Why does that yard have weeds in it?

To answer that question, we must first ask what a weed is, and that is best addressed after looking at two other questions.

What is a non-native species?

A non-native species is a plant or animal living in a place where it was not historically found. Many plants popular among traditional gardeners are non-native, being European or Asian in origin. Even lawn grass is non-native! North America has over one thousand native species of grass, but none of them will put up with continual mowing. For this reason, when the developers of the early suburbs imported the idea of turf grass from Europe, they also imported the grass.

Unfortunately, European grass does not like the North American climate, which is why it tends to turn brown in the summer. This dormant state is natural and healthy for the grass, but some people find it unattractive. For this reason, some homeowners choose to water their grass to keep it green throughout the growing season.

What is an invasive species?

An invasive species is a non-native that tends to spread in its adoptive home. For example, the European species garlic mustard is considered invasive in North America. In its home range it is a harmless plant that has been used as a cooking herb for centuries, but elsewhere it tends to spread rapidly and kill other plants by poisoning fungi the plants rely on.

What is a weed?

A weed is simply a plant that a human observer does not like. It is a subjective designation, not a biological class.

Many gardeners consider dandelions to be weeds. Mowed, pulled, or herbicided, they just won’t go away!

Dandelions are a pioneer species. This means they are able to colonize disturbed areas where other plants cannot thrive. The dandelions, with their deep tap roots, are able to access nutrients other plants can’t reach. In the course of absorbing these nutrients, dandelions improve the soil, creating favorable conditions for other plants. In the absence of further disturbance, new plants will move into the area, quickly crowding out the dandelions, which have lost their competitive advantage.

Some species of dandelions are native to North America, while others were brought here by European settlers. The settlers purposely grew dandelions for their edible and medicinal qualities. The flowers are also an important early-spring food source for native pollinators.

Why does that yard have weeds in it?

In short, what one person sees as a weed, another person sees as a beautiful or useful plant!

Why does that yard have weeds in it?

Who else is writing about natural yards?

Madison’s Isthmus newspaper ran an article in 2012 that declared the age of the turf grass lawn to be over.

The New Yorker published a similar article in 2008.

The New York Times Magazine printed an article questioning lawns as early as 1989.

Bringing Nature Home comprehensively describes why natural yards are critical to the preservation of ecosystem services.

Silent Spring, a landmark book in the environmental movement, discusses how maintaining lawns through applications of chemicals is harmful to homeowners as well as to wildlife.

(Outside the Madison library system? Find the books on Amazon here and here.)

Who else is writing about natural yards?

Why is that little bird feeding that larger one?

Because the larger one is a baby Brown-headed Cowbird.

Cowbirds are not very good parents. Instead of raising their own young, they sneak into the nest of another bird, lay an egg, and leave.

Cowbirds don’t make good siblings either. When the young cowbird hatches, it immediately destroys any other chicks or eggs in the nest, so it can get all of its foster parents’ attention for itself.

Other birds, for whatever reason, have never gotten wise to this trick. The foster parents happily raise the baby cowbird as if it’s their own. When the young cowbird gets bigger than them, they just think they have an especially healthy chick.

It seems some cowbirds have successfully hijacked a Chipping Sparrow nest near That Yard!

Why is that little bird feeding that larger one?

Are natural yards legal in Madison?


However, the city does not make it easy to find out what rules a homeowner must follow in order to have a natural yard legally. The booklet containing this information can only be found in the historical records library.

Here are a few excerpts from Madison’s official publication:

“Once prairie plantings are established, they require no herbicides, fertilizer, water, dethatching, aerifying, leaf removal or mowing. Prairie Restorations Inc. of Wayzata, Minnesota calculated that prairie maintenance was one seventh of the cost of lawn maintenance.”

“Comparative studies have shown that there is more than twice as much runoff of rainfall off of turf grass as there is from woodland or prairie vegetation. Extensive use of natural vegetation could have a profound positive effect on the water quality of our lakes.”

“Will tall grass attract rats? – Rats are attracted by extreme concentrations of food such as grain elevators and garbage. Whether tall grass is present or not is independent of the presence of rats.”

“What about mosquitoes and other insects? – Naturalized landscapes without standing water will not breed mosquitoes. At least ten days of standing water are necessary for this. People who have landscaped their homesites naturally have no more insect pests in their yards than the more traditionally landscaped homes of friends throughout the city.”

“Will a naturalized landscape lower my property values? – In a recent court case, a claim to this effect was not allowed as evidence because of its hearsay nature. This was in light of the fact that all property (traditionally and naturally landscaped) had increased in value. Because of many factors in house buying, it is difficult to prove the effect of landscaping on the total value. In Madison, the increased existence of and buyers’ awareness of naturalized landscapes has proved to be an advertising point for at least some houses.”

Are natural yards legal in Madison?

Why can’t nature stay in parks?

In previous posts, we talked about two important things nature does for us: promote human health and well-being, and keep society functioning through the provision of ecosystem services. Why can’t we get these benefits while keeping nature contained in parks?

Parks are not big enough.

95% of the land in the continental United States has been taken for human use. That leaves only 5% for all the other species, and the complex interactions between them that lead to ecosystem services. There is simply not enough space for nature to sustain itself and provide enough services for a growing human population.

Parks are too far away.

Some of the studies that examined the effects of nearby nature on human health and well-being were conducted in a Chicago neighborhood that lies within two miles of Lake Michigan and some of the largest city parks in the United States. Despite the fact that all the people in the studies had easy access to this extensive urban nature, differences in the amount of nature right outside their homes still had an effect on them.

We need nature in our yards.

There are 45 million acres of turf grass in the United States. If just half of that were turned into natural landscapes, it would be like increasing our national parks system by more than 25%. While each natural yard is small, together they form corridors connecting larger natural areas. Corridors help species move around, stabilizing populations and keeping ecosystems healthy and functioning.

Next time you walk in a park or look at pictures of nature, notice how you feel. Imagine feeling that way every time you looked out the windows of your own home!

Why can’t nature stay in parks?

What are ecosystem services?

When the natural behavior of a plant or animal results in a benefit to people, that’s an ecosystem service. One example is that plants clean the air as a side effect of their respiration.

Another example is water absorption and filtration. A large tree will absorb hundreds of gallons of water during a rainstorm, preventing that water from ending up in storm drains or basements. Like with air, plants filter pollutants from water as they absorb it. This lessens the burden on municipal water filtration, saving a city money and improving local water quality.

A third important ecosystem service is pollination. Bees and butterflies pollinate crop plants as they visit them to gather food for themselves. Without such visits, virtually all crops aside from grains would fail to produce anything. The plants would need to be pollinated artificially, which would make food much more expensive.

Technological replacement of ecosystem services is expensive in general. If we had to provide these services ourselves, the annual price tag would be equal to twice the total wealth of the entire world. Since we can’t pay for these services, and since civilization as we know it wouldn’t function without them, it’s critical that we continue getting them for free from healthy ecosystems.

What are ecosystem services?

What does a natural yard do for me?

Nature, even in the form of a small urban yard, provides a host of benefits to people. These benefits mostly arise from two things that plants do.

Plants clean the air.

All plants absorb carbon as they grow. This reduces the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, and slows global warming. Global warming contributes to heat waves, floods, droughts, and powerful storms, all of which pose threats to people and property.

Plants also filter pollutants out of the air. Air pollution can cause minor symptoms such as wheezing, coughing, and headache, and also contributes to serious illnesses including pneumonia, heart disease, and lung cancer. Poor air quality not only triggers asthma attacks, but can cause asthma in people who didn’t previously suffer from it.

Plants help us think clearly.

The human brain evolved to look at natural scenes. Looking at nature is so mentally effortless that it not only gives us an opportunity to rest from more mentally difficult tasks – like driving, studying, or problem-solving – it actually restores our mental energy.

Mental energy is finite. When we run out of it, we have difficulty concentrating, remembering, making good decisions, and managing our emotions. Exposure to nature gives us more mental energy with which to perform these important tasks.

Studies show that in communities with nature, residents experience less crime and domestic violence, and have greater success tackling complex life problems. Children’s ADD symptoms are improved, and residents are more likely to walk around their neighborhood, increasing their exercise level and reducing the community’s incidence of obesity.

Isn’t turf grass nature too?

Turf grass is not found in nature. While it’s still a plant and filters air like every other plant, its small size makes it far less efficient at doing so than larger plants. Because it does not act like nature by moving, growing, and changing, it provides only a minimal boost to our reserves of mental energy.

What if I think natural yards are ugly?

It doesn’t matter. To paraphrase a famous astrophysicist, the great thing about nature is that it’s good for you whether or not you think it is. In some of the studies mentioned above, people were asked what factors were important to them in choosing a place to live. Almost no one – neither the people benefiting from the presence of nature nor those suffering from its absence – mentioned nearby nature as a feature that would influence their decision about a new home. Nature had an effect on them despite their lack of interest in it.

What does a natural yard do for me?