What is the status of That Blog?

A lot has changed since That Blog was launched four years ago.

Around the same time that the first posts were being published, the National Pollinator Garden Network – an association of conservation non-profits, civic organizations, and garden industry trade groups – was beginning a campaign to bring about the creation and registration of 1 million new pollinator-friendly gardens.

By the end of 2018, the Network had not only met that goal, but passed it by tens of thousands of gardens. The association estimates that over 8 million people contributed to this remarkable achievement, and that the new gardens represent more than 5 million acres of habitat for pollinators. The vast majority of the gardens – 85% of those registered for the campaign – are small plantings in urban and suburban residential neighborhoods.

This shift in gardening behavior has been accompanied by a massive change in attitudes towards native plants and natural gardens. Since the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge began, associations representing garden centers report a 92% increase in consumer demand for pollinator-friendly plants. 83% of landscape architects say that more and more of their customers are asking for sustainable designs using native plants. And the idea that gardens can and should provide important ecological functions is rapidly replacing the idea that gardens are solely for decoration.

Over the past four years, much has changed for That Blogger too. Since creating That Blog, the writer has completed a master’s thesis about the importance of native plant gardening, successfully established a native plant garden, and moved into a communications position with a major national conservation non-profit.

Due to the increasing weight of competing obligations, and the declining need to produce and share information about environmentally-friendly gardening practices, That Blog will no longer be actively updated. All 230 posts will remain published indefinitely, to educate and inspire all readers.

That Blogger thanks you for your support, and wishes you great joy and success in all your gardening endeavors.

What is the status of That Blog?

What happens when a natural yard gets sold?

“What will you do when you have to move out and can’t control what the next person does with the yard?” That Blogger once asked a dedicated natural gardener who was beyond retirement age.

“Never come back,” the gardener replied.

A pair of natural gardeners in Minnesota took a different approach to this problem: they showed up on their former home’s porch to talk to the new owners about the thriving ecosystem they had established in the yard.

The new owners hadn’t been looking for a natural yard, and hadn’t even realized they were getting one: they bought the home in winter, when snow made it hard to tell that the house was surrounded by anything other than lawn. But just a day after they moved in, the previous occupants dropped by to talk about the eight years of effort they had invested in replacing non-native turf grass with a healthy prairie.

Their friendly outreach worked. The new owners have been tending the native landscape for over a decade now, adding more species of plants and removing the small amount of turf grass that remained, preserving the sustainable habitat that their predecessors established.

One downside of working hard to create a natural yard is that we can’t take it with us. (Some have been sued by their property’s new owners for trying.) It is for this reason that many people, not expecting to stay in their homes for very long, don’t invest in a long-term landscaping plan.

But, with nature being lost all around us at an alarming rate, we must do all we can to protect the nature that we have preserved or restored. Just as it is our responsibility to educate friends and neighbors about why our yard hosts thriving plants rather than a barren lawn, it is our responsibility to educate our successors, when we pass on the stewardship of our land. As leaders in the growing movement towards natural yards, it is our duty to help new homeowners understand that they are inheriting a landscape that reduces waste, combats climate change, requires little maintenance, supports life, and creates joy. Destroying such a self-sustaining ecosystem and turning it back into a needy, labor-intensive, lifeless lawn is as much a loss for the new owners as it is for those who worked so hard to do exactly the opposite.

By sharing our knowledge, we can all work together to restore nature to our neighborhoods.

What happens when a natural yard gets sold?

What happens when lawns are replaced with thriving plants? #2

The neighborhood becomes more attractive.

Urban greenery “doesn’t just beautify the city,” begins an article published in an Italian newspaper last February. And the article isn’t talking about lawns. It specifies that the gardens in question contain trees and bushes, and the feature image depicts drifts of tall grass. Yet the author seems to take it as an uncontroversial fact that these types of plantings are beautiful, listing this virtue of healthy vegetation right alongside “screening out noise” and “filtering pollutants from the air.”

Crime goes down.

The real focus of the article is an experiment in Philadelphia, in which researchers established gardens in small abandoned lots. In the months after the gardens were installed, police records showed that crime in the areas near the gardens decreased markedly, compared to the months before the planting took place. Thefts decreased by 22%, while shootings dropped by 30%.

Some people think that lush plantings create places for criminals to hide, or that they have a neglected look that encourages criminal behavior. But the article specifically contrasts the new gardens with the “broken windows” conditions that contribute to drug dealing, prostitution, and other unsavory activities.

People’s lives are better.

The improvement in public safety was obvious to the residents of the communities that hosted the new gardens. The article reports that people who lived near the plantings felt less fear of moving around the neighborhood, and were able to visit and enjoy the green space in their community. Exposure to green space is known to have a wide variety of positive impacts on human health and well-being, meaning that people living near the gardens received benefits far beyond a reduction in crime.

And these benefits did not come with a steep price tag. The researchers spent only $5 per square meter for the initial installation of the gardens, and $0.50 per square meter for maintenance over the course of the study. Comparing the costs of these urban green spaces to their benefits, the researchers concluded that law enforcement officials and public health workers alike should invest resources in greening our cities.

 

Given all the benefits that healthy plantings provide, we all should be transitioning our own spaces from low-value turf grass to air-cleaning water-filtering community-beautifying crime-stopping native landscaping. Moreover, we should be demanding that our local authorities do likewise on city-owned property, and that they create rules or incentives to move our reluctant neighbors in the same direction. When thriving vegetation provides so many benefits with so few drawbacks, there’s simply no reason to delay.

What happens when lawns are replaced with thriving plants? #2

Why don’t we see much wildlife?

Many people would like to see more wildlife – especially butterflies and songbirds, but maybe also chipmunks and deer and foxes – in their yards. Why are these animals so scarce in our neighborhoods?

One reason is that there are just far fewer animals on our planet than there used to be. Studies have found that animal populations – that is, the number of individuals of each species – have, on average, decreased by half since the 1970s. Buffalo used to roam North America in the tens of millions; now there are only a few hundred thousand. Passenger pigeons, it is said, used to blot out the sun as they flew overhead; now there have been none at all for over a hundred years. And in an anecdote of our own times, truckers are certain they used to pick up more bugs on their windshields as they drove cross-country.

A second reason is that as we destroy natural habitats to make more room for roads, houses, and lawns, the animals that used to live in our communities move elsewhere. As earlier posts have explained, few animals can make a living in turf grass. When that is all we offer in our yards, we won’t see much wildlife around our homes.

A third reason we don’t often observe animals in our yards is that animals are increasingly becoming nocturnal, exactly because they don’t want to be around people. A recent study found that mammals are shifting their activity to the nighttime hours, becoming on average a third more nocturnal than they used to be. That is, an animal that used to do 50% of its daily activities while the sun was up and 50% after dark is now splitting its time about 33% – 67%.

The researchers found that this shift is happening across species, continents, and habitat types. As an article on the study puts it, “antelope on the savanna of Zimbabwe, tapir in the Ecuadorian rainforests, [and] bobcats in the American southwest deserts” are all changing their schedules in an effort to avoid humans.

This turned out to be true when avoiding humans was a challenge for the animals – animals living in undisturbed areas aren’t changing their historical habitats. But the researchers found that animals went out of their way to avoid humans not only in places where humans are doing dangerous things, like hunting, but also in places where humans are doing innocuous things, like hiking and farming.

This shift in activity is a problem because animals that have adapted to being active during the day may not fare as well when they try to carry out their routines at night. In the dark, it may be more difficult for them to find food, evade predators, and communicate with other members of their species.

The changing patterns of animal activity also diminish our opportunities to see wildlife. If we want wild animals to thrive – and if we want the chance to encounter them as we go about our own daily routines – we must find a way to live much more lightly on our planet.

Why don’t we see much wildlife?

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’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

What’s new in natural yards? May 2017 #2

As the number of monarch butterflies continues to decline, scientists have calculated that more than 1.8 billion new milkweed plants need to be planted in order to provide monarchs with enough places to lay their eggs and recover from the brink of extinction.

“‘To put that in context, that’s more than three milkweed plants for every man, woman and child in the United States,’ said Karen Oberhauser, professor and conservation biologist in the University of Minnesota Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology.”

The good news is that milkweed – the only plant monarch butterflies will lay their eggs on – is easy to grow. The milkweed family contains over 100 species. Wisconsin alone has native milkweed species that will grow in wet spots, dry spots, sunny spots, and shady spots. Milkweed is able to thrive in roadside ditches and along the edges of farm fields, and was once so abundant across America that many cities labeled it a noxious weed and forbade property owners to plant it.

Now, attitudes towards milkweed are changing. But attitudes are not enough. If we want to protect monarchs before it’s too late, we need to actually plant milkweed in our yards – and lots of it.

Any native plant nursery should have local milkweed species available as plants and seeds. Right now is the perfect time of year to add some to your garden.

 

What’s new in natural yards? May 2017 #2