What is today?

Today is Earth Day, a day to celebrate the planet that is our home, and renew our commitment to caring for it.

In the late 1960s, people realized they were not doing a good job caring for the Earth. Fossil fuel companies were causing huge oil spills, leaded gasoline was putting toxins into our environment, and rivers were so polluted they were catching fire.

Gaylord Nelson, a senator from Wisconsin, proposed establishing a holiday to educate Americans about environmental issues and encourage them to take small steps in their communities to create a cleaner, healthier, safer world.

This holiday, called Earth Day, was first celebrated in 1970, under Republican President Richard Nixon. Millions of Americans attended conferences about natural resource conservation, picked up litter in their neighborhoods, and otherwise did their part to repair damage to the environment.

Today is a great day to ride your bike instead of driving, look around your home for simple ways to reduce waste, or welcome a few native plants to your yard. If we all take these small steps, together we can create a better world for ourselves and our children.

What is today?

How old is That Blog?

That Blog is one year old today! This seems like a good time to recap some key points.

In the 1600s, American settlers imported a plant known as old world meadowgrass, in order to use it as food for cows and sheep. Over time, the plant acquired the name of Kentucky bluegrass, and began to be used in a novel landscaping feature called a lawn.

Lawns, and bluegrass, spread all over the United States. However, the grass – adapted to the cool, wet climate of northwestern Europe – did not fare well in the hot South or the dry conditions of the West. This was unacceptable to lawn owners, who responded by showering the grass with fertilizers, pesticides, and supplemental water.

These treatments successfully encouraged the grass to grow. But the owners did not want the grass to grow, so they mowed it. This was detrimental to the grass’s health, so the owners gave it more fertilizers, pesticides, and water. And so the cycle went.

Some people, feeling that this was a waste of time, decided to give up their lawns and instead invite nature into their yards. As scientific evidence of the harms caused by lawns accumulates, cities and states have passed laws encouraging, or even requiring, alternatives to lawns.

Today, many people still have lawns, but a growing number do not. The purpose of That Blog is to provide information about lawns and their alternatives, in order to help people decide what kind of yard is right for them.

How old is That Blog?

Where did the idea of natural yards come from?

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.

Where did the idea of natural yards come from?

What was in that yard before?

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!

What was in that yard before?

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?

Why is that yard different from mine?

Not long ago, people used their land to produce food: to grow crops and graze livestock. In the 1800s, European aristocrats began amassing enough land that they could produce all that was needed for their households and still have space left over. In order to make the extra land – and, by extension, their wealth and status – more visible, they began devoting portions of their property to mown grass.

Mown grass, and its associations with wealth and status, was brought to the United States in the 1950s as a landscaping choice for the newly-developed suburbs, where it was also used as a means of enforcing conformity. Many people today still choose to maintain much of their property as turf grass.

Over the past decades, an increasing number of people have chosen to give up the image of status in favor of having a natural yard, that is, landscaping that resembles, and functions like, a natural area. This choice may be based on an awareness of the environmental and health benefits of natural landscapes, or the homeowner may simply prefer the aesthetics of a yard that changes with the seasons.

It is easy to think of reasons – especially negative reasons – why someone might be doing something we wouldn’t do ourselves, but the only way to know the real reason is to ask. Most people, whatever their landscaping practice, are proud of their yard and happy to talk about it.

This video series – about thirty minutes in total – provides a fair and accessible overview of the history of landscaping choices, the little-known risks associated with turf grass, and the myths regarding hazards posed by natural yards. Takeaway: Neighbors are free to dislike each other’s landscaping choices, but there is no grounds to force a neighbor to abandon their practice.

Why is that yard different from mine?