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 Michael Svoboda, Ph.D.
Despite a journey to this moment even more treacherous than expected, Americans now have a fresh opportunity to act, decisively, on climate change.
The authors of the many new books released in just the past few months (or scheduled to be published soon) seem to have anticipated this pivotal moment.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Katy Neusteter
The Biden-Harris transition team identified COVID-19, economic recovery, racial equity and climate change as its top priorities. Rivers are the through-line linking all of them. The fact is, healthy rivers can no longer be separated into the "nice-to-have" column of environmental progress. Rivers and streams provide more than 60 percent of our drinking water — and a clear path toward public health, a strong economy, a more just society and greater resilience to the impacts of the climate crisis.
Public Health<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUyNDY3MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDkxMTkwNn0.pyP14Bg1WvcUvF_xUGgYVu8PS7Lu49Huzc3PXGvATi4/img.jpg?width=980" id="8e577" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1efb3445f5c445e47d5937a72343c012" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="3000" data-height="2302" />
Wild and Scenic Merced River, California. Bob Wick / BLM<p>Let's begin with COVID-19. More than <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank">16 million Americans</a> have contracted the coronavirus and, tragically,<a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank"> more than</a> <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank">300,000 have died</a> due to the pandemic. While health officials encourage hand-washing to contain the pandemic, at least <a href="https://closethewatergap.org/" target="_blank">2 million Americans</a> are currently living without running water, indoor plumbing or wastewater treatment. Meanwhile, <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/millions-of-americans-cant-afford-water-bills-rise" target="_blank">aging water infrastructure is growing increasingly costly for utilities to maintain</a>. That cost is passed along to consumers. The upshot? <a href="https://research.msu.edu/affordable-water-in-us-reaching-a-crisis/" target="_blank">More than 13 million</a> U.S. households regularly face unaffordable water bills — and, thus, the threat of water shutoffs. Without basic access to clean water, families and entire communities are at a higher risk of <a href="https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/green/news/2020/08/05/488705/bridging-water-access-gap-covid-19-relief/" target="_blank">contracting</a> and spreading COVID-19.</p><p>We have a moral duty to ensure that everyone has access to clean water to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Last spring, <a href="https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/03/coronavirus-stimulus-bill-explained-bailouts-unemployment-benefits.html" target="_blank">Congress appropriated more than $4 trillion</a> to jumpstart the economy and bring millions of unemployed Americans back to work. Additional federal assistance — desperately needed — will present a historic opportunity to improve our crumbling infrastructure, which has been <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/millions-of-americans-cant-afford-water-bills-rise" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">grossly underfunded for decades</a>.</p><p>A report by my organization, American Rivers, suggests that <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/09223525/ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Congress must invest at least $50 billion</a> "to address the urgent water infrastructure needs associated with COVID-19," including the rising cost of water. This initial boost would allow for the replacement and maintenance of sewers, stormwater infrastructure and water supply facilities.</p>
Economic Recovery<p>Investing in water infrastructure and healthy rivers also creates jobs. Consider, for example, that <a href="https://tinyurl.com/y9p6sgnk" target="_blank">every $1 million spent on water infrastructure in the United States generates more than 15 jobs</a> throughout the economy, according to a report by the Value of Water Campaign. Similarly, <a href="https://tinyurl.com/yyvd2ksp" target="_blank">every "$1 million invested in forest and watershed restoration contracting will generate between 15.7 and 23.8 jobs,</a> depending on the work type," states a working paper released by the Ecosystem Workforce Program, University of Oregon. Healthy rivers also spur tourism and recreation, which many communities rely on for their livelihoods. According to the findings by the Outdoor Industry Association, which have been shared in our report, "Americans participating in watersports and fishing spend over <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/30222425/Exec-summary-ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-June-30-2020.pdf" target="_blank">$174 billion</a> on gear and trip related expenses. And, the outdoor watersports and fishing economy supports over <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/30222425/Exec-summary-ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-June-30-2020.pdf" target="_blank">1.5 million jobs nationwide</a>."</p><p>After the 2008 financial crisis, Congress invested in infrastructure to put Americans back to work. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act <a href="https://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/economy-a-budget/25941-clean-water-green-infrastructure-get-major-boost" target="_blank">of 2009 (ARRA) allocated $6 billion</a> for clean water and drinking water infrastructure to decrease unemployment and boost the economy. More specifically, <a href="https://www.conservationnw.org/news-updates/us-reps-push-for-millions-of-restoration-and-resilience-jobs/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an analysis of ARRA</a> "showed conservation investments generated 15 to 33 jobs per million dollars," and more than doubled the rate of return, according to a letter written in May 2020 by 79 members of Congress, seeking greater funding for restoration and resilience jobs.</p><p>Today, when considering how to create work for the <a href="https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/empsit.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">10.7 million</a> people who are currently unemployed, Congress should review previous stimulus investments and build on their successes by embracing major investments in water infrastructure and watershed restoration.</p>
Racial Justice<p>American Rivers also recommends that Congress dedicate <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/09223525/ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">$500 billion for rivers and clean water over the next 10 years</a> — not just for the benefit of our environment and economy, but also to begin to address the United States' history of deeply entrenched racial injustice.</p><p>The <a href="https://www.epa.gov/npdes/sanitary-sewer-overflows-ssos" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">23,000-75,000 sewer overflows</a> that occur each year release up to <a href="https://www.americanrivers.org/2020/05/fighting-for-rivers-means-fighting-for-justice/#:~:text=There%20are%20also%2023%2C000%20to%2075%2C000%20sanitary%20sewer,to%20do%20with%20the%20mission%20of%20American%20Rivers." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">10 billion gallons of toxic sewage</a> <em>every day</em> into rivers and streams. This disproportionately impacts communities of color, because, for generations, Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other people of color have been <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/flooding-disproportionately-harms-black-neighborhoods/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">relegated</a> to live in flood-prone areas and in neighborhoods that have been intentionally burdened with a lack of development that degrades people's health and quality of life. In some communities of color, incessant flooding due to stormwater surges or <a href="https://www.ajc.com/opinion/opinion-partnering-to-better-manage-our-water/7WQ6SEAQP5E4LGQCEYY5DO334Y/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">combined sewer overflows</a> has gone unmitigated for decades.</p><p>We have historically treated people as separate from rivers and water. We can't do that anymore. Every voice — particularly those of people most directly impacted — must have a loudspeaker and be included in decision-making at the highest levels.</p><p>Accordingly, the new administration must diligently invest in projects at the community level that will improve lives in our country's most marginalized communities. We also must go further to ensure that local leaders have a seat at the decision-making table. To this end, the Biden-Harris administration should restore <a href="https://www.epa.gov/cwa-401#:~:text=Section%20401%20Certification%20The%20Clean%20Water%20Act%20%28CWA%29,the%20United%20States.%20Learn%20more%20about%20401%20certification." target="_blank">Section 401 of the Clean Water Act</a>, which was undermined by the <a href="https://earthjustice.org/news/press/2020/tribes-and-environmental-groups-sue-trump-administration-to-preserve-clean-water-protections#:~:text=Under%20Section%20401%20of%20the%20Clean%20Water%20Act%2C,seeks%20to%20undermine%20that%20authority%20in%20several%20ways%3A" target="_blank">Trump administration's 2020 regulatory changes</a>. This provision gives states and tribes the authority to decide whether major development projects, such as hydropower and oil and gas projects, move forward.</p>
Climate Resilience<p>Of course, the menacing shadow looming over it all? Climate change. <a href="https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/IFRC_wdr2020/IFRC_WDR_ExecutiveSummary_EN_Web.pdf" target="_blank">More than 100 climate-related catastrophes</a> have pummeled the Earth since the pandemic was declared last spring, including the blitzkrieg of megafires, superstorms and heat waves witnessed during the summer of 2020, directly impacting the lives of more than <a href="https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/IFRC_wdr2020/IFRC_WDR_ExecutiveSummary_EN_Web.pdf" target="_blank">50 million people globally</a>.</p><p>Water and climate scientist Brad Udall often says, "<a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQhpj5G0dME" target="_blank">Climate change is water change</a>." In other words, the most obvious and dire impacts of climate change are evidenced in profound changes to our rivers and water resources. You've likely seen it where you live: Floods are more damaging and frequent. Droughts are deeper and longer. Uncertainty is destabilizing industry and lives.</p><p>By galvanizing action for healthy rivers and managing our water resources more effectively, we can insure future generations against the consequences of climate change. First, we must safeguard rivers that are still healthy and free-flowing. Second, we must protect land and property against the ravages of flooding. And finally, we must promote policies and practical solutions that take the science of climate disruption into account when planning for increased flooding, water shortage and habitat disruption.</p><p>Imagine all that rivers do for us. Most of our towns and cities have a river running through them or flowing nearby. Rivers provide clean drinking water, irrigate crops that provide our food, power our homes and businesses, provide wildlife habitat, and are the lifeblood of the places where we enjoy and explore nature, and where we play and nourish our spirits. Healthy watersheds help <a href="https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/03/1059952" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mitigate</a> climate change, absorbing and reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Healthy rivers and floodplains help communities adapt and build resilience in the face of climate change by improving flood protection and providing water supply and quality benefits. Rivers are the cornerstones of healthy, strong communities.</p><p>The more than <a href="https://archive.epa.gov/water/archive/web/html/index-17.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">3 million miles</a> of rivers and streams running across our country are a source of great strength and opportunity. When we invest in healthy rivers and clean water, we can improve our lives. When we invest in rivers, we create jobs and strengthen our economy. When we invest in rivers, we invest in our shared future.</p>
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