In the Eastern states, including Wisconsin, approximately 30% of household water usage goes to keeping lawns alive. Using water systems, or landscaping with plants that require less supplemental water, can greatly reduce the monthly utility bill.
In Western states, where up to 60% of household water usage is spent on lawns, water systems are often not legal. However, the desert states are home to a wonderful variety of drought-tolerant native plants. Landscaping with these species conserves water, reduces monthly expenses, and restores a unique sense of place.
Landscaping choices can affect heating and cooling bills too. A mature shade tree can significantly reduce summertime temperatures in a neighboring building, while letting sunshine in to warm the building in colder months. A row of trees or bushes can block winds that pull heat out of a home in winter.
In summer, even smaller plants that don’t provide shade can cool a home through their processes of exchanging water with the air. A yard full of healthy plants is like a green air conditioner!
Finally, a natural yard can often be cared for with minimal use of motorized equipment, which saves gas and electricity. Letting nature work for us can improve our comfort and quality of life, while keeping money in our pockets.
Madison’s new Pollinator Protection Task Force has recently released a report on what the city can do to help bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, and other pollinators. Following the lead of the White House, which has called for an “all hands, all lands” approach to address the rapidly-declining populations of key pollinators, Madison’s plan focuses on the importance of pollinators for our food system.
The plan lays out four basic strategies to restore habitat for pollinators:
The plan notes that the major obstacle to implementing these steps is concern on the part of city residents who find pollinator habitat unattractive. The plan calls for education and outreach programs to allay fears about the perceived dangers of pollinator-friendly landscaping practices.
The plan can be read here.
In the context of a lawn, fallen leaves are often seen as a mess to be cleaned up and sent away as waste. In a natural system, however, leaves are a valuable resource.
In nature, fallen leaves stay near the plant they fell from. Lying on the ground over the winter, they cover and insulate the plant’s roots, protecting them from temperature fluctuations, freeze-thaw cycles, and frost heaves.
Leaf litter serves as an important habitat element for many insects, which overwinter in, or lay their eggs in, the fallen leaves. The insects or their offspring emerge the following year to continue their life cycles. Raking away leaves interrupts these cycles, leaving a crucial gap in ecosystem functioning.
With the return of warmer weather, fungi and microorganisms get to work decomposing the leaves, returning them to the soil. Plants are then able to reabsorb those nutrients, and turn them into a future year’s leaves.
When leaves are raked to the street, they must be taken away by fossil-fuel-consuming vehicles. While they are waiting to be picked up, rain can wash their nutrients into stormdrains and then into the lakes, where they contribute to harmful algae blooms. For these reasons, Madison encourages homeowners to “leave the leaf“.
A rain garden is a planting designed to catch and absorb water, rather than letting it run off.
Rain gardens are typically sited in a naturally low or wet spot – the place where water collects during a heavy rain. They are constructed by digging a shallow pit, then adding plants that enjoy a moist location. A relatively small one can be built in a day, and requires little maintenance after that. Instead of having a mud puddle or a stream running to the storm drain, the homeowner can enjoy a profusion of flowers, along with the birds and butterflies the plants will attract.
Stormwater is filtered as it is gradually absorbed into a rain garden, instead of going directly to the lakes with any pollutants it may pick up along the way. While a rain garden holds standing water, it does not attract mosquitoes, which need at least ten days of standing water to complete their life cycles. A rain garden usually empties much faster than this, and in one that doesn’t, the problem can be easily remedied with the addition of an overflow drain pipe.
Madison encourages homeowners to establish rain gardens. The city’s website includes instructions and sample designs.
If you are lucky enough to live in Verona, the city’s rain garden rebate program will give you up to $150 to help cover the cost of plants.
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.
While dead trees don’t provide the same benefits as live ones, they still perform several important services.
First, a dead tree continues to sequester carbon. When a dead tree is cut down and fed into a wood chipper, the carbon that it stored over decades is rapidly released into the atmosphere, where it contributes to global warming. Left in place, the tree will slowly release its carbon to the soil, another safe storage location.
Dead trees also serve as important habitat elements. Some species, like woodpeckers, require standing dead trees to complete their life cycles. When dead trees are removed from suburban yards and even from relatively-wild parks, these species suffer.
Dead trees are not a significant hazard. In a year, about 30 Americans – or one in ten million – are killed by falling trees or branches. This is equal to the number of Americans who are killed when their own furniture falls on them, and would be lower if not for the very high rate of fatal accidents among people who cut down trees for a living.
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.)
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!
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.