Do good by doing less

Monarch butterfly on native butterfly weed.

It’s spring, a time of renewal, and perhaps a time to re-think traditional lawn practices here in the suburbs.

While many folks seem committed to continuing the “tradition” of turf-grass lawns, a growing number of homeowners are taking a different path.

Turf-grass lawns in America – often chemically enhanced and empty of native plants or insects – cover more than 40 million acres. That’s more land than is devoted to any food crop, and nearly equal to the 52 million acres contained in all of America’s national parks.

For some Americans, turf lawns are a useless extravagance that consumes 100 million pounds of lawn chemicals and fertilizers each year, nearly eight billion gallons of water each day, billions of gallons of gasoline, and uncountable hours of labor.

Yet other Americans continue to treat their lawns as extensions of their living rooms and not as any part of the natural world.

If lawns were just an expensive and time-consuming headache for some homeowners, well, that would simply be their problem.

But we – all of us – are facing a dangerous trend. Our eco-systems are endangered by habitat loss, urban sprawl, intensive agriculture, invasive species, and chemical pollution. The result is a dramatic loss of native insects, which might not sound like a serious problem, unless we consider that insects are the very foundation of our eco-system’s food web. Just remember, no bugs, no birds.

In response, a movement has been growing that rejects the use of lawn chemicals and favors native plants that support native wildlife over sterile, ecologically useless turf grass.

For many, it’s a case of doing good by doing less. Less pesticide, less fertilizers, less watering, less mowing, and definitely less use of industrial-strength leaf blowers.

And while less expense and less time mowing and blowing might sound good, some homeowners might be put off by the idea of replacing their lawn with plants that could possibly aggravate their neighbors, violate the rules of their homeowner’s association, or simply don’t look like the lawn that we have been conditioned to expect, and that the lawn care industry has tried so hard to convince us is necessary.

But the good news is, no one has to replace their whole lawn. Small changes in the right direction over a long period of time can yield big results.

Homeowners that think birds and bees are important, who think that perhaps we should consider the health of the eco-system that we are leaving to our children – and their children – and who think that it makes no sense to spray potentially toxic chemicals around our houses to kill dandelions that are sold in grocery stores, can take a few small steps in a better direction.

Stop spraying lawn chemicals. Don’t fret if a few dandelions, or some clover, or a handful wild irises, or other native plants show up on your lawn. Take a corner of your yard, or a small section of your garden, and put in some native wildflowers or native flowering shrubs to attract and support native insects and birds.

Take your time, see what works, and see what you like best.

If it seems right, you can add more native plants and maybe a native tree or two, cut back on the mowing, start a small brush pile, leave some of the leaves, and if you really get into it, start a compost pile.

(Spoiler alert: composting is a natural process that you probably couldn’t stop if you wanted to, so don’t think you have to follow the detailed instructions that some articles provide. You don’t need to monitor the temperature and you don’t need to inspect the pile every day. You’re turning clippings, leaves, and potato peels into dirt, not making a souffle.)

There is plenty of information out there about the value of gardening for wildlife, and every year native plants are more widely available, though you still can’t go to most garden centers and stock up. There are literally hundreds of native plants that will thrive in your yard, from oak trees (the gold standard for caterpillar habitat and carbon capture) to groundcovers like phlox. These plants have evolved to survive around here, so whether you need a plant for a sunny spot, a dry spot, a shady spot, or a wet spot, there are options out there.

There are a number of social media groups that can provide helpful information and for a good discussion of the important role your yard can play in supporting our eco-system, see Douglas Tallamy’s book, "Bringing Nature Home."


Walter Topp is a resident of Bay Village.

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Volume 16, Issue 3, Posted 9:20 AM, 03.05.2024