One of the biggest enemies to natural biodiversity is a pristine turfgrass lawn. Manicured lawns are an example of monoculture meaning lawns are areas where a single type of crop (grass) is the only thing that is planted. While it might look clean and tidy to have a well-maintained lawn, mowing regularly basically ensures that nothing other than a single type of grass is going to grow. Turfgrass doesn’t attract pollinators or other insects, meaning there is less for birds and other small creatures to eat, and so on and so forth up the chain.
The Environmental Impact of Lawn Maintenance
Lawn maintenance presents a myriad of other issues. A majority of the lawnmowers used to cut grass are gas powered and experts believe that “16 billion to 41 billion pounds of CO2 [are] emitted from lawn mowers every year.” While car engines are highly regulated to curb emission rates, small lawn equipment engines don’t have nearly as many regulations. A 2011 study found that a gas powered leaf blower emitted 23 times more carbon monoxide than a pickup truck. And it’s not just the gas that’s going into lawn mower engines that’s the problem. According to the EPA, every year 17 million gallons of gas are dumped directly onto our lawns when we spill trying to fill up our mowers.
In addition to mowing, maintaining a perfectly green turfgrass lawn often requires the use of a lot of water and chemical pesticides. The
EPA estimates that nearly 1/3 of all residential water use in the United States goes towards landscape irrigation. That’s approximately 9 billion gallons a year that’s being used mostly to keep turfgrass green. According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, “homeowners use up to 10 times more chemical pesticides per acre on their lawns than farmers use on crops.” Studies have found that many of the most commonly used pesticides are probable carcinogens and many have also been linked to birth and reproductive defects. But pesticides aren’t just toxic to humans. According to a 2015 study done by the organization Beyond Pesticides, of the 30 most commonly used lawn pesticides: 22 are toxic to birds, 14 are toxic to mammals, 30 are toxic to fish and aquatic organisms, and 29 are deadly to bees. Many of these pesticides are used to target specific pests, but they also end up being deadly to many of the other organisms that exist in an area. Lawn pesticides also have the ability to run off into existing watersheds, killing fish and insects who live in those waters, and potentially contaminating drinking water.
When it comes to welcoming wildlife to your outdoor space, lawns have pretty much the opposite effect.
7 tips for turning your yard into a welcoming space for wildlife
After reading all those troubling facts about lawns, you might be inspired to drop everything and rip up your lawn. Or you might feel overwhelmed–lawns are large areas and there are a lot of social stigmas associated with them. If you want to welcome more wildlife to your lawn, but you’re not sure where to start, check out our top 7 tips below.
1. Native plants are important
Using native plants is important for many reasons, one of the main ones being that native plants have evolved along with local ecosystems so they are able to more effectively support local food webs. However, as ecology expert and native plant advocate Doug Tallamy pointed out in an interview with Yes! Magazine:
“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% native plant biomass in a given habitat, you can have sustainable chickadee reproduction. ‘That gives you 30% to plant perennials and exotics and other ornamental plants.’”
2. Less chemicals, more gardens
While it’s tempting to rip up all your grass and turn it into a meadow, doing it all at once might confuse your neighbors and the unforeseen maintenance requirements might make it tough for you to create a truly welcoming place for wildlife.
A great first step is to stop watering and using chemicals on your lawn. Doing so will promote a wider variety of biodiversity on your lawn and will ensure that you aren’t adding chemical pollution to local waterways. Another quick first step: consider replacing turfgrass with a groundcover that welcomes pollinators such as clover.
Once you’ve stopped using excess water and chemicals, find a spot in your yard to plant a garden. It’s important that you figure out what kind of garden would be most suitable for your space. All of us might not have the free time or right amount of sunlight for a traditional veggie garden, but don’t fret, there are plenty of other kinds of gardens that you can build to welcome wildlife to your outdoor space.
Raised Beds or Container Gardens
If you’re already well on your way to making your yard a more welcoming space for wildlife and want to turn your yard into a meadow then just keep in mind it will likely take a planting season or two to see it totally flourish. If you’re interested in learning more about meadow yards, check out these articles:
3. Use Signs
Despite the fact that lawns are not good for the health of the environment, having a well-maintained lawn is still something our society values. Because you can’t always be outside to connect with your neighbors, having a sign explaining that your lawn in a wildlife habitat is a great way to educate your community about your yard. This can help curb complaints and might inspire others to try something similar in their outdoor spaces. There are lots of options for signage, you can follow a formal certification process like the National Wildlife Federation or similar organizations or you can create your own sign. This website has a list of signs for all types of yard and budget.
4. Be prepared for pushback
Even if you have a sign explaining why your yard might not look well manicured, neighbors still might not be too happy about your decision. There could be pushback about everything from the look of your lawn to concerns about lyme disease or pollen allergies. Check out this article from Penn State for information busting some of the common myths surrounding natural landscaping. If you are open to it, pushback could be a good opportunity to speak more to your neighbor about biodiversity loss and why having a wild lawn is important to you. Do your research about whatever wildlife components you add to your yard so you can help your neighbors understand your motivations. If you’re really worried about pushback from your neighbors and you have access to a backyard, maybe start the biggest changes there and work up to making big changes in the front.
5. Know the Rules
People who begin transitioning their lawns to more natural landscaping often end up with citations for neglected or unruly yards. If your city or neighborhood has restrictive weed laws, try to find neighbors or other people who might also be interested in natural landscaping (your local Wild Ones chapter might be a good place to start).
In the city of Cincinnati, grass or weeds over 10 inches are subject to a fine. However, “managed natural landscaping” is exempt from the weed ordinance. Managed Natural Landscaping Areas must be “set back a minimum of three (3) feet from all property lines, roads, alleys and/or driveways unless the property is abutted by a fence or similar barrier.”
6. Prepare for a different kind of maintenance
While you might not be spending as much time mowing your lawn, natural landscaping comes with a different kind of maintenance. When you decide which type of garden or landscape you want to replace your lawn with, make sure you also do your research about the type of maintenance associated with it. You’ll also want to keep your eyes out for non-native plants that can sometimes be harmful to your natural yard. Get to know the species of plants that local experts warn gardeners against using. Here’s a guide from the Ohio Invasive Plants Council with recommendations for replacements for some non-native plants that can get out of control in Ohio. Note: Not all non-native species pose a risk, and as we mentioned earlier in this post, while using mostly native plants is recommended, that doesn’t mean you have to only use native plants. It’s important we understand why the terms we sometimes use to describe non-native plants can be problematic. Check out this article from the Smithsonian to learn more: “Why We Should Rethink How We Talk About ‘Alien’ Species”
7. Reconnect with nature in your yard
Making changes so that your new yard attracts more wildlife is a great way to support biodiversity in your neighborhood, plus you’ll get to enjoy seeing all the new plants and animals flourishing in your space. This can be a great way to learn more about natural systems and if you’re interested you can also improve your naturalist skills and work on identifying the local plant and animal life that will be visiting your yard!
Rethinking our yards is just one way we can welcome wildlife to our outdoor spaces. This spring, Imago will be sharing many ideas and resources to help us all make our outdoor spaces hubs of biodiversity. Follow us on Facebook and Instagram to keep up with all the updates and visit the Welcoming Wildlife page for even more tips and to submit topics you’d like us to cover.
Don’t have a yard? There’s still plenty you can do to welcome wildlife to whatever outdoor space you have available to you. Visit the Welcoming Wildlife page and check out the “Small Outdoor Spaces” section.