What is “lazy gardening”?

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.

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What is “lazy gardening”?

What is benign neglect?

Benign neglect is the recognition that not all things need intensive maintenance. Some things do just fine – do best, even – when left mostly to their own devices.

For example, no one is likely to accuse you of neglecting your child if you don’t bottle-feed, burp, and diaper your typically-developing 15-year-old. Teenagers still need help and guidance, but they can do most things for themselves, and they become more self-sufficient year by year – especially if allowed some independence and the opportunity to try things on their own.

A natural yard is like a teenager. With the exception of some highly-domesticated species, plants are wild creatures that are capable of taking care of all their own needs, especially when they are living in naturalistic communities. There is little a gardener can do that really helps a plant – they don’t particularly benefit from fertilizer, they don’t need pesticides when natural pest predators are able to live in the area, and they don’t require supplemental water if they’ve been sited in the right spot. In other words, in the context of a healthy natural yard, doing minimal yard work isn’t lack of maintenance. It’s benign neglect. The garden is doing just fine on its own. In fact, it is doing better than it would be if the gardener constantly interfered with the garden’s natural processes.

Sometimes, a gardener who does minimal yard work is mistaken for being lazy, instead of being recognized as having a yard that is low-maintenance by design. This is akin to accusing someone of not maintaining their car when they have bought a reliable vehicle rather than an old beater (and hence they don’t spend much time bringing it to the repair shop), or insisting that someone is not taking good care of their pet because they don’t regularly walk and play with their goldfish. Some yards just don’t need much maintenance, and having such a yard is usually a mindful choice motivated by reasons other than laziness.

For example, the gardener may have a demanding job that leaves them with little time for yard work, and so they choose to have a yard that can look after itself while its owner is staying late at the office. They may have a disability that makes it hard for them to struggle with a lawnmower every week. They may be planning ahead for when they are elderly and unable to keep up with the maintenance requirements of a lawn. Or, they may have established a natural yard because it filters stormwater, supports wildlife, combats climate change, and creates peace and quiet in the neighborhood – the fact that it is easier to maintain is just a fringe benefit.

All of us are busy and have many priorities. Replacing maintenance-intensive aspects of our lives with things that benefit from benign neglect is not a sign of laziness; it’s a wise choice that allows us to make the best use of our time.

What is benign neglect?

What is maintenance?

Maintenance is the practice of keeping something in the same state it is already in.

This makes sense when something is currently in a good state, but not when something is in a bad state. We don’t speak of maintaining our health when we have the flu; our doctor doesn’t advise us to maintain our weight after informing us we are obese. Similarly, we don’t maintain our home if we have just bought a fixer-upper: first we need to repair it.

By almost any measure, our Earth is not currently in a good state. Forests are vanishing at an alarming rate. The oceans are on track to contain more plastic than fish in the not-so-distant future. And global temperatures are rapidly moving into a range that we are not certain is compatible with the continued existence of human civilization.

For the same reason that sustainability is no longer good enough, we need to do more than simply maintain our planet: we need to restore it to a healthy state.

Our yards are a microcosm of this. Arguably, a lawn is not a good state that we want to maintain: it is a monoculture of unhealthy non-native plants kept alive with infusions of our dwindling water supplies, applications of chemicals known to cause cancer, and regular use of machines that are contributing to the present climate crisis. When we “maintain” our lawns, we are keeping our yards in a degraded state that is harmful to our own health and the health of our planet.

Now is the time to restore our yards to thriving communities of native plants, free of fossil fuels and toxic chemicals. Only once we have done so will it be possible to maintain our yards in the sense of keeping them in a state that’s worth preserving.

What is maintenance?

What is a watershed?

watershed is a geographical area in which all the water – from rainfall, snowmelt, garden hoses, or anything else – finds its way to a particular river, creek, or lake.

Everyone lives in a watershed. If you live in Madison, you might be in the watershed of Lake Mendota, Pheasant Branch Creek, or the Upper Sugar River.

Those water bodies, of course, drain into other water bodies. Watersheds are nested inside bigger watersheds. All the watersheds in and around Madison ultimately flow into the Mississippi River, which empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

What this means is that what we put into our water in Madison affects a lot of people who live downstream from us.

Many residents of Madison don’t know that the storm drains along our roads connect directly to our lakes and rivers. The water is not filtered or cleaned along the way. So, if we want to keep our local waterways – and the Mississippi River, and the Gulf of Mexico – clean and safe, we need to be careful about what’s flowing down our streets and driveways.

One reason that Madison sends streetsweepers around is to clean up the leaves, dirt, and other gunk that would otherwise wash down the storm drains. But doing this task with streetsweepers costs taxpayers moneys and consumes fossil fuels. If homeowners swept their curb lines manually – especially before rainstorms – we could keep our rivers and lakes clean in a way that is quieter, cheaper, and more environmentally-friendly.

What is a watershed?

What is a greywater system?

In plumbing terms, there are three kinds of water. White water is the water that comes in through your faucet and is safe for drinking. Black water is the water that goes out through your toilet, and isn’t safe for anything. And grey water is the water that goes down your drains after being used to wash your dishes, your clothes, or yourself. While you shouldn’t drink it, it’s still good for many other purposes.

For example, some buildings route the greywater that goes down the bathroom sink into the toilet tank. Then, the toilet can be flushed with water that was already used for washing hands, instead of with clean, drinkable water.

Similarly, water that’s been cycled through the dishwasher or washing machine can be used to water plants. Some people have plumbed their houses to drain this water into a rain garden or similar system. The water then gets filtered by the plants, instead of being filtered by a municipal system on the taxpayer’s dime.

Greywater systems are a great way to use resources more efficiently, conserving water and saving money. Unfortunately, they are not legal in many cities, because health departments worry that the slightly-dirty water could transmit disease if drained into yards instead of into pipes.

These fears are largely unfounded. If a greywater system is set up properly, and care is taken to not put toxic soaps or other harmful substances into the system, then recycling greywater is safe for people and the environment.

As water shortages become more severe, greywater systems are likely to become legal in more places. Citizens can ask their elected officials to not delay legalizing this simple way of using resources more wisely.

What is a greywater system?

What is a tree spade?

A tree spade is a piece of heavy equipment designed to dig up and move large trees.

Small trees can be dug up and moved by hand, but what is a property owner to do when a mature tree is growing into power lines, standing in the way of a construction project, or casting shade on an area the property owner would prefer to be sunny? Many would respond by pruning the tree, or by destroying it entirely. Often, a better solution is to move it.

Tree spades were invented in the 1800s, and early versions could move trees more than 30 feet tall. Modern-day tree spade operators say they have moved trees well over 100 feet tall, as well as trees with trunks more than 5 feet across.

Tree spade operators don’t really recommend moving trees that large, though, since survival of the transplanted tree depends on whether enough of its root system can be picked up and moved with it. A tree’s root system can be larger than the aboveground part of the tree, but even the biggest tree spades can only dig up a chunk of soil about 7 feet across and 4 feet deep.

Medium-sized trees, though, can be successfully moved, and it is not even very expensive to do so – especially when compared against the cost of destroying the tree, including the loss of the services that a relocated tree could have gone on providing for many years.

By creatively rearranging our yards, we can have room for everything we want, while respecting the needs of many species.

What is a tree spade?

How often does a lawn need to be mowed?

The average American spends about 25 hours a year mowing their lawn. That’s about 25 mowings that take 1 hour each.

Of course, this is an average that includes Americans in southern Florida who mow their lawns year-round, and Americans in northern states who mow their lawns during a much shorter growing season.

In Levittown, one of America’s first suburbs, homeowners were required to sign contracts saying they would mow their lawns at least once a week between April 15 and November 15 – dates that line up with Levittown’s growing season.  This meant that the homeowners had to mow their lawns at least 35 times a year.

Madison’s growing season is 83 days shorter than Levittown’s, lasting only from mid-May through late September. And, Madison has no requirement that homeowners have or mow a lawn. Yet, some in Madison choose to mow their lawns from mid-March through early December.

Mowing causes grass to grow faster. In other words, the more you mow your lawn, the more you have to mow your lawn.

Grass that is unmown, however, grows for a few weeks in the late spring, reaches a height of about two feet, and then dies back. If we tolerate tall grass for a couple of months in the summer, we can have short grass the rest of the year by mowing just once in the early fall.

Finally, we can plant slow-growing “eco-grasses” that remain short year-round with just two or three annual mowings – or we can seed our yards with dwarf mondo grass, a cultivar that resembles more common lawn grasses but never grows more than three inches tall.

How often does a lawn need to be mowed?