Nearly all of us have personal or public outdoor spaces that we spend time in and have a connection to, whether they be our yards, parks, or natural areas far off the beaten path. Regardless of the space, they are, or have potential to be, habitat for native plants and wildlife. Mowed grass and well-groomed flowerbeds are well and good and have a place, but, maybe the grass could stand a little less mowing, and maybe flowerbeds could have some native species mixed in and be a bit less groomed, all in the name of making some room for wildlife. It doesn’t take very much, maybe only a single flower or tree, to create habitat for native species. Since 2013, I have been slowly incorporating native plants and habitats into the landscape of my property and thought I would share some ideas and experiences you could incorporate into your yard, balcony or (with permission) local public spaces. Spring will be here soon!
Full disclosure, I have a large lawn, but I am in the process of reducing it and I shake my head at myself every time I hop up on the lawn tractor to give it a trim. Large expanses of manicured lawn are just not necessary and take a lot of energy and time. They also require more care than native species and systems and are comparatively poor at sequestering carbon. Some things I have done to reduce the negative impacts of my lawn are:
- I don’t spray the lawn indiscriminately with herbicides. It takes a lot of energy to make herbicides and the results do not last very long, as “there is always one more weed.”
- I prefer to battle the weeds by fertilizing and aerating, making conditions good for grass, and bad for weeds. Currently, I use a commercially-available fertilizer (also takes a lot of energy to make), but I hope to try compost tea and seasoned manures in the future.
- I try to mulch clippings into the lawn, or alternatively use the clippings as mulch, either in flowerbeds under traditional wood mulch, or in the garden for walking paths. This adds organic material back to your soil, which is good for plant growth and soil health.
- Longer grass and fewer cuttings. I try to balance the cutting with the effort required to manage the clippings. We prefer a longer lawn and it has multiple benefits. It stays greener longer, we enjoy the look, it requires less mowing (less carbon wasted to cut it) and weeds have to work harder to grow in it.
Native plants are great in that there are so many species which are adapted to our local conditions, so they require minimal care when properly selected. They also provide habitat for native wildlife and with well-considered selections, provide flowers from April often into November. That said, I am not an advocate of the scorched-earth, ‘native or nothing’ ideology; I have many non-native plants as well, including mature trees. They still provide habitat and sequester carbon, so I have retained them, though I do remove all of their offspring that pop up around the yard and I will replace them with native trees as they die. The Scots Pine along my driveway have created a shaded area of acidic soils where I have been able to plant a wide array of typically difficult to grow native woodland species, from sedges to irises, trilliums and bloodroot. It is a good example of ‘working with what you have’ and choosing species that fit the existing conditions, which again reduces maintenance. Other areas that get little water and lots of sun are planted with prairie species like tickseed, blazing stars, coneflowers and Butterfly Milkweed. To keep the weeds at bay, I use arborist mulch, which is coarse woodchips. It is large enough that it doesn’t blow away, has no dyes, and you can often get it for free. Check with your local municipality, they may have a depot. As a result of this gardening effort, we have incredible numbers and diversity of insect species feeding and living on the plants, including Monarch, the larvae of which enjoy devouring Swamp Milkweed I have planted more. I am not a fan of the Common Milkweed that is often touted for Monarchs. It spreads rapidly and is hard to get rid of, while species like Swamp or Butterfly Milkweed are very well-behaved in a garden setting.
Nature abhors a vacuum, but it also abhors a vacuum cleaner! Lazy gardening is good for nature. I leave some of my seedheads and stems, as they feed wintering birds and also provide food and habitats for insects. While collecting seeds from the yard plants in the autumn, I occasionally find a few larvae eating the seeds, or pupa waiting for spring before they emerge. The flower stems are also used by native bees throughout the year. For a more manicured yard, you could consider cutting stems and seedheads and placing them in bundles in discrete locations, so the habitat value remains, in a more organized fashion.
In autumn leaves are raked into piles under trees, where they act as both mulch, and a springtime foraging area for returning birds, who flip through the leaves looking for food. I keep tree trimmings piled for eventual chipping, but while piled they provide winter cover for small mammals. Larger branches and a recently felled tree are left in the flower bed, where they provide coarse woody debris, which is important habitat for insects, small mammals, reptiles and amphibians. Most recently, I have started putting out birdhouses, targeting Tree Swallows. The first year was unsuccessful, but with a change of location last year, I successfully fledged 5 Tree Swallow and 3 House Wren chicks, from only seven boxes. In year three, a raccoon found my boxes near fledging time, so I am unsure what the success was. A reminder to install predator protection.
Throughout the world, natural landscapes have given way to paved surfaces, intensive agricultural and manicured residential areas. This has had a profoundly negative effect on wildlife populations and local biodiversity. But wildlife is also very adaptable and resilient, and I have witnessed first-hand how small changes can support the return of wildlife to our personal spaces. As an example, all of the photos that accompany this article are from my own ‘habitat’. Growing native plants, creating wildlife habitats and reconsidering how we maintain our spaces can help to increase biodiversity and ecosystem resilience, reduce our personal carbon footprint, and bring us a bit closer to the natural environment that we are all still a part of. These are just a few of the reasons to start to consider native plants and habitats as components of your personal spaces. There is a limitless amount of resources available online, however, I recently came across this site and I think it has some very practical and useful ideas for the average person and links to many additional resources. Happy reading!
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