March/April 2022 Issue
Chances are, you consider your landscaping a way to create your own personal oasis. And you’re not wrong! Having a beautiful yard is a major life enhancement, and research even confirms that gardening has a positive impact on an individual’s well-being. But as we confront the myriad issues our planet faces, including the climate crisis and extreme habitat loss for animals (the bird population in North America has dropped by nearly 30 percent since the 1970s), it’s only natural to wonder if our patches of paradise can work a little harder for the good of all. We turned to two experts, entomologist and author Doug Tallamy and horticulturalist Janet Sluis, for their input. There is every reason to have hope. With appropriate planting selection, thoughtful design, and informed maintenance choices, our gardens can contribute to a well-functioning ecosystem. And make no mistake—the personal benefits remain ample, including lower water bills and plenty of beauty.
Rethink the lawn.
Functioning neither as habitat nor food for birds or insects, and usually treated with herbicides, mowed grass amounts to a total ecological dead zone, according to Tallamy, and he encourages us to remove some or all of it. The fastest way is to physically remove the sod by cutting it into strips with a sod cutter, rolling up the strips, and either taking them away or turning them over and letting them compost in place. (Note: This method doesn’t work for Bermuda grass.) Other approaches include light exclusion (covering the lawn with black plastic for several months) or sheet composting, in which you cover the area with cardboard, compost, and mulch. With many parts of the West offering rebates for removal, you can find more information with your local water district. Lawn replacements can include native wildflower meadows or low-water groundcovers that don't need to be mowed or fertilized; consult with your water district for regionally-appropriate ideas.
Stop using chemicals.
“Home gardeners should not be using pesticides, period,” says Sluis. Herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides are indiscriminate killers, she says. “So, there’s really no use in trying to attract butterflies with nectar plants [only to] have a pesticide sprayed nearby.” She’s just as passionate about skipping synthetic fertilizers, as they make for rapid, tender growth, which is particularly attractive to pests. Synthetic fertilizers “will grow a plant, but not a healthy one,” she says. It’s much better to feed plants via a natural fertilizer, aka compost.