Wild Ones of the Door Peninsula is a chapter of a national organization that has as its motto, “Healing the Earth, one yard at time.”
On Earth Day, we all wish we could heal the Earth. Let’s face it: Its ecosystems are severely compromised, and we are totally dependent on the services provided by our ecosystem’s native plants.
To heal the Earth, all we have to do is change the way we treat the land. But one yard at a time? Doesn’t that seem like tokenism? Can simple changes to a single yard make any difference at all?
Douglas Tallamy, a professor at the University of Delaware and a popular writer and speaker, has graduate students researching this very question. Their studies indicate that even small, individual efforts truly do make a difference.
“If you are concerned about the human impact on our planet’s climate, reducing the amount of lawn you mow each week is one of the best things you can do to reduce your family’s carbon-dioxide emissions,” Tallamy wrote. “On average, mowing your lawn for one hour produces as much pollution as driving 650 miles. Moreover, we now burn 800 million gallons of gas each year in our dirty little lawnmower engines to keep our lawns at bay.”
Several years ago, the Safe Lawn Door County organization did some research on lawns – which obviously are not a natural Door County landscape. It found that grasses with shallow root systems need synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Soils treated with these chemicals result in 75-80% less microbial activity. Pesticides and herbicides are toxic substances that can cause long-term health issues in children, pets, birds and beneficial insects.
The Wild Ones organization does not advocate tearing out lawns altogether, but reducing the size of a lawn and replacing grass with native plants will do much to help pollinating insects and has the added benefit of encouraging songbirds to nest in your yard.
Landscaper Claudia West suggests that we think of lawn as an area rug, not wall-to-wall carpeting. Another added benefit would be having less lawn to water. And speaking of water, because native plants are deep rooted, they slow down stormwater runoff, which reduces erosion and improves water quality.
You don’t have to pull out all of your nonnative perennials either. There is nothing inherently bad about most nonnative plants – except that they take up the space that could be used to plant natives. Not all natives are equally helpful, but native trees and shrubs are usually the most beneficial. It will probably make more of an impact to plant a couple of trees or shrubs rather than trying to establish a wildflower meadow.
A great resource to learn about the most productive native plants is the Native Plant Finder on the National Wildlife Federation’s website (nwf.org/nativeplantfinder). Just enter your zip code, and the Plant Finder will provide a list of the most productive trees, shrubs and wildflowers that you could add to your landscape. Planting clusters is beneficial, and even trees should be planted in groups.
One person cannot save the Earth – especially in one year – so start small. Transforming a landscape takes time. But if many people would take even small efforts to shrink lawns and plant native plants, the cumulative effect would be much greater than individual efforts. If you don’t have your own land, you can volunteer at a preserve or park.
Celebrate Earth Day, and know that we really can help heal the Earth, one yard at a time.
Coggin Heeringa is the president of Wild Ones of the Door Peninsula and the program director and naturalist at Crossroads at Big Creek in Sturgeon Bay.