A foot away, a hummingbird sucks nectar from a bright-orange blossom. From above, a Chickaree drops bits of Douglas fir cone onto the page of my book. A whirring sound tells me the adult female bald eagle is passing overhead. Along with her lifelong mate, she raises one or two chicks a year in a massive nest within sight of my home.
Instead of a yard, I’ve maintained my property as habitat.
The norm for what a yard should look like comes from European sweeps of lawn and cultivated clusters of plants. Pioneers homesick for the old country and fearful of forests cut down trees and native shrubs, and planted lawns of non-native grasses to be endlessly and noisily mowed, often sprayed with noxious chemicals, the American Dream in motion.
I took a workshop on noxious weeds, and it ruined my life. I learned that non-native plants, such as the grasses that constitute most yards, are invasive. They compete with native plants, which in turn support a myriad of other species, and crowd them out.
Russell Link, a wildlife biologist who delights in landscape architecture and author of Landscaping for Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest, won’t ruin your life. He will make your life better, and if you read his book and take even one or two of his suggestions, you will make the life of the planet better, one yard at a time.
Surrounding one’s house or apartment building using native plants rather than grass and non-native species means less machinery, less noise, fewer chemicals, more oxygen, cooling features in summer and protection from wild winds in winter, and, in the long range, less work. The home owner or renter who encourages native plants also attracts birds. I happen to adore garter snakes, butterflies, amphibians, crickets, and now, thanks to Mr. Link, I notice and appreciate the insects some of these creatures eat.
Any given neighborhood, whether in the country, suburb, or city, tends to have a norm. If everyone on the block has bare lawn, with a single tree planted in the middle, then everyone will have a bare lawn and one tree. If everyone has a fence across the front of the property with a row of shrubs lining the fence, that’s what that neighborhood will produce.
“I see those yards that go natural,” a mail carrier from Seattle said when I talked about my native garden. “It’s. Well. Weird.” He expressed a prevalent view, and one that must be addressed by neighbors. If people understand the benefits of a native garden, and begin to enjoy the beauty of the birds and butterflies and bees over the rhythm of lawnmowers and weed whackers, the norm in that neighborhood can change.
Native gardening can happen in any part of the country or world. Since 2006, I’ve spent some falls, winters, and springs in Manhattan. In the backs of many buildings are bits of land, sometimes owned by individuals, and sometimes accessible to everyone in the building. Sometimes these are open spaces, and sometimes they are separated into little chain link fenced areas. In one sub-let, people in the opposite building tossed garbage out the window, while in another, some residents kept dogs in their little barren patch of yard, and the predominant plant was English ivy, a haven for rats.
Norms are changing in Manhattan, too. Manhattan has beautiful green space and many community gardens, but more yards could easily be transformed to support wildlife, provide oxygen, and even therapy.
This book’s a great starting point, written in an easily-accessible way. If one of a hundred property owners, renters, or architects used more native plants, we’d be changing the world.
- Photo of chickaree (Douglas squirrel) from 'Woodshots,' by Gary Woods.