What’s new in natural yards? January 2018

A candidate in this year’s Wisconsin gubernatorial race has named lawns as an issue he would address if elected. In a post on his campaign website, Jeff Rumbaugh says that if he becomes the governor, he will not ban lawns, but will work with municipalities to make alternative forms of gardening more accessible to property owners.

As a reason for this position, Rumbaugh focuses on the wasteful water consumption associated with lawns. He also mentions the connection between lawns and climate change, and the amount of work involved in maintaining a lawn. He proposes wildflower plantings, vegetable gardens, and gravel as more environmentally-responsible kinds of yards.

Rumbaugh’s campaign promise follows California’s statewide restrictions on lawns – effective as of December 2015 – and Madison’s easing of its regulations on natural yards. Meanwhile, a governmental task force in Delaware has recommended phasing out the use of non-native plants, which currently make up more than 70% of the plants sold at garden centers around the state.

Evidence is gathering that the era of the lawn as a dominant element in American landscaping is at an end. Natural yards are likely to become much more common over the next several years. There is still time for savvy homeowners to be part of this mainstream movement, rather than being the last on their block to adopt new gardening practices.

 

That Blog does not endorse political candidates. This post is simply a commentary on the continuing emergence of lawns as a political issue.

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What’s new in natural yards? January 2018

Are lawns more attractive than natural yards?

As with property values, attractiveness is mostly in the eyes of the beholder.

By some objective definitions, however, it can be fairly said that natural yards are more attractive than lawns. For example, an idea called Attention Restoration Theory suggests that we inherently prefer to look at plants growing in their natural forms. Under this theory, humans like to look at plants, animals, clouds, water, and other natural things, because those are the kinds of things we evolved to look at. Hence, our brains are good at looking at those kinds of things, and we find these scenes mentally restful.

In contrast, our brains are not good at dealing with cars, ATMs, microwaves, DVR remotes, and all the other trappings of modern life. Looking at unnatural things is mentally tiring, leaving us with fewer resources for activities like learning difficult material, paying attention to boring tasks, and staying calm in stressful situations. Looking at nature, Attention Restoration Theory concludes, gives our brain a break, and helps us recover our full capacities.

When people say that humans find lawns attractive, they tend to invoke a different evolutionary theory: the idea that lawns resemble our ancestral habitat. In fact, there is little evidence to support the notion that humans evolved around very short grass. (Grass as short as a typical lawn does not even exist anywhere in nature.) On the contrary, humans evolved on the savanna, an ecosystem dominated by grasses about three feet high.

Current leading research on human evolution says that we are creatures of tall grass; we even owe our bipedal stance to tall grass. On the savanna, not being able to see over the grass is a big disadvantage. Many grassland animals dealt with this problem by evolving longer legs or necks, but humans did it by unfolding themselves and starting to walk upright.

Setting aside the evolutionary theories, it could also simply be said that natural yards are more interesting to look at. They are more diverse. They change over time. Plants move in the wind, and animals move among them. Walking through a natural yard tends to reward the visitor with the opportunity to see things that were previously hidden.

A lawn, in contrast, remains static across days and seasons and years. It generally includes little activity, and walking across it doesn’t bring into view anything that couldn’t be seen from the original vantage point. If the word “attractive” describes something that draws you towards it, then a healthy plant community certainly embodies this characteristic more than a flat monoculture.

Are lawns more attractive than natural yards?

Why does new construction tend to come with a lawn?

If lawns don’t help property values, why are they still so popular in new construction? The original developer of a site, after all, has no interest in the site aside from how much he can sell it for, so he should be motivated to use whatever type of landscaping is likely to bring the highest price.

The answer is that establishing a lawn is easy, cheap, and fast. Unlike a natural yard, which typically takes three years to begin looking as intended, or trees, which take decades to mature, a lawn can look good just a few weeks after its initial seeding. When potential buyers make offers based on what they see today, without considering the future, it’s unsurprising that they’re willing to pay more for a green lawn than for a stand of tiny trees or a carpet of unsprouted native seeds.

In fact, developers are betting that their customers care more about how the yard looks today than what it will be like down the road. Of the many turf blends that are available, developers usually choose the ones that are best able to establish quickly. These blends, though, are typically not the ones best-suited to long-term survival on any particular site. Thus, the specific kind of lawn the developer chose may look lush and healthy on move-in day, but the new homeowners quickly find that it is nearly impossible to maintain.

Wouldn’t it be cheapest, fastest, easiest, and most valuable to preserve the existing mature landscaping on a construction site? Many developers say that it is too difficult and expensive to build a new home without disturbing the plants that already live there; they generally prefer to bulldoze everything and install a brand-new garden after everything else is done.

Studies suggest, however, that protecting plants creates relatively little cost or inconvenience for developers. After accounting for the value an established natural plant community can add to a new home’s sale price, developers who take the trouble to avoid flattening vegetation typically come out ahead. A new home with mature landscaping is, after all, a rare and desirable combination.

Why does new construction tend to come with a lawn?

Do lawns increase property values?

Lawn service companies often claim that lawns increase property values. Conversely, those who are unhappy with a neighbor’s natural yard often say they don’t like it because it hurts their property values. Are these claims true? There are two answers to this question.

#1: It’s impossible to say.

In some court cases over property owners’ rights to have a natural yard, judges did not accept arguments that natural yards hurt property values. The judges pointed out that property values are influenced by so many things – the size of the home, the quality of the local school district, the recent sale prices of nearby homes, and the general housing market, just to name a few – that it is impossible to say that any one factor is helping or hurting property values in any one neighborhood.

#2. Compared to what?

Lawn service companies typically base their claims on studies that compare lawns to bare soil or to truly unmaintained masses of invasive plants. When asked to compare lawns to natural yards, a surveyed group of real estate agents believed that the natural yards came out ahead, raising property values by as much as 10%.

Ultimately, the value of a property is nothing more than what a potential buyer is willing to pay for it. In the past, when many people did not like or understand natural yards, it may have been true that buyers were willing to pay more for a lawn than for a planting of wildflowers. As attitudes change, however, buyers are not likely to be willing to pay a premium for an expensive-to-maintain lawn, when they could buy a well-established natural yard, move right in, and enjoy the birds instead of firing up the lawnmower every weekend.

Do lawns increase property values?

What is perception of care?

Perception of care is the belief, on the part of a viewer, that a landscape is being taken care of by a human. This belief is often the difference between an observer complaining that a space is not being maintained, and an observer appreciating that the property owner is being ecologically responsible with their land.

It is important to note that perception of care is not about fooling people into thinking an area is being managed when in fact it is not. Rather, perception of care is about helping others understand that a planting is intentionally designed to look as though it was put there by nature.

Over the decades, natural gardeners have found that they can create perception of care by including elements that serve as signals that a yard is being taken care of. Effective signals include:

  • Human-centric features. Elements that are obviously more useful to people than to wildlife – such as a bench, a path, or a statue – show that a garden is designed by a human and is intended to be welcoming to humans.
  • Clear borders. A definite edge to a planting serves as a cue that a planting was established on purpose, and has not just sprung up on its own. A decorative fence makes an obvious border, as does a narrow swath of mulch or gravel, or a mowed strip.
  • White things. People tend to perceive white things as clean and well-maintained, and this perception will extend to the entire yard. If the aforementioned statue or decorative fence is white, it will serve double-duty as a signal that this is a well-cared-for space.
  • Explanatory signs. Nothing says “this is an intentional natural yard” like a sign bearing the text “This is an intentional natural yard.” A quick internet search will turn up many examples of signs identifying and explaining the importance of pollinator habitat, standing dead trees, and natural yards in general.

Some studies suggest that trying to make a natural yard look acceptable to lawn-loving neighbors can drastically reduce the yard’s value to wildlife, but a few well-placed cues to care can prevent conflict at little cost to the homeowner or the environment.

What is perception of care?

What’s new in natural yards? December 2017

That Blog doesn’t normally highlight the actions of specific individuals, but this is a story worth sharing.

As awareness of natural yards continues to grow, even kids are getting the message. Nine-year-old Kedar Narayan not only planted a native garden in his Pennsylvania yard, he created an app to help others do the same – and gave a presentation at a local community event to explain to people why they should. In his speech, he highlighted how native plants are important for pollinators, which in turn are crucial to crop production, and he explained how lawns don’t provide anything that pollinators need.

For his advocacy of natural yards and his work towards solving a real-world problem, Kedar recently won a $2,500 prize.

Though natural yards still are not accepted by everyone, it may be that we are reaching a watershed moment in which, by and large, people are praised and rewarded for managing their land responsibly, instead of being attacked and punished.

What’s new in natural yards? December 2017

Who do yard ordinances punish?

As more and more people become aware of the many harms lawns cause to human health and to the environment, lawns remain common largely because of local laws – called ordinances – that make it difficult for property owners to plant anything else. Most of these laws were passed at a time when few people were interested in natural yards or other lawn alternatives, and thus plants more than a few inches tall were generally due to neglect, rather than being a deliberate choice. The laws, which were intended to ensure that properties were maintained in good condition, therefore used unmowed plants as a proxy for neglect, and banned any vegetation that was growing at its natural height.

But even in the times before the value of healthy, naturally-growing plants in residential yards was widely known, these ordinances didn’t work very well. Rather than catching and punishing property owners who were lazy or negligent, the rules disproportionately caught and punished those who were genuinely unable to mow their lawns. In 2001, the city of Palmdale, California, reviewed the likely impact of a proposed lawn ordinance, and concluded that 80% of those who would find themselves in immediate violation were either elderly or poor. (The city passed that ordinance anyway.)

Lawn ordinances also regularly catch and punish those who are most knowledgeable about how to establish a natural yard, and why natural yards are good choices for residential landscaping. In 1976, the lawn ordinance in New Berlin, Wisconsin, was thrown out after the city incorrectly accused a wildlife biologist of not mowing his lawn. (He was planting a prairie restoration.) In Philadelphia, a landscape architect who gets paid to install natural landscaping in city parks around the country was fined for having natural landscaping in her own yard. And a woman in Oak Park, Michigan, was threatened with three months of jail time for planting a front-yard vegetable garden to provide healthy, affordable food for her six children.

Articles published in law journals have argued that even if a yard is genuinely neglected, it is less harmful to public health and safety than an intensively-maintained lawn. While the current laws may have been passed with the best of intentions based on what was known at the time, we now have a different understanding of how we should manage our yards to take good care of our properties and our communities.

Who do yard ordinances punish?