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.
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.
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.
For some time now, organizations that advocate for natural yards have been urging gardeners to not clean up their plantings in the fall. These organizations cite the many benefits of a “messy” yard: pollinators overwinter in stems that have died back, birds eat seedheads held above the snow, last year’s growth deters deer from trying to eat next spring’s new shoots, the lack of bare soil discourages weeds from sprouting, and so on.
Also for some time now, natural gardeners have been advised to hang up signs explaining these benefits, so their wild plantings are not mistaken for being the result of laziness or negligence. For a long time, natural gardeners have noticed that a simple sign can make the difference between neighbors complaining about what they perceive as an unmowed lawn, and neighbors understanding that that yard looks different on purpose.
Now, there has been an interesting development. Habitat Network, an initiative of The Nature Conservancy and The Cornell Lab of Ornithology that advocates for wildlife-friendly yards, has asked homeowners to pledge to be “lazy gardeners“. The organization is inviting those who take the pledge to put up a window sticker declaring the property owner to be an “Official Lazy Gardener”.
Assuming that Habitat Network has not completely misread the situation, this suggests that most people are now aware that a messy yard is being mindfully managed for the health of wildlife and the planet, and has not simply been abandoned because the property owner cannot be bothered to mow their lawn. The campaign seems to indicate that nowadays, most people recognize a declaration of “lazy gardening” as a joke, and not as a literal explanation of why leaves are unraked, trees are unpruned, and plants are left standing over the winter.
This fall – and all year round – be a lazy gardener. You’ll be working smarter, not harder, enjoying more benefits from your yard with much less effort.
We all know that birds go south for the winter. But where exactly is “south”? For many of our favorite birds, it’s countries like Brazil and Ecuador. Species that travel up and down the western hemisphere are called Neotropical migrants.
What this migration pattern means is that people in South America, as well as Central America and the Caribbean, enjoy many of the same birds that we do. If we all want to continue enjoying these colorful visitors, we all need to be responsible about providing them a safe place to stay.
Our southern neighbors steward these birds’ wintering grounds – the place birds go to find plentiful food and hospitable temperatures when northern regions become too cold and snowy. We, in turn, care for the birds’ breeding grounds – the area where they nest and raise their young.
At both ends of their migration route, birds need food, water, and shelter. If these are not available, they will either be unable to raise their next generation, or they will fail to survive the winter. Either way, people all across the Americas will have fewer birds to brighten their yards.
What we do on our own property may seem like a matter of personal preference, or, at best, a subject to be negotiated with our immediate neighbors. In fact, whether our yard provides a safe home for wildlife, and whether it produces other ecosystem services, impacts friends on other continents. It’s important to keep this in mind as we decide how to care for our land.
“Overgrown” means that a plant is bigger than someone thinks it should be. Like “weed”, it is a completely subjective term. Objectively, plants do not get bigger than nature intended them to be. A plant that is growing enthusiastically is a healthy, happy plant.
Getting bigger than nature intended does happen to people. We call that obesity. Though the obesity rate in the US is now 35%, many of those who are not obese mistakenly believe they are. Persistent exposure to images of supermodels has caused us to mistake malnourishment for a healthy weight, and to see a healthy size as obesity.
Similarly, persistent exposure to lawns has caused us to see a system in which grass is no more than an inch or two tall, and shrubs grow in tight, compact forms, as just right. In fact, outside of areas with especially harsh conditions, like deserts and high mountains, such a system is seriously undervegetated.
We live on a planet full of life – not just some life, but abundant life. Nature squeezes life into every available space. When we visit a healthy prairie, forest, or wetland, we see plants of all shapes and sizes fitting together to fill the entire area.
By changing our frame of reference to recognize abundant plant life as just right, we can fill our yards with healthy vegetation, and stop fighting with plants to prevent them from growing.
Believe it or not, you can have a natural yard without a yard.
First, if you have a balcony, you can put some native flowers on it. Bees and butterflies will find them!
Second, you may be able to join a community gardening program in your city. Working a plot provides all the benefits of the physical act of gardening (it burns almost as many calories as going to the gym!), plus you get fresh, organic vegetables at virtually no cost.
Third, you may be able to use what is called a landshare. Landsharing is a system in which a person who wants to garden but has no land connects with someone who has land but can’t or doesn’t want to maintain it. Someone in your community may be willing to let you tear up a section of their lawn and plant vegetables or native flowers, in exchange for a share of the produce and a reduced need to do yard work.
Small spaces can make a big difference. Together, we can create a healthier environment for ourselves and other species.