From a young age, we are taught that gardens are meant for beauty — to be exquisite and expressive. Whether we like it or not, the way our properties look is seen as a statement of our affluence by our peers. There is high pressure to have freshly cut grass that is as green as a golf course. But no one has told us that we have forced our plants and animals (our nation’s biodiversity) to depend more and more on human-dominated landscapes for their continued existence. We have always thought that biodiversity was happy somewhere out there “in nature.” So why do we have to stop that mindset?
We have planted over 62,000 square miles in lawn. Each weekend, we mow an area eight times the size of New Jersey to within one inch of grass.
Nearly all of our second-growth forests have been invaded by alien plants like Autumn Olive, Multiflora Rose, Oriental Bittersweet, and Japanese Honeysuckle. Over 3400 species of alien plants have invaded 100 million acres of the United States, and that area is expected to double in the next five years.
We have turned 54 percent of the lower 48 states into cities and suburbs, and another 41 percent into various forms of agriculture. That means we have taken 95 percent of nature and made it unnatural.
These numbers mean our life support systems are failing. It’s biodiversity that generates oxygen and clean water, that creates topsoil out of rock and buffers extreme weather events like droughts and floods, and that recycles the mountains of garbage we create every day. Now, with human-induced climate change threatening the planet, it’s biodiversity that will suck carbon out of the air and sequester it in living plants.
Alien ornamentals support 29 times less biodiversity than native ornamentals. Native oak trees support over 500 species of caterpillars whereas ginkgoes, a commonly planted landscape tree from Asia, hosts only five species of caterpillars. When it takes 6000 caterpillars to raise one brood of chickadees, that is a significant difference.
By switching to native plants in your backyard, you are looking at a very low maintenance project in your future. They’re already adapted to your region’s soil and climate, meaning that they don’t require additional chemical fertilizers or other commercial biocides like herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides.
By decreasing the use of these biocides, you will find an increase in public health. Planting native is actually proven to help lower cancer rates. Lawns and bark-mulch beds are notorious for using copious amounts of synthetic chemicals. These chemicals run-off into our waterways, and wind up in our drinking water or the fish or plants we eat.
Extensive lawn maintenance also leads to air pollution. Lawn mowers emit 10 to 12 times as much pollution as a typical car. String trimmers emit 21 times and blowers emit 34 times. That is a lot of greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere.
Shockingly, 60 percent of the water consumed on the West Coast and 30 percent of water consumed on the East Coast goes toward watering lawns. US News and World Report states that a 1000-square-foot lawn requires 10,000 gallons of water per summer to maintain a “green” look. As we continue taking water out of streams and rivers and returning it with chemical pesticides and fertilizers, we diminish water quality everywhere and increase water bills and property taxes.
Native landscapes do not require permanent irrigation and hence do not contribute to wasteful and costly water practices. These native plants are adapted to local environmental conditions, requiring far less water.
Planting native actually saves you money. After your plants get established in the first season, they will effectively take care of themselves. The United States Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the cost of maintaining an average lawn is actually $700 per year, and that’s just grass! If you choose to add shrubs or flower beds, that cost goes up. The average household lawnmower is used 40 hours per year — the equivalent of a one-week vacation. Isn’t there another way you’d rather spend that vacation time?
As we enter a state of calm for the autumn season, start to think of a plan to incorporate native plants into your backyard for the following spring. Say goodbye to all of that extra work of bringing plants in for the winter, repotting them, fertilizing, and spraying them with chemicals. You’ll not only be making a difference for yourself, but also for the people, plants, and animals all around you.
Xylia Serafy graduated with a BA in Spanish and Environmental Studies from Ursinus College in 2015. She has worked as an environmental educator at the South Fork Natural History Museum for four years and is a NYS Licensed Wildlife Rehabilitator.