What is this blog?

This blog seeks to answer questions about sustainable gardening for those who are not familiar with the practice. The author holds a master’s in environmental science, works as a journalist, and practices a combination of permaculture and native plant gardening in Madison, Wisconsin. Leave your own questions as a comment on any post, and they will be answered soon!

This blog is best read from the beginning.

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What is this blog?

How can one yard make a difference?

In some respects, sustainable gardening is what’s known as a collective action problem: a challenge in which many people need to work together to enact a solution, and in which the first few people to act incur high costs while receiving few, if any, benefits. These problems are difficult to solve because everyone needs to act, but no one wants to act first.

In the case of sustainable gardening, the first person on the block to plant native wildflowers, or not rake their leaves in the fall, or even just set their lawnmower blade to four inches high (it really is better for the grass) could end up getting criticized – or worse – by their neighbors, while the positive impact they’re having on the environment seems like hardly a drop in the bucket compared to the serious problems our planet is facing. Under such circumstances, who would want to be a trendsetter? Even if our neighbors nod politely at our efforts, isn’t one yard just too small to make a difference?

That Blogger had an opportunity to put these questions to Doug Tallamy, a professor of entomology at the University of Delaware and a well-known advocate of natural yards, just a few months before That Blog was launched. Here are his answers.

Can one yard make any difference to nature?

Less than one yard can make a difference, Tallamy said. Even a few flowers on a balcony or in a window box can provide a valuable foraging stop for butterflies and other pollinators. And a space the size of a bedroom can have real, measurable benefits for these small creatures. A 15-by-15-foot garden in the completely enclosed courtyard of the Department of Agriculture building in Dover, Delaware, became a nursery for no fewer than 150 monarch caterpillars, when employees in the building simply chose to use that space for milkweed rather than for grass.

What if we just don’t put nature in our yards?

“We no longer have the option of opting out,” Tallamy said bluntly. “Most people do not have viable habitat [in their yards], and we’re seeing a steady drain of species from our ecosystems.”

As those species vanish, the ecosystem services they provide disappear too. That’s a serious problem for us humans, Tallamy said. If we want to safeguard our own survival, we need to do something now. Once the species we exclude from our yards are extinct, we can’t bring them back.

Do enough people have nature in their yards?

No, Tallamy said. But we’re getting closer to the critical threshold of solving this collective action problem.

Sustainable gardening is “certainly not mainstream yet,” Tallamy said (speaking in early 2015), “but it’s headed in that direction. I’m optimistic. We have turned the corner much faster than I thought we would have.”

But seriously. One yard?

Tallamy turned the question on its head, pointing out that regardless of property lines, we don’t need to think in terms of just one yard. Our next-door neighbor has a yard. Their neighbor on the other side has a yard. There are yards all the way down the block and into the next town and across the country. We can invite all of those neighbors to join us in our efforts to garden with nature. We can encourage landlords of apartment buildings to landscape their grounds with native plants instead of with lawn. We can pressure our local officials to plant more street trees and spray fewer pesticides.

When we have the courage to be a trendsetter, we are not small. And we can make a difference.

How can one yard make a difference?

Why is That Blog necessary?

That Blog has now been active for three years, and currently has nearly 200 posts. Those posts document numerous benefits of natural yards, and also report on clear signals that the era of the lawn is rapidly coming to a close.

During that same three-year period, however, the acreage of lawn in the United States has continued to increase, alongside ongoing suburban sprawl, as lawn remains a default landscaping choice in many parts of the country. And, studies still find that many people do not understand or value the many crucial services that urban nature provides for us.

A fascinating report from 2015 – just after That Blog was launched – investigates why experts on the importance of urban nature struggle to communicate what they know to laypeople. The fundamental finding of this report is that while experts recognize that nearby nature is absolutely critical to human health and wellbeing, the average person views nature as a sort of bonus amenity that is nice to have around if there is any space left after inserting houses, schools, workplaces, roads, parking lots, and all the other manmade infrastructure a community needs.

The report finds that many people also struggle with the basic idea of nature in cities. Urban dwellers often don’t view their local parks as nature, despite the presence of trees and other plants. To many Americans, “nature” means someplace vast and far away, the kind of place we visit occasionally on vacation.

In other words, the average person thinks that nature only counts if it’s big, and that we can “stock up” nature to sustain our wellbeing throughout the year. In contrast, experts understand that people benefit from nature as small as a pocket park or a residential yard, and that we need daily exposure to nature to really be at our best.

After comparing the views of laypeople to the knowledge of experts, and examining the communications gap between the two groups, the report concludes that people would value and support urban nature more if they understood that:

  • nature benefits us even when it is small.
  • we benefit from experiencing nature, rather than simply using it as a place to take a walk and get exercise.
  • nature benefits us in specific ways, via mechanisms science can explain.
  • nature is an essential component of urban design; we cannot live without it.
  • we can choose to have more nature in our cities!

For three years, That Blog has examined how even a small planting provides a wide variety of benefits, explored how we feel when we look at naturally-growing plants, explained how plants support our physical and mental health, expressed that natural yards are a great choice for our neighborhoods, and encouraged everyone to garden sustainably with nature!

Until public understanding and acceptance of urban nature is in line with what experts have long known, That Blog is still necessary. In the coming months, That Blog will cover the impacts of global warming, how to be a good neighbor to plants, and what happens to people’s wellbeing when nearby nature is destroyed. But first, That Blog will tackle head-on the key question: How can one yard make a difference?

Why is That Blog necessary?

What is an invasive species?

In the last post, That Blog asked what a native plant is. Asking what an invasive plant is might seem redundant – if it’s not native, it must be invasive, right?

Actually, no. If it’s not native, it must be non-native. But not all non-native plants are invasive. An invasive plant is one that meets a special definition:

An invasive plant is one which tends to spread, and which causes harm to the local ecosystem.

A non-native plant that stays put in a garden, or that escapes into the wild but causes no discernible disruption to the existing plant community, is not considered to be invasive.

Where do invasive species come from? Some – like Kentucky bluegrass – arrive by accident, as stowaways in other shipments. But half or more of the invasive species spreading across the United States today were deliberately introduced by the nursery trade. People planted these ornamental exotics in their yards, and the plants then cheerfully multiplied beyond the property lines.

In recent years, some states have tried to deal with this problem by banning the sale of invasive species. Some of these measures have passed; others have not. Even when they do pass, though, they tend to ban plants which have already been sold in abundance, and which have already spread into natural areas. Once a species has invaded an area, it is usually very difficult to eradicate. Banning the continued sale of such species is unlikely to make a dent in the problem.

An approach that might be more effective is to make every property owner responsible for eliminating invasives from their own land: if we each take care of our own piece of the Earth, together we might be able to accomplish something. Municipalities have used this approach for a long time, in the form of banning so-called “noxious weeds”. But these weed bans are often not enforced, and, more importantly, they tend to take aim at plants that are unpopular, rather than focusing on plants that are truly harmful. As just one example, these rules often forbid milkweed, the family of native flowers that are crucial to the survival of the monarch butterfly.

Before we pause to reflect on That Blog’s third anniversary, let’s take a look at one more definition worth knowing: a naturalized plant is not one that has settled harmoniously into its new home. Rather, it is a non-native species that is capable of surviving and reproducing without human help; in other words, a species poised to become invasive.

What is an invasive species?

How do I know what plants are native?

So you’ve decided to garden with native plants. Great! But… which plants, exactly, should you put in your yard? What is native?

The concept of nativeness encompasses two aspects: space, and time. First, where was the plant in question found before humans started moving it to new places? Many resources will answer this question by noting whether a certain plant species was historically found in a particular state. But this is a somewhat arbitrary criteria. Plants don’t know or care about the political constructs we call states. And large states may contain many diverse ecosystems. A species might naturally occur in the forests of northern California, but that doesn’t make it a suitable choice for a yard in the arid southern part of the state.

This is why some resources list native plants by county. But even this doesn’t really have anything to do with the way plants naturally distribute themselves. A plant that has historically lived just over the county line might be a better fit for a site than a plant found in a distant corner of the same county.

For this reason, some native gardeners skip native-by-county and native-by-state lists entirely, and instead look at distance. Any reputable dealer of native plants will be able to tell you where they got the original seed from. (And it should be seed. Reputable dealers do not sell plants taken from the wild; they propagate seeds in their nurseries and sell those plants.) If that naturally-occurring source of seed is within, say, 50 miles of the intended planting site, then the species is native. If the seed is being collected from further away, it is not native, and won’t be considered for that particular garden.

The other aspect of nativeness is time. When we say that a species was found somewhere historically, what do we mean? Kentucky bluegrass, which originally evolved in Europe, could be found across the eastern United States 100 years ago. Does that make it native? What about plants that lived in the northern states prior to the last ice age, got wiped out by the glaciers, and haven’t come back on their own yet? Are they native?

Most people say that if a species was found in a place just before the time that Europeans got there, then it is historically native. But as climate change continues to alter ecosystems, we may want to update our definition of historically native to mean “species that were found in that place when the local climate was similar to what it will be again in the near future”.

Many native gardeners are not purists – that is, they will plant a non-native species in their yards because the species has especially beautiful flowers, or produces delicious fruit, or simply is a personal favorite of the gardener. There is nothing wrong with this. But if we are serious about native gardening, we should at least be aware when a species we are planting is one of these special exceptions. To do so, we first must decide how we are defining what is or is not native in our own yards.

How do I know what plants are native?

What’s new in natural yards? May 2018

A recently-published study (authored in part by That Blogger’s former thesis advisor) examines how Wisconsinites think about their urban trees.

A 16-page survey sent to homeowners in and around Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, and Wausau asked people a variety of questions about trees. One set of questions regarded benefits and problems related to trees. Under the header of benefits, survey respondents most strongly valued trees for their ability to make a place look nice, provide shade and cooling, improve air quality, and generally enhance the livability of a neighborhood.

But about half of the homeowners said they were “strongly concerned” about the risk of trees or branches falling and damaging things. People within city limits (as opposed to those living in the suburbs) and people with smaller lots tended to be more worried about this risk, possibly because a falling tree or branch on their property was more likely to hit something. People who saw trees as dangerous, the study found, valued trees less overall.

The survey also asked who homeowners trusted for help and advice related to trees. The results showed that respondents trusted tree professionals more than any other source of information. Averaged across the four cities, 62% of people said they would trust a landscaping company or tree service, while only 14% said they would trust the staff of a non-profit organization. This is surprising and worrying, as such professionals have a financial incentive to suggest whatever service is most profitable for them, rather than the service that is best for the tree and its neighbors (human and otherwise).

The survey’s demographic questions turned up some interesting findings. Women rated trees more highly than men did, and millennials valued trees more than baby boomers, though these younger folks tended to have fewer trees on their own properties, likely because their lots were smaller than those of their more senior neighbors. Older homeowners, in contrast, expressed more concern about trees “growing too big, making a mess, or blocking scenic views”.

Finally, most people who answered the survey thought that their neighbors valued trees and took good care of trees. But, as with many domains of life, people rated themselves even more highly on questions about recognizing the importance of trees and properly caring for trees.

The relatively-brief, highly-readable report can be found here.

What’s new in natural yards? May 2018

How can you establish a natural yard faster?

As explained in the last two posts, natural yards take a long time to establish, and attempts to speed up the process often backfire. There are, however, a few ways to help nature happen a little more quickly.

Inexperienced gardeners – natural and otherwise – often think that the short route to a well-established yard is to bring home the biggest plants they can fit in their cars, and put those plants in the ground.

In a sense, this works. By following this strategy, the homeowner may be able to enjoy trees as tall as a person, fully leafed-out shrubs, and blooming flowers on day one of their gardening efforts. But what happens after that?

It comes as no surprise that plants don’t like to be moved. Plants have spent millions of years evolving to make the best of whatever spot they germinate in. They have no evolutionary experience of moving to a new spot and getting resettled. Plus, transplants typically have spent the first part of their lives being coddled in a greenhouse, and don’t appreciate being relocated to an outdoor spot, where they suddenly have to put up with wind, irregular watering, less-than-perfect soil, and all the other challenges associated with life as a plant.

The older and bigger a plant is when it gets relocated, the more trouble it has dealing with the unexpected event and all its related challenges.

Experienced gardeners have noticed that if they plant two trees – one older and larger, one younger and smaller – at the same time, by a few years later, the tree that was initially smaller will have grown bigger than its partner. This is because the originally-larger tree struggles more to re-establish itself, and so takes longer to resume investing its energy in growth. The smaller transplant, in contrast, will settle into its new home more easily, and will soon return to vigorously putting on height, width, and foliage.

It’s also worth noting that smaller plants are generally cheaper. Given a limited budget, there is a certain satisfaction in bringing home one sizable tree and planting it in the yard. But buying three smaller trees – or several dozen flower seedlings – will result in a complete, healthy planting, as opposed to the gardener being left with one lonely tree surrounded by lawn.

For those gardeners equipped with patience and foresight, seeds may be an even better choice than small plants. Given that seeds can be installed in the yard by the simple expedient of throwing them on the ground, and given that seeds will turn themselves into plants that provide a host of benefits and then go on to create more of themselves, it is astonishing how inexpensive seeds are. Reputable dealers will sell their product in terms of pure live seed – that is, if you want one ounce of seed, and the dealer knows that this species has a germination rate of 50%, they will sell you two ounces for the price of one. This way, you know you are always getting your money’s worth.

By taking our time, we can establish our yards more easily, more cheaply, and more quickly. Gardening is an endeavor in which slow and steady does, indeed, win the race.

How can you establish a natural yard faster?

What are some common natural gardening mistakes?

When natural gardeners are asked about their biggest gardening mistake, one answer is heard over and over: trying to do everything at once.

Their enthusiasm is commendable. After all, natural yards are beautiful and peaceful, they provide habitat for wildlife, they take less work in the long run, they are good for the environment, and they benefit our health in countless ways. Who wouldn’t want one right now?

One of the biggest obstacles to establishing a natural yard, however, is the amount of work they require upfront. The aspiring natural gardener has to learn about native plants and the site conditions they prefer, survey their own site conditions, make a garden plan, eliminate existing non-natives, bring in the new plantings, discourage the invasives that try to move back in, and many other tasks. In many natural yards, all of this work is done personally and by hand, rather than by hiring other people or fossil-fuel-powered machines to help with the labor.

Thus, for any but the tiniest of yards, the gardener can quickly become overwhelmed by the amount of work that needs to be done all at the same time. Aspects of the planting begin to fail. (In a natural yard, it’s accepted that some things will fail, but trying to rush through the establishment phase tends to lead to more failure than necessary.) The gardener has run out of money, resources, and energy to do the project over again. Pretty soon, they’re left with a big mess.

For this reason, experienced natural gardeners advise newcomers to make an overall plan, then tackle one aspect at a time. It’s generally wise to start with trees and shrubs, which take the longest to become established, and add smaller plants later. Or, the beginning gardener could begin with the areas closest to the house, and work outwards. As each piece of the plan becomes self-sustaining, the gardener becomes free to devote their energy to the next stage of the process.

Another mistake worth mentioning is declaring failure too soon. As mentioned in the previous post, new plantings may take several years to start looking good. Seeds may not germinate in the first year. Seeds that do germinate may look like weeds. Transplants may appear to have not survived their relocation.

All of these are normal parts of the establishment process. Seeds will germinate when they are ready, seedlings will mature into beautiful plants, and transplants will jettison their leaves, focus on getting their roots settled, and grow back the next year. By patiently waiting out these awkward stages, a gardener can avoid unnecessary rework.

Part of the joy of having a natural yard is the satisfaction of learning about native plants through hands-on experience. It’s not necessary to be an expert on natural gardening before beginning to establish plantings in our own yards. But by arming ourselves with a little awareness of others’ mistakes, we can increase our own chances of speedy success.

What are some common natural gardening mistakes?