by Jim McGlone, Urban Forest Conservationist, Virginia Department of Forestry
In his presentations, Dr. Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home, tells his audiences that Americans grow 40,000,000 acres of turf. To put that in context if we were to convert half of that turf area to native plants we could create Suburbia National Park that would be larger than Adirondacks, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Tetons, Canyonlands, Everglades, North Cascades, Badlands, Olympic, Sequoia, Grand Canyon, Denali, Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah Parks combined. When you think about how big some of these parks are, it gives you some idea of the immensity of the Great American Lawn.
There is a growing movement in conservation biology to shift some of our focus from ‘big nature,’ the big parks listed above, to ‘little nature,’ the vacant lot down the street or your own yard. Part of the reason for this is that we are becoming increasingly aware that protecting big areas in isolation does not allow for the large scale and small scale migrations necessary to maintain healthy wildlife populations. In terms of a Northern Virginia backyard this means the seasonal migration of birds and butterflies from wintering grounds to breeding grounds and back; and the movement of local animals, plants and their genes from one territory to another.
Consider the great American lawn. The turf grass which dominates the lawn is not native to North America, not even Kentucky bluegrass. When it is a bright green, weed free expanse, it can inspire pride in a homeowner. But what is the cost of that pride? Fertilizer, water, lime, weed killer and lots of sweat. And what is the source of that pride? A vision of the suburban landscape conjured by advertisers working for the lawn care industry. Nowhere in the foundational documents or philosophy of western civilization is the lawn mentioned. In fact, mowing, weeding, fertilizing, liming, watering, raking and other lawn care activities could be construed to be the opposite of the ‘pursuit of happiness.’
What do you get for that investment of blood, sweat and treasure? Maybe a verdant expanse worthy of a PGA fairway, but also the need to invest more blood, sweat and treasure and a home for only things that like to eat grass, especially Japanese beetle grubs. One way to get out of this cycle of toil and expense is to trade part or all of your turf grass for native plant gardens.
The perceptive reader may complain that gardens, native plants or not, are as much work as turf. That may or may not be true, depending on how you define ‘native plant.’ Some plants native to Northern Virginia are very picky about the conditions in which they live and can be very hard to grow. But, if you define ‘native’ as a plant that comes from this general area of the globe AND thrives in your yard, and you select plants that fit both parts of this definition, your native plant garden will practically grow itself. An example of this is Tiarella, aka foamflower. By all accounts I have heard it is a beautiful easy to grow native woodland ground cover; but when I planted it in my yard, it withered and died. Although Tiarella is native to NOVA, it is not native to my yard.
Besides reducing the cost of maintaining your yard, helping to found Suburbia National Park and beautifying your property, converting half your lawn to native plants will reduce stormwater runoff, which is good for Chesapeake Bay and your local waterway, sequester more carbon and reduce carbon emissions, which is good for polar bears, and attract insects and birds, which is good for … wait, insects? Yes insects eat your plants, but they are also pollinators, seed dispersers, recyclers, food for baby birds and predators of plant eating insects. Insects are the key to transforming a high maintenance, sterile suburban landscape into a low maintenance functioning ecosystem. All you need to do is plant a diverse collection of native flowers, grasses, trees and shrubs and the insects will move in a do the maintenance work for you. All you need to do to get started reaping all these benefits is to dig up a little of your turf and plant a nice native plant.