around you. No matter where you live these amazing, industrious insects are crucial to our ecosystems. Pollinator gardens can be a beautiful way to fill your garden with the types of flowers that’ll have your local bees buzzing.
• Here’s another resource that may be helpful in figuring out what to plant in your pollinator garden.
• Have you ever considered beekeeping? I’ve not done it myself, but numerous friends have. Not only do they enjoy the fruits of their bees’ labor, but it’s taught them a lot about this delicate ecosystem balance from figuring out which flowers their bees prefer to discovering how difficult it is to keep a hive alive through the winter.
• There is no one way to plant a native garden. You gotta do what’s right for you. For example, whether you start with groundcover to control weeds, find a way to incorporate weeds, or dig ’em all up and start from scratch is a call only you can make. But here’s a couple places you can start. Look at landscaping for wildlife or even the basic steps of designing for a native garden.
Source note: * “The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming,” by David Wallace-Wells, p. 97