Lawns are homogeneous by design. A homeowner with a sandy site in the desert Southwest, and a homeowner with a shady slope in New England, will both strive to have a perfect green expanse. In contrast, a natural gardener seeks to design a landscape that suits their site conditions.
Site conditions include regional temperature ranges and precipitation patterns, as well as local soils and the amount of sun or shade in a particular location. A natural gardener spends time learning about their site, then tries to find a happy medium between the plants they would like to grow and the plants that will thrive in the available conditions.
Natural gardeners typically include a lot of native plants in their designs. A homeowner in Wisconsin may establish a prairie in their yard, while a homeowner in Arizona would choose plants adapted to tolerate hot, dry conditions. Besides contributing to local ecosystems, designs incorporating native plants evoke a sense of place, rather than looking like “Anytown, USA”.
Natural yards also vary according to the specific set of principles followed by the homeowner. A wildlife gardener may use exclusively native plants, alongside habitat features such as a pond or brush pile, in order to attract and support local birds and butterflies. A permaculture practitioner, on the other hand, may assemble fruits and vegetables from around the world to maximize food production for themselves.
By working with nature instead of imposing a one-size-fits-all design, a gardener can create a beautiful, unique space that performs many functions and connects them to the place where they live.
While natural yards are becoming mainstream, there are a number of reasons why lawns are still a popular landscaping choice.
Default decision. The easiest thing to do with a lawn is to continue maintaining it as a lawn. Converting it to any other type of landscaping requires physical and mental effort, and never becomes an urgent project. A homeowner may have a lawn simply because they’ve always had one.
Perceived social pressure. In past decades, keeping a neat lawn was part of how people maintained social harmony in the new living arrangement known as suburbia. Today, many people no longer believe that a lawn is the only acceptable landscaping choice. However, they may think their neighbors still believe this, and so they continue having a lawn in order to keep the peace.
Advertising. Americans spend forty billion dollars a year maintaining their lawns. In Madison alone, over fifty companies depend on being able to convince property owners that a perfect lawn is worth spending money on. Fewer companies stand to profit from natural yards, and they don’t tend to advertise as much.
Lawns can be useful. A prairie does not make a good surface for barbecues or soccer games. In a yard that sees frequent active use, a lawn can be a good landscaping choice. Some people choose to establish a natural yard only after their kids are grown and no longer need a lawn to play on.
Human beings tend to perceive familiar things as safe and unfamiliar things as dangerous. This is one reason why some people are uncomfortable with natural yards. It also means that people who have always maintained a lawn may underestimate the hazards associated with lawnmowers.
About 74,000 Americans a year end up in the emergency room after injuring themselves with a lawnmower. About 1,500 of those are admitted to the hospital. Each year, approximately 60 Americans injured by lawnmowers don’t make it to the emergency room because they are killed on the spot; 20% of those are children.
The most common type of lawnmower-related injury is people (often bystanders) being struck by objects launched by the mower’s blades. The most severe – short of death – is accidental amputation of hands and feet. Not all injures are dramatic, though: the second-most common cause is pain and strain related to normal operation of yard equipment, while some hospital admissions result from a person tripping over a lawnmower while it is stored in the garage.
If you choose to mow your lawn, please do so safely! The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the following precautions:
- Wear closed-toed shoes, close-fitting clothing, safety goggles, and hearing protection.
- Do not pull the mower backwards. When mowing on a slope, go across, not up and down. (Unless you are using a riding mower, in which case you should do the opposite.)
- Avoid running over obstacles such as toys, sticks, tree roots, and curbs. Fixed objects may damage the mower; loose objects can be launched at up to 200 miles per hour.
- Do not allow children or pets to play near where you are mowing.
- Do not mow wet grass. In wet conditions, it is easier to slip and fall under the mower.
- When turning off the mower to cross a grassless area, reach underneath, or walk away, wait for the blades to stop completely.
Food and cover. Birds will visit a place that offers something to eat and a place to hide. A diversity of plants will provide both of these.
Water. Birds need to drink, and some enjoy the opportunity to bathe. A pond or birdbath will attract more birds and increase the range of activities they engage in. The birdbath in That Yard features nearby perches, good visibility, and easy access to cover. A water spinner attracts birds while deterring mosquitoes. It’s not unusual to see birds fighting for a turn to bathe!
Nesting opportunities. Birds will stay longer if there’s a place to build a nest and materials to build it with. While some birds nest high in trees, many prefer to nest in shrubs. Moss, tall grass, and old leaves all make good nesting materials.
Safety from predators. Dense cover, such as that provided by evergreens, helps keep birds safe from predators. So does keeping cats indoors: housecats kill billions of birds every year.
Other birds. Ironically, birds are attracted by other birds. Be patient – your first few feathered visitors will encourage others to come join them!
Deep ecology is a philosophy that states one may only harm others in order to serve vital needs.
A deep ecologist would say it’s acceptable to kill a plant or animal in order to eat it. It would also be okay to kill a bear that’s trying to eat you. Killing a bear for a hunting trophy, however, would not be seen as ethical.
This philosophy has existed for thousands of years in cultures around the world, and is part of how those cultures were able to live sustainably. It was reformulated in the 1970’s and became known as deep ecology.
Deep ecology points out that functioning natural areas are valuable because they provide ecosystem services. However, it cautions against using this as the basis for protecting nature: if feasible artificial substitutes for ecosystem services became available, we would be free to take as many resources from nature as we wished. Instead, deep ecology advocates seeing nature as inherently valuable, or as having the inherent right to its own existence. To respect these rights, people should take from nature only what is necessary for their own survival.
A book about deep ecology can be found in the Madison library system or on Amazon.
Largely, the idea started in Wisconsin. It is important to remember, however, that natural yards are not a new idea. Lawns represent only a brief period in the history of land care practices.
The idea of natural yards is supported by Aldo Leopold’s famous essay The Land Ethic. In this essay, Leopold says that land – including soil, water, plants, and animals – is part of our community and should be treated with respect. People are responsible for protecting the health of land, but are members of the community alongside it, not its masters. Leopold developed the ideas in this essay while living near Baraboo, Wisconsin.
Lorrie Otto noticed that a lot of birds were dying in her neighborhood outside Milwaukee in the 1960’s. The main cause was DDT, and she worked to stop the spraying of this toxic pesticide. At the same time, she made her yard more welcoming to birds by restoring it to a prairie-like landscape. Her efforts inspired the formation of the Wild Ones, a national non-profit organization promoting natural yards.
Natural yards have become more common in Wisconsin over the last several decades. They will likely continue to increase in popularity here and across the United States.
It depends what you mean by “before”.
The previous homeowner – or even the same homeowner, in a different stage of life – may have had a turf grass lawn. This was the dominant aesthetic in the 1950’s and the following decades.
In more-recently developed areas, what’s now a residential yard could have been farmland just a few years ago.
If the yard was a yard in the 1940’s, it may have held a Victory Garden. During World War II, growing vegetables in one’s yard was seen as a very patriotic thing to do.
In the early 1800s, when Europeans arrived in Wisconsin, they found prairies with grasses up to nine feet tall, and savannas where oak trees were interspersed with shorter prairie plants.
10,000 years ago, much of Wisconsin was covered by a glacier. What’s now a yard in Madison would have been under a mile of ice!