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Get into the Habitat

My home landscape could be the best one in the neighborhood – this, according to a flyer I received from a lawn-care company. Its innocuous name implied green, beautiful, verdant bliss. All I had to do was subscribe to the service. I would get four applications a year, covering the entire yard with fertilizers and the broadleaf defoliant 2,4-D (a component of three-in-one Weed and Feed, and also of the Vietnam-era jungle defoliant Agent Orange). This would provide a grass-only monoculture. All for only several hundred dollars a year.

Missing from the promotion were the health risks associated with 2,4-D. This broadleaf herbicide has been around for a very long time. It’s readily available despite its downsides, which are numerous. To review the hazards, just google “2,4-D NRDC.” While you’re at it, check out “2,4-D msds.” This will allow you to review the Material Safety Data Sheet. You need to know exactly what you’re subjecting yourself to.

When our daughter and son were children, my wife and I let them play only on lawns that had lots of clover and dandelions: an indicator that the lawn was free of toxic herbicides. Why gamble with their health?

I used the lawn-care company’s self-addressed, stamped envelope to send a note thanking them for their concern, but I told them our nontoxic yard is already the best one in the neighborhood for several reasons – but mainly, when our little granddaughter comes to visit, she can safely play in the grass.

When we moved to Algoma in 2010, our new landscape was a barren, mowed monotony, devoid of habitat. During the past decade, we’ve replaced most of the non-native turfgrass with native plants: trees, shrubs and a diversity of flowers. This has greatly improved our home habitat, not only for our pets, kids, grandkids and ourselves, but also for a wide array of fellow critters.

This past fall, our yard was visited by hundreds of migrating painted-lady butterflies, feeding mainly on New England asters. Monarchs are a constant presence, both adult and larval, plus dragonflies and a whole host of pollinators, including various butterflies, native bees and syrphid flies. Dozens of species of birds now frequent our landscape as well.

When we moved near Lake Michigan, we initially had an abundance of spiders and webs on our house. A salesperson offered to spray our place for spiders, and I discovered that many of our neighbors have this done.

But as our landscape has matured and diversified, my window-cleaning chores have become less. Predators, ranging from hummingbirds to mud daubers, keep the spiders down to a modest few – too few to require constant maintenance. We like to point out that our hummingbirds gather free-range organic spiders to feed to their nestlings. Many other nesting birds – song sparrows, catbirds and chickadees – also consume nontoxic spiders and insect larvae. The pest-control service they offer is free.

Speaking of free … our diverse lawn fertilizes itself. We have ample clovers throughout, which fix nitrogen – for free. No contracts, bills or quarterly visits – or unnecessary toxins.

Turfgrass continues to retreat as habitat is expanding. We will keep a little lawn with plenty of broadleaf plants in our landscape. It provides a safe place to put lawn chairs, gather with friends and family, maintain an open view where appropriate and offer access around the yard. 

Native plants provide a beautiful and diverse vegetative sense of place, but one of the most positive aspects of our healthy landscape is that it helps our human neighbors. Whether they are downstream or downwind, they need fear no toxins from us. We follow what should be the landscaper’s Golden Rule: Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.