How to Turn Your Yard Into an Ecological Oasis
By Tyler Wells Lynch
For years, Toni Genberg assumed a healthy garden was a healthy habitat. That's how she approached the landscaping around her home in northern Virginia. On trips to the local gardening center, she would privilege aesthetics, buying whatever looked pretty, "which was typically ornamental or invasive plants," she said. Then, in 2014, Genberg attended a talk by Doug Tallamy, a professor of entomology at the University of Delaware. "I learned I was actually starving our wildlife," she said.
The problem, Tallamy explained, is with the picky diets of plant-eating insects. Most of these bugs — roughly 90 percent — eat and reproduce on only certain native plant species, specifically those with whom they share an evolutionary history. Without these carefully tuned adaptations of specific plants, insect populations suffer. And because bugs themselves are a key food source for birds, rodents, amphibians, and other critters, that dependence on natives — and the consequences of not having them — works its way up the food chain. Over time, landscapes that consist mainly of invasive or nonnative plants could become dead zones.
Croplands can be just as destructive, making up nearly 20 percent of all land in the United States. And that doesn't even include the single largest irrigated crop in the country. Covering more than 40 million acres in the U.S., grass lawn consumes an area roughly the size of New England — land that, for the sake of habitat conservation, might as well be pavement.
Considering how little habitat and food these monocultures provide, and the incredible amount of resources they require, is there any wonder why the global insect populations are plummeting?
But there are solutions. One, at least in theory, is quite simple: Plant more native species. It's a calling that has spoken to a growing number of park managers, home gardeners, and landscapers — many of whom trace a direct line of inspiration to Tallamy. His research has helped overturn decades of harmful horticultural practice, forcing us to rethink how we tend to both public and private spaces.
In lieu of monocrops, landscapes with a larger, more diverse biomass of native species help support pollinators, sequester carbon, capture runoff, and rebuild habitats. One recent study found habitats with two or three native tree species are on average 25 percent to 30 percent more productive than monocultures, meaning they contribute that much more food and energy to an ecosystem. Habitats with five native tree species were 50 percent more productive. Wildlife is drawn to lands teeming with native plants.
For individuals who'd like to live a more sustainable lifestyle, the simple message of planting more native species is both productive and rewarding — a refreshing contrast to consumerist exhortations that blame the collective problem of environmental collapse on individual shopping choices. Like anything else, real change has to happen at the macro level, especially when it comes to turfgrass — a crop with deep cultural, even evolutionary roots.
Sociobiologists refer to the preference humans have for vast swaths of low-cut grass as "Savanna Syndrome." Open grasslands allowed our primitive ancestors to keep an eye out for predators. So even today, on a deep level, we feel safer when we can see to the horizon.
Until the Industrial Age, the demands of agriculture kept lawns at bay. They were seen mostly as status symbols that said a person had enough money to brush off the territorial demands of farmland. The invention of the lawnmower democratized the lawn, and further embedded its pathological hold on our psyches.
But lawns require huge quantities of water and often chemical treatments to maintain them — not to mention the emissions produced by two-cycle lawnmowers. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, running a lawnmower for one hour emits as much air pollution as driving a typical car 100 miles. This resource allocation becomes more and more difficult to justify as climate change continues to dry up once-productive habitats. As a monocrop, lawns displace landscapes that could benefit people, plants, animals, and insects. It's time for us to reconsider lawns on a grand scale, several researchers have concluded.
Considering how entrenched lawns are in the American imagination, to uproot them will require some give-and-take. Advocates say we need a culture shift as well as policies that support it.
"As climate change and droughts worsen, we might get to a point where there's political support to outlaw lawns," said Sarah B. Schindler, a professor of law at the University of Maine, who has written several papers about the legal authority of municipalities to ban lawns. "I do think we're seeing a change in norms, and I think part of that is tied to rising awareness of climate catastrophe."
Part of that work is simply raising awareness. Many people don't think about the possibility of their yards as anything but turfgrass. As Tallamy puts it, lawn is the default landscape, but it doesn't have to be. "People don't realize there's an alternative."
Choosing Native Plants
Some communities are beginning to impose alternatives. In California, Colorado, and Arizona, where water shortages are a growing crisis, cities offer rebates for each square foot of lawn replaced with native or water-saving landscapes—a process known as "xeriscaping." In wetter climes, Washington, DC, and cities in Nebraska, Washington state, Iowa and Minnesota have implemented rebate programs for the planting of rain gardens, which capture and infiltrate more runoff than grass. The city of Alexandria, Virginia, recently changed its municipal mowing to allow for the growth of meadows and glades in city parks.
Throughout the country, local groups are advocating for the planting of natives on roadsides, medians, campuses, and parks. Some, like Food Not Lawns, encourage homeowners and neighborhoods to replace lawns with edible plants to establish food sovereignty and food security within their communities. Others take a more clandestine approach by planting "guerrilla gardens" or tossing "seed bombs" into abandoned lots and properties where they don't have the legal right to garden.
"One thing that we've learned with our research is that there is room for compromise," Tallamy said. Native planting doesn't have to be all or none to make a difference. He gave the example of chickadee reproduction: If you have at least 70 percent native plant biomass in a given habitat, you can have sustainable chickadee reproduction. "That gives you 30 percent to plant perennials and exotics and other ornamental plants."
Tallamy's research into the relationship between native plants and insects has inspired gardeners to do more than just turn their yards into native oases. Many are now creating resources to empower others to do the same.
The National Wildlife Federation created a native plant finder web tool, which allows users to plug in a ZIP code to find trees, shrubs, and plants native to their region. Following her horticultural revelation, Toni Genberg created ChooseNatives.org, a resource to help users find, purchase, and learn about native plants. Since switching to natives, Genberg herself has seen all sorts of wildlife return to a property that, before, was only a suburban simulacrum.
Matt Bright founded the nonprofit charity Earth Sangha with the goal of propagating and restoring local native plant communities in the DC area. "We've set records for total plants distributed from our wild plant nursery for four years running," he said. "And overall, the trend has been towards more demand from all corners, whether that's from park managers and ecologists, homeowners, or landscaping companies."
Biodiversity Among Buildings
But shifting away from lawns is complicated by the fact that municipalities have long adopted rules called "weed ordinances," which require short ground cover for purely aesthetic reasons. This effectively mandates the planting and maintaining of lawns, as do many local zoning laws and HOA bylaws. And these rules aren't always taken lightly. In Michigan a few years ago, a woman faced jail time for growing a vegetable garden in her front yard instead of lawn.
People don't want to be told that they can't have their lawns, but they also don't want to be told that they have to have a lawn.
The elephant in the room, of course, is property rights. Limits and requirements can inspire backlash. As Genberg points out, "Americans don't want to be told what to do, especially when it comes to their properties."
That's why Tallamy has focused on talking to the public instead of advancing top-down regulation. Laws, especially bans, need public support to pass. To even think about regulating lawns you first need to change the culture around them. As people like Toni Genberg and Matt Bright show, Tallamy's message is resonating.
"What you do on your property affects everybody," Tallamy said. Nonnative or ornamental plants may not look like pollutants, but from an ecological standpoint, they are. Tallamy's research bears this out: A new paper from his team shows just how effective nonnative plants are at destroying local habitats.
"We compared caterpillar communities in hedgerows that were invaded with non-natives versus hedgerows that were mostly native," he explained. "There's a 96% reduction in caterpillar biomass when they're nonnative, so if you're a bird and you're trying to rear your young, you just lost 96% of your food."
But there's a flip side, he said. If you take the invasive species out and put the native plants in, you've just created 96 percent more food.
And this isn't some gardening trend reserved for America's suburbs and conservation lands. In Manhattan, the most densely populated urban center in the country, officials converted an abandoned railway line into a public park called the High Line, with a policy of planting at least 50 percent native species.
"There are monarch butterflies there, there are all kinds of native bees, which really surprised me," Tallamy said. "If you can do that in Manhattan, you can do it anywhere."
Reposted with permission from YES! Magazine.
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By Daisy Simmons
1. Stay Informed<p>A first order of business in pet evacuation planning is to understand and be ready for the possible threats in your area. Visit <a href="https://www.ready.gov/be-informed" target="_blank">Ready.gov</a> to learn more about preparing for potential disasters such as floods, hurricanes, and wildfires. Then pay attention to related updates by tuning <a href="http://www.weather.gov/nwr/" target="_blank">NOAA Weather Radio</a> to your local emergency station or using the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/mobile-app" target="_blank">FEMA app</a> to get National Weather Service alerts.</p>
2. Ensure Your Pet is Easily Identifiable<p><span>Household pets, including indoor cats, should wear collars with ID tags that have your mobile phone number. </span><a href="https://www.avma.org/microchipping-animals-faq" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Microchipping</a><span> your pets will also improve your chances of reunion should you become separated. Be sure to add an emergency contact for friends or relatives outside your immediate area.</span></p><p>Additionally, use <a href="https://secure.aspca.org/take-action/order-your-pet-safety-pack" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">'animals inside' door/window stickers</a> to show rescue workers how many pets live there. (If you evacuate with your pets, quickly write "Evacuated" on the sticker so first responders don't waste time searching for them.)</p>
3. Make a Pet Evacuation Plan<p> "No family disaster plan is complete without including your pets and all of your animals," says veterinarian Heather Case in <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q9NRJkFKAm4" target="_blank">a video</a> produced by the American Veterinary Medical Association.</p><p>It's important to determine where to take your pet in the event of an emergency.</p><p>Red Cross shelters and many other emergency shelters allow only service animals. Ask your vet, local animal shelters, and emergency management officials for information on local and regional animal sheltering options.</p><p>For those with access to the rare shelter that allows pets, CDC offers <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/emergencies/pets-in-evacuation-centers.html" target="_blank">tips on what to expect</a> there, including potential health risks and hygiene best practices.</p><p>Beyond that, talk with family or friends outside the evacuation area about potentially hosting you and/or your pet if you're comfortable doing so. Search for pet-friendly hotel or boarding options along key evacuation routes.</p><p>If you have exotic pets or a mix of large and small animals, you may need to identify multiple locations to shelter them.</p><p>For other household pets like hamsters, snakes, and fish, the SPCA recommends that if they normally live in a cage, they should be transported in that cage. If the enclosure is too big to transport, however, transfer them to a smaller container temporarily. (More on that <a href="https://www.spcai.org/take-action/emergency-preparedness/evacuation-how-to-be-pet-prepared" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">here</a>.)</p><p>For any pet, a key step is to establish who in your household will be the point person for gathering up pets and bringing their supplies. Keep in mind that you may not be home when disaster strikes, so come up with a Plan B. For example, you might form a buddy system with neighbors with pets, or coordinate with a trusted pet sitter.</p>
4. Prepare a Pet Evacuation Kit<p>Like the emergency preparedness kit you'd prepare for humans, assemble basic survival items for your pets in a sturdy, easy-to-grab container. Items should include:</p><ul><li>Water, food, and medicine to last a week or two;</li><li>Water, food bowls, and a can opener if packing wet food;</li><li>Litter supplies for cats (a shoebox lined with a plastic bag and litter may work);</li><li>Leashes, harnesses, or vehicle restraints if applicable;</li><li>A <a href="https://www.avma.org/resources/pet-owners/emergencycare/pet-first-aid-supplies-checklist" target="_blank">pet first aid kit</a>;</li><li>A sturdy carrier or crate for each cat or dog. In addition to easing transport, these may serve as your pet's most familiar or safe space in an unfamiliar environment;</li><li>A favorite toy and/or blanket;</li><li>If your pet is prone to anxiety or stress, the American Kennel Club suggests adding <a href="https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/home-living/create-emergency-evacuation-plan-dog/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stress-relieving items</a> like an anxiety vest or calming sprays.</li></ul><p>In the not-unlikely event that you and your pet have to shelter in different places, your kit should also include:</p><ul><li>Detailed information including contact information for you, your vet, and other emergency contacts;</li><li>A list with phone numbers and addresses of potential destinations, including pet-friendly hotels and emergency boarding facilities near your planned evacuation routes, plus friends or relatives in other areas who might be willing to host you or your pet;</li><li>Medical information including vaccine records and a current rabies vaccination tag;</li><li>Feeding notes including portions and sizes in case you need to leave your pet in someone else's care;</li><li>A photo of you and your pet for identification purposes.</li></ul>
5. Be Ready to Evacuate at Any Time<p>It's always wise to be prepared, but stay especially vigilant in high-risk periods during fire or hurricane season. Practice evacuating at different times of day. Make sure your grab-and-go kit is up to date and in a convenient location, and keep leashes and carriers by the exit door. You might even stow a thick pillowcase under your bed for middle-of-the-night, dash-out emergencies when you don't have time to coax an anxious pet into a carrier. If forecasters warn of potential wildfire, a hurricane, or other dangerous conditions, bring outdoor pets inside so you can keep a close eye on them.</p><p>As with any emergency, the key is to be prepared. As the American Kennel Club points out, "If you panic, it will agitate your dog. Therefore, <a href="https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/home-living/create-emergency-evacuation-plan-dog/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pet disaster preparedness</a> will not only reduce your anxiety but will help reduce your pet's anxiety too."</p>
Evacuating Horses and Other Farm Animals<p>The same basic principles apply for evacuating horses and most other livestock. Provide each with some form of identification. Ensure that adequate food, water, and medicine are available. And develop a clear plan on where to go and how to get there.</p><p>Sheltering and transporting farm animals requires careful coordination, from identifying potential shelter space at fairgrounds, racetracks, or pastures, to ensuring enough space is available in vehicles and trailers – not to mention handlers and drivers on hand to support the effort.</p><p>For most farm animals, the Red Cross advises that you consider precautionary evacuation when a threat seems imminent but evacuation orders haven't yet been announced. The American Veterinary Medical Association has <a href="https://www.avma.org/resources/pet-owners/emergencycare/large-animals-and-livestock-disasters" target="_blank">more information</a>.</p>
Bottom Line: If You Need to Evacuate, So Do Your Pets<p>As the Humane Society warns, pets left behind in a disaster can easily be injured, lost, or killed. Plan ahead to make sure you can safely evacuate your entire household – furry members included.</p>
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