How do you establish a natural yard?

One day, That Blogger was taking a walk, and encountered some neighbors sitting in their driveway, enjoying the profusion of native plants that surrounded their home. “Your yard is one of my favorites,” That Blogger said. “How did you do it?”

The neighbors smiled.

What was their response? It was not work. Nor was it money. It wasn’t even knowledge.

What the neighbors said was: “Time.”

As explained in a series of previous posts, time is the key ingredient in successfully establishing a natural yard. Plants know how to grow and reproduce, and will do so if just given a chance. A compulsion to constantly work in the garden – to water, mulch, trim, and spray pesticides – only interferes with the natural behavior of plants, and can quickly become counterproductive.

Similarly, throwing money at the problem – by investing in tools and chemicals, buying larger plants, or hiring landscapers who claim they can make your yard look like a magazine photo virtually overnight – disrupts the natural processes that lead slowly but powerfully towards a thriving ecosystem.

And, while knowledge can certainly help a gardener move efficiently towards the outcome they envision, it’s not necessary to have an encyclopedic knowledge of botany and ecology before beginning to establish a natural yard. It’s important to remember that when your goal is for plants to grow and flourish in a healthy community, the plants have the same idea. When we work with nature instead of against it, our odds of success vastly improve.

Still, it’s one thing to know all of that while looking at a plot of land that has not yet begun to transform into a native plant community. It’s quite another to look at a well-established natural yard, and hear the gardener tell you that the most important thing they did was wait.

Have patience with your garden and with yourself. A great part of the joy of having a natural yard is watching it grow and develop. Some day in the future, when you are the happy gardener sitting at ease in your driveway and watching your plants take care of themselves, you will look back in wonder at those fleeting years when your yard changed from a barren space to what you now enjoy.

How do you establish a natural yard?

What are mass extinctions?

We know what extinction is: the complete and permanent loss of a species. This kind of thing is happening all the time on Earth; it’s just part of how our planet works. While it’s always sad to see a unique form of life go, the losses are usually balanced out by the appearance of new species, as organisms continue to evolve and change.

Sometimes, though, an unusually large number of extinctions happen in a relatively short period of time, in an event known as a mass extinction. Though there’s no exact definition for what counts as a mass extinction, it’s generally agreed that there have been five really big ones in the past 450 million years of our planet’s history.

The largest of these, the Permian-Triassic event, killed over 90% of the species that were living on Earth at that time. It was this massive disappearance of life that paved the way for the rise of the dinosaurs.

Because the dinosaurs are the most famous of the former inhabitants of our planet, the event that killed them – the Cretaceous-Paleogene event – is the most famous of the mass extinctions.

Scientists are still unsure what caused these relatively-sudden waves of extinction. Possible causes include naturally-occurring climate change; geological events, like volcanic eruptions; disasters originating in space, like asteroid strikes; and, in the case of the more recent extinction events, hunting by early humans.

Many scientists agree, though, that we are witnessing a major extinction event right now. The Holocene extinction has been going on since 1900, with species vanishing 1,000 times faster than they normally do. Scientists likewise agree that this is due to human activity, including human-caused climate change; deliberate killing of animals through overhunting and overfishing; widespread destruction of habitat; and introduction of non-native species, which can overwhelm and outcompete species that haven’t met them before.

This enormous loss of diversity on our planet is sad, and it is avoidable, if we choose to take action. If we choose to do nothing, the results may be catastrophic. Because of the complex ways in which we rely on other forms of life, experts say that if we continue to lose species at the current rate, we ourselves are likely to be one of the casualties.

What are mass extinctions?

How many species are there?

Kingdom phylum class order family genus species. Maybe you remember learning in some long-ago biology class that these seven categories are how we describe and identify every living thing on Earth.

Animalia chordata mammalia primates hominidae homo sapiens. That’s us: humans. Within the great tree of life, we are pretty odd; we are the only member of our genus. Put in terms of a family tree, it’s kind of like not having any siblings.

Even if you look at our extended family – our cousins – we’re pretty unusual. Our planet is home to just 5,400 or so kinds of mammals. (Though the discovery of new mammals is not as rare as many people think. The past decade has seen new types of shrews, bats, and dolphins – and even a few monkeys and apes – welcomed onto the list of mammals known to science.)

In comparison, there are nearly twice as many kinds of birds – birding checklists typically include over 9,000 recognized species. And there are about 31,000 known kinds of fish.

The plant kingdom boasts some 310,000 members, from mosses to grasses to shrubs to towering trees. It’s not unusual for a dedicated natural gardener to have hundreds of kinds of plants in their yard, with many or all of them being native species. It’s not just that there are a lot of species of plants in the world; a lot of species of plants are able to coexist within small areas.

The total number of plant species is still dwarfed by the total number of animal species, though, for one reason: beetles are a staggeringly prolific family, with over 360,000 species discovered, and many more likely waiting to be found.

If you lined up one representative of every species on Earth, fully one fifth of the creatures before you would be beetles. Only one would look like us.

All told, we share our planet with at least 1,899,000 other species, each of them living in their own way and making their own unique contribution to the amazing diversity of life on Earth. When we are able to see ourselves as just one out of many, we can find the grace and humility to share our world with all of our relatives.

How many species are there?

What is an umbrella species?

Plants and animals are in big trouble. All over the world, wild species are vanishing, becoming first rare and then extinct, at an unprecedented speed. As a matter of our own survival, it is crucial that we begin to turn this around. But amid all this loss of life, even a committed conservationist might be defeated by the question: Where should we start?

In other words, what should we protect first? We might start with species that are known to be of great usefulness to humans, like pollinators. We might start with species we find awe-inspiring, like tigers and giant sequoias. We could start with the species that are in most imminent danger of extinction, or we could write off these vanishing creatures as lost causes and start with the species that we still have a real chance of saving.

Another idea is to start with umbrella species.

Here’s how it works: First, we identify a species that requires a large range, that has a wide variety of needs, that lives in an area packed with other kinds of life, or that is easy to rally support for. Then, we protect that species. In doing so, we go a long way towards also protecting all the species that live in the same area, that rely on similar resources, or that are closely connected to the species getting the special protection. The species that is directly being protected is called the umbrella species, because it acts as an umbrella, or a shield, for other plants and animals.

The umbrella species approach has some advantages. First, it’s easier to create and enforce a conservation plan for a single, well-studied plant or animal than to try to do the same for the hundreds or even thousands of species that are actually living in a given area. Second, it can be easier to build the political will to protect one iconic species – like whales or polar bears or Joshua trees – than to rally people to demand action to save the salamanders and the beetles and the pupfishes and the mosses and every other kind of living thing.

On the other hand, the strategy of focusing on a single species – usually a large mammal – can reinforce the idea that less majestic creatures are not important or not worth protecting in their own right. And, while protecting smaller creatures through protecting their umbrella species is better than not protecting them at all, it’s likely to be less effective than enacting conservation plans specifically tailored to each species.

How we think about this question influences how we garden in our yards. If we decide that we want to focus on protecting monarchs, all we really need to plant is milkweed. But that doesn’t do much to help other species. If we also want to protect swallowtails and fritillaries and atalas and commas and mourning cloaks, we need to plant pipevines and violets and coontie and elm trees and willows. Then we’re starting to build a thriving ecosystem that makes room for lots of other species as well.

What is an umbrella species?

What is a keystone species?

Three years ago, That Blog wrote about functions – useful things that plants and animals do. Normally, in nature, each type of plant and animal performs many functions, and each function is performed by multiple plants and animals. This is why we see complex, thriving ecosystems, in which all the members are involved in a web of interactions.

But within an ecosystem, some members are especially important. Often, this extra importance comes from the fact that the plant or animal performs a function that isn’t duplicated by another plant or animal in the system. These critically necessary members of ecosystems are called keystone species.

Keystone species can be important for many reasons. Maybe a certain kind of small animal is the only prey of a larger animal. If the small animal disappears, the larger animal will too, because it has nothing to eat. Because the fate of the larger animal depends entirely on the fortunes of the smaller animal, the smaller animal would be considered a keystone species.

Conversely, if a large animal was the only predator of a smaller animal, then the large animal would be the keystone species, since without it, the smaller animal would multiply prolifically, decimate its own food sources, and unbalance the entire ecosystem.

As another example, an insect could be a keystone species, if it is the only animal that pollinates a certain plant. The disappearance of that insect would then spell trouble for the plant, as well as for every species that relies on the plant.

The name keystone – a reference to the single wedge that holds an entire arch together – might make it sound as though each ecosystem has only one centrally important species. But this is not the case. An ecosystem can have many crucial members. In fact, the more scientists learn about ecosystems, the more they think that every species can be described as a keystone species.

Plants and animals do all kinds of things – for each other, and for us – and we still don’t know how all of these interconnections work. Rather than treating uninteresting species as disposable, we should take the more cautious approach of assuming that every kind of plant and animal is important. We just don’t know which species, once it’s gone, will turn out to have been holding the whole system together.

What is a keystone species?

What is anthropocentrism?

When someone thinks their own needs and opinions are more important than everybody else’s, we call that egocentrism (or self-centeredness). We generally don’t find it very flattering to be described that way.

Anthropocentrism is the idea that the needs and opinions of humans are always more important than the needs and opinions of other species. Put another way, it’s the idea that plants and animals are really just here for human use, and that their basic survival requirements can be ignored in favor of satisfying any small desire that a human might have.

When we end the lives of trees so we can print and mail more department store catalogs, that’s anthropocentrism.

When we destroy wildlife habitat to build another golf course, that’s anthropocentrism.

When we think that the most important thing about our yards is how they look to human eyes, that’s anthropocentrism.

The opposite of anthropocentrism is biocentrism. Biocentrism does not mean believing that plants and animals are always more important than humans. It does not mean that humans are bad and should be eliminated from this planet. Rather, it’s the idea that the needs of humans and of other species can be balanced against each other in a way that honors all forms of life.

Biocentrism makes sense for two reasons. First, the needs of humans and of other species are often not at odds with each other: we all need clean air and clean water. Humans do better when nature is thriving, and when we destroy nature to make more room for people, we cause a lot of harm to ourselves as well.

Second, respecting the needs of other species is simply the right thing to do. Many people today think that something is wrong when CEOs pay their employees starvation wages in order to further increase their own salary so they can buy a baseball team, a yacht, or a fourth house. Similarly, it is wrong to deny the basic needs of other beings so that we can have more stuff that we don’t even really want.

When we simplify our lives, our world has enough for everyone – ourselves, other humans, and all the species we share this miraculous Earth with.

What is anthropocentrism?

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?

What is the difference between a native plant garden and a natural yard? #2

To recap a post from last spring, a native plant garden typically follows the practices and philosophies of conventional gardening, only with native plants instead of ornamental exotics. It generally features “attractive” native plants laid out in beds, often with plenty of bare ground in between. The plants are rigidly maintained and forced to conform to the gardener’s vision.

A natural yard, in contrast, includes not just native plants but natural patterns and processes. Plants are scattered semi-randomly, instead of being placed in rows or clusters. The design changes from year to year, as plants reseed and move around the landscape. And if leaves get munched by insects or plants hold seedheads throughout the winter, those are viewed as signs that the garden is thriving, rather than as problems to fix or messes to clean up.

While native plants are good, they don’t truly fulfill their ecological functions unless they are living together in naturalistic communities. When native wildflowers are planted as specimens, in limited diversity, and are not permitted to go through their complete lifecycles, they are not providing the same benefits to wildlife as native plants that live and die according to their own rhythms, knit closely together with other native plants they have evolved alongside.

In addition, native plant gardens are much more maintenance-intensive than natural yards, with all the downsides associated with that: more use of fossil fuels, more pesticides, more supplemental water, more effort and expense for the gardener, and so on.

A formally-arranged native plant garden might be right for a gardener who wants to give up their lawn but isn’t ready to embrace the wild aesthetic of a true natural yard. But when deciding how to use native plants, it is important to remember that fitting them into conventional designs with conventional maintenance really is more work for less reward.

What is the difference between a native plant garden and a natural yard? #2

Why do we need nature in every neighborhood?

People often toss around the words “appropriate” and “suitable” to describe where they think nature belongs. Nature is “appropriate” in city parks. Nature is “appropriate” in faraway wildlife refuges. Nature is “inappropriate” in people’s yards.

We should be asking these people why they think it’s “appropriate” to deprive others of a healthy living environment.

It’s a fact that some neighborhoods have more nature than others. In particular, affluent neighborhoods tend to have more street trees and more green space than poorer areas of the same town. Now, of course, there are lots of reasons why rich people are doing better, in all sorts of ways, than those who are less financially advantaged. There are also reasons why wealthy neighborhoods are greener: for example, those with money and status are more likely to demand that these kinds of amenities are created and preserved.

Presumably, the well-off would not be demanding more trees and parks if they thought these things were bad for them. But the more important point is that there are direct links between more greenery and being better off. Experts say that access to nature tends to move people towards healthier patterns in their exercise routines, transportation choices, and diets. Nature also reduces stress, moderates temperature, and combats air pollution. When people don’t have access to nature, they don’t have access to these important benefits either.

It’s fairly obvious that people who have nature right outside their front doors have more access to nature than people who have to travel some distance to experience healthy plants and plant communities. People who have more access to nature and all its benefits are more likely to actually receive those benefits.

The city of Madison recognized this when it said that destroying trees in some neighborhoods and not destroying trees in other neighborhoods would be unfair to the residents of the de-greened areas. It was exactly because of this unfairness that the city decided to work harder to protect trees.

In saying that it’s not fair for some people to have more trees and some people to have fewer trees, the city of Madison was expressing that trees have value. Nature has value. And so, to return to the original point – why would it be “inappropriate” to have valuable things on our property?

Nature belongs in every neighborhood – in the form of pocket parks, street trees, and natural yards – for the same reason that every neighborhood should have fire hydrants and nearby places of employment and access to public transportation. These things make our lives better. Anyone who says otherwise is not acting in your best interest.

Why do we need nature in every neighborhood?

Is global warming good for plants?

Some people deny that global warming is happening. Others agree that it is happening, but claim it isn’t a bad thing. People in this second group often say that global warming isn’t bad because all that extra carbon in the air will promote plant growth, which will benefit agriculture and the environment. Is this true?

Not really.

As described in the last post, plants do need carbon to grow, and they like having more of it around. But, they like extra carbon a little too much.

Let’s explore why by looking at humans and sugar.

Humans like sugar. We generally think of sugar as a bad and unnecessary thing that makes us fat. But, in fact, humans need sugar. In the past, sugar was rare and hard to find. Because sugar was important for human nutrition but difficult to get, evolution fitted us with a sugar craving that drives us to search energetically for this nutrient, and consume it whenever possible. This worked great until the modern age, when sugar became abundant and readily available in our dietary environment. Our biology hasn’t yet learned that it should tell us to eat a certain amount of sugar and then stop. And so, unless we manage to exert a lot of willpower, we end up eating too much sugar, and we get sick from it.

A similar mechanism is at work in plants. A plant’s biology tells the plant to absorb as much carbon as possible. This is very good for the plant as long as the amount of carbon the plant can realistically absorb is not greater than the amount of carbon the plant really needs. However, if a plant was able to absorb more carbon than it needed – for example, due to rising carbon levels in the atmosphere related to global warming – then the plant would happily gorge itself on the extra carbon. In a classic case of too much of a good thing, the plant would then become sick.

This is not just theoretical. Studies have found that plants that binge on carbon really do become unhealthy. Just like humans who eat too much sugar produce body fat that isn’t good for them, plants that absorb too much carbon produce abnormally high levels of starch. And while these plants are getting vegetatively flabby, they store less protein in their pollen.

This means that the plants are not healthy, their pollen does not contain the nutrients that pollen-eating animals need to be healthy, and the parts of the plants that humans eat are similarly lacking in nutrients that humans need to be healthy. Far from being a boon to agriculture, global warming puts plants on a junk food diet that is bad for everyone.

And that part isn’t theoretical either. Studies on how plants react to excess carbon haven’t just been done in the lab. In the US, plants living in the wild have shown a marked decrease in the protein content of their pollen since America began industrializing in the 1840s. That decline has been most severe over the past six decades, when America’s carbon emissions were increasing dramatically.

Global warming is a serious problem that we are running out of time to solve. At this point, we cannot decrease our emissions steeply enough to avoid disastrous warming on our planet. To prevent the worst impacts of climate change, we need to not only reduce our emissions, but also actively work to take carbon out of the atmosphere.

Humans have not yet invented technology that can take carbon out of the atmosphere. Fortunately, nature has. We call that technology plants.

Global warming will not benefit either humans or plants. But if humans and plants work together, we still may be able to solve this urgent problem.

Is global warming good for plants?