What is this blog?

This blog seeks to answer questions about native landscaping for those who are not familiar with the practice. The author is a master’s student in Environmental Health, a permaculture practitioner, and a published journalist, based 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?

What is sense of place?

Imagine driving down the main street of a town you’ve never visited before. What would you rather see there – a McDonald’s and a Walmart, or a local diner and drugstore?

While seeing familiar chain businesses helps us feel oriented, it also leaves us with the impression that we haven’t really gone anywhere. Travelling doesn’t seem worth it when every place looks the same.

We travel because we want to experience something new – different food, different architecture, different customs. These unique attributes create a sense of place – the feeling that where we are isn’t the same as everywhere else. The sense of place we have about our own hometown comes from the feeling that where we live is special and worth being proud of.

Plants are a key contributor to a sense of place. We enjoy seeing prairies full of wildflowers in the Midwest, palm trees in Florida or California, and cacti in the desert states.

When every town is carpeted with lawns, we lose the opportunity to experience America’s diverse landscapes. We also give up unique features of our own town, replacing them with a flat, homogeneous vista.

In the past, having a well-maintained lawn showed pride in the place where one lived. Today, people with natural yards reflect pride in their home by gardening with plants that reflect the distinctive character of the region.

What is sense of place?

What do people in other countries have in their yards?

Largely, people in other countries don’t have yards at all.

In the United States, most communities have zoning ordinances that require houses to have large front yards. Oddly enough, the main reason for this is lawns. Frederick Law Olmsted, best known as the designer of Central Park in New York, believed that suburban homes should have large front lawns to create the impression that the homeowners all lived in a common park. Since the mid-1800s, his vision has been copied across the country.

As well as being set back from the street, American houses also tend to sit on relatively large properties. In other countries, urban lots are smaller. This allows for dense development that keeps communities walkable, instead of being dependent on cars.

Within their lots, houses in most foreign cities are set close to the street. This puts a higher percentage of the property behind the house, where homeowners can enjoy a roomy, private backyard.

For the most part, these backyards do not contain lawns. Instead, they’re likely to feature flowers or vegetable gardens, as well as offering something for wildlife. In the UK, about half of households put out food for birds, one in five offer a nesting box, and 16% have a pond in their yard.

When homeowners in other countries do have a lawn, they’re very different from lawns in the US. In Paris, the average lawn includes nine different plant species – about eight of them native to the area – and is mowed only four to six times a year.

Gardeners in other countries also forego formal hedges, when straight lines would hurt wildlife. In Stockholm, Sweden, caretakers of allotment gardens – similar to community gardens in the US – typically leave hedges untrimmed when birds are nesting in them.

While the American lawn is derived from grand estates in 1700s Europe, today most people around the world consider lawns to be a special feature for noteworthy properties, such as Parliament houses and historic buildings. Few countries see lawns as appropriate for residential yards.

What do people in other countries have in their yards?

Do plants feel pain?

Ah, the smell of a freshly-mowed lawn. For some people, it’s a favorite summer aroma. But where exactly is it coming from?

What we are really detecting, when we experience the scent of cut grass, is a chemical called auxin. Auxin is a chemical that plants release when they are damaged. In nature, this damage is usually caused by herbivores, while in modern life, it’s caused by lawnmowers.

The primary function of auxin is to initiate a healing process. Much as a blood clot seals a wound and helps it begin to heal, auxin closes off the damaged site on a plant and begins to repair it.

Auxin may also have a communicative function. It is known that plants can detect chemicals in their environments, and detecting the auxin of a neighbor may signal a plant to begin protecting itself from an approaching herbivore, by producing more of the chemicals that make plants unpleasant to eat.

Clearly this defense mechanism is ineffective against an approaching lawnmower, but it is fascinating to think that as you mow your grass, it may be calling “Hey, watch out!” to the other side of the lawn.

Plants are aware of damage that happens to them, and, like any organism, they are motivated to do what they can to avoid it. Whether they experience this damage as what we would call pain is a question we may never be able to answer.

Do plants feel pain?

What are pesticides? #2

As a previous post explained, pesticides are chemicals formulated to kill living organisms. They are usually intended to kill insects, rodents, weeds, or fungi. But, these were not their original targets.

During World War II, many scientists built their careers on inventing weapons to harm enemy combatants. The most famous of these weapons was the nuclear bomb, but many chemical weapons were also devised during this period.

After the war, as has been documented by Naomi Oreskes and other journalists, some of these scientists went on to deny the link between smoking and cancer, the existence of human-caused climate change, and other serious public health issues. Meanwhile, others wondered what to do with chemical weapons during peacetime.

Soon, they hit on an idea: reformulate chemicals intended to kill humans, and market them as products for killing household pests.

Contrary to common belief, the US government does not require pesticides to be proven safe before they can be sold to the public. In fact, many of the components of pesticides have not been tested at all for their effects on human health. Many of those that have been tested have been found to cause cancer.

It should not be surprising that chemicals developed to harm humans still harm humans when they are reformulated into a watered-down version. Still, most people do not follow safety precautions – such as wearing protective clothing and not spraying more than needed – when using pesticides.

By using pesticides carefully, or by not using them at all, we can protect our own health and that of our neighbors.

What are pesticides? #2

Why do leaves change color in the fall?

Fall has arrived in the northern hemisphere, and leaves will soon be changing colors. We’ve all heard why they do this: the green color is created by chlorophyll, a substance key to photosynthesis, and when the chlorophyll is lost at the end of the summer, leaves reveal their true colors.

Now, some scientists think this story is wrong. They believe that, instead, trees actively work to create their brilliant fall colors.

Why would trees do this? One challenge plants face in life is being attacked by insects. To combat this, plants produce a variety of chemicals that deter insects from eating their leaves or burrowing in their bark.

Just as chlorophyll creates a green color in leaves, some of these insect-deterring chemicals create bright yellows, oranges, and reds. The more chemical a tree stores up, the more vibrant the colors.

In the same way that a male bird puts on showy colors in spring to prove that he is a healthy mate, trees display dramatic autumn hues to tell insects, “I’ve invested in defenses against you; don’t bother trying to attack me.”

Colorful fall leaves may therefore be not only a defensive strategy, but a method of communication – providing further evidence that plants are intelligent.

Why do leaves change color in the fall?

What are wildlife corridors?

As a general rule, bigger habitat patches are better.

Since a small yard cannot be a big patch, this may sound like disappointing news. However, suburban yards can play a crucial role in helping surrounding patches be bigger.

How does this work? Imagine two patches – say, two stands of forest – that are relatively near each other. Some species, like birds, might be able to easily move back and forth, in order to take advantage of both patches. But this isn’t an option for other species – like small mammals, slow-moving reptiles, or birds reluctant to leave the forest interior. These less-mobile animals have to make do with the resources of just one patch.

Now, imagine there is a strip of woods connecting the two forests. The less-mobile animals can move along this strip, enabling them to use both patches. In effect, the addition of this strip makes the patch twice as big!

This kind of strip is called a wildlife corridor. For forest animals, it might be a narrow belt of forest, as described above. For fish, it could be a river between two lakes.

While some wildlife corridors are naturally occurring, some are deliberately built. A common example of this is tunnels under roads, to help small animals cross without being run over. To help larger animals move, California is considering building a bridge over the 101 Freeway – the so-called wildlife overpass.

Halfway between the natural and the artificial, property owners can landscape their yards in ways that help connect neighboring habitat patches. This could mean offering food and water for migrating birds, or cover for small animals to travel under.

By thinking outside our property lines, we can choose to make our yards vital parts of the habitat networks that surround us.

What are wildlife corridors?

What is a patch?

A patch is an area of habitat.

Patches can come in any size. For example, balsam fir trees enjoy a huge patch of habitat across Canada’s boreal forest. But, a small Wisconsin yard with the right site conditions could also be a habitat patch for balsam fir.

If you own a yard – or even a balcony that could host a few flowerpots – then you have a patch. It is your choice what to do with it.

Some people choose to have a lawn, maybe with some non-native ornamental flowers or shrubs, and to prevent any other plant or animal from living on their property. Other people choose to make space for many species in their patch.

Even in a small yard, it is possible to have multiple patches. For example, one corner of the yard might include trees, along with plants that like shade. Squirrels may nest here, and forest birds might drop by. Another corner of the yard could host sun-loving plants, and the insects that frequent them. A third corner could feature a pond or rain garden, providing a habitat patch for wetland plants and birds that like to bathe.

Patches differ in quality as well as size. While a grouping of woodland plants in a corner of a suburban yard is not as good as a forest, it is better than a single aggressively-pruned tree standing in a lawn. Even relatively small, low-quality patches can provide critical resources for struggling species.

By taking small steps to improve the quality of our very own patches, we can enjoy seeing species not normally observed in the suburbs.

What is a patch?