At the end of the movie The Wizard of Oz, the Tin Man asks Dorothy what she has learned that will take her back home to Kansas, the only thing she’s wanted since falling from the sky into the magical land of Oz. Here’s her answer: “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with… There’s no place like home.”
As the sun sets on Earth Day 2022, we may all be a little overwhelmed, a little lost and feeling far from home. Given the most recent report on climate change, we may all be feeling that the home we love—this beautiful planet Earth–has already slipped from our hands, that there are no ruby slippers to click to get us back before everything started to go terribly wrong. But I’d like to suggest that just like those ruby slippers Dorothy wore throughout her harrowing adventure, we’ve always had the power to “go home”–we’ve always had the power to heal and grow a healthy ecosystem right where we live, right in our own backyards. Whether our home is rural Kansas, a row house in the city or a large house in sprawling suburbia, there can be no place like home to begin the healing.
Since things are rather dire and urgent at the moment, though, I am going to start at the bottom of despair where there is nowhere to go but up. (And then I promise we will rise.) Here’s what renowned entomologist and wildlife ecologist Dr. Douglas W. Tallamy has to say about where we are right now, as he considers the amount of land we humans have converted for our own use in just the United States alone and what we’ve left for native plants and animals:
We have taken and modified for our own use between 95 and 97 percent of all land in the lower 48 states. The 2002 USDA Census of Agriculture tells us that 41.4 percent of our land is in agriculture, which means that we have converted 53.6 to 55.6 percent of the land to cities and suburbia. [Note that this is probably higher in 2022.] As far as our wildlife is concerned, we have shrunk the continental United States to 1/20 its original size. And because our refuges and woodlots are not contiguous habitats, but survive as scattered islands coast to coast, the effective size of undisturbed land in the United States is far smaller than those statistics indicate. When extinction adjusts the number of species to the land area that remains (something that will happen within most of our lifetimes), we will have lost 95 percent of the species that greeted the Pilgrims. [emphasis mine]
Dire, indeed. So how do we dig ourselves out of this one before it’s too late? Well, that’s what I like best about Dr. Tallamy—he gives us solutions—real ones, doable ones, possible right now, today. If you read Tallamy’s book Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife and Native Plants and his more recent Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard, you begin to see that we all have a pair of those ruby slippers. These books will definitely light the fire of inspiration and faith. Of course, we must implement his suggestions for things to improve. Be brave.
Tallamy is quite clear and has all the research to back up his claims: we have the collective power to help repair the devastation of the misguided aesthetic of urban and suburban landscaping and create, instead, a sustainable world of native wonder—migratory thoroughfares, pollinator networks, honeybee havens, yard, by yard, by yard of contiguous habitats. And here is the bonus—with a little rethinking (well, okay, a LOT of rethinking), retooling and gardening labor up front, life in our backyards will be easier to maintain, cost us less to keep up and take our small planetary square from isolated, barren turfgrass to a life-sustaining ecosystem in which native plants and wildlife (not to mention us) will thrive. We just need to let go of our learned idea that an over-manicured lawn, decorated with exotic, invasive flora accents is good. Nothing could be more…well…bad.
Knowledge is Power
To find our way back home to a healthier planet, I think it is useful to do a little bit of research, so I’ve offered a few of my favorite books and authors on garden-to-ecosystem transformation—those two books by Dr. Tallamy and another more recent find from a used book sale: Planting Noah’s Garden: Further Adventures in Backyard Ecology by Sara Stein really has given me the willpower to keep going and a much-needed pat on the shoulder when I feel overwhelmed by my ongoing backyard transformation—when I feel I am failing—and, believe me, I still have a long, long way to go. But I’m still going on, thanks, in part, to Stein, who takes us through her own journey to make her property a native plant and wildlife shelter, including both her failures and wins. I highly recommend her books. And there are so many other resources—so many experts getting it right—libraries, used bookstores, little independent shops like Afterwords Books in my town, will be so happy to help you on your journey home. There is no need to “big-box” this. Every shift matters, after all. For me these treasures were indispensable to getting my basic turfgrass lawn re-imagined into the beginnings of a true ecosystem.
So What Does a Backyard Ecosystem Look Like…compared to my lawn?
No two look alike, has been my impression. It will depend on where you live, how much ground you have, what your time commitment can be (and it will take time), and how much physical strength and help you can muster.
Here are two of my friends’ “backyards”…sort of one end of the spectrum:
Susan’s backyard is a woodland at the edge of suburbia, full of mayapples, paw paws, creeping Jenny, and many, many beneficial trees. Sally’s backyard is out in the country and contains a foragers paradise, filled with violets, dandelions, mulberry trees and nettles. She has lots of native trees and groundcovers, just like Susan, and Sally raises chickens and goats that add manure to her already fertile ground—not to mention the benefit of eggs and milk. Sally has bee hives, too, which in turn pollinate everything from natives to her small food garden. And of course, there’s the honey.
Both Susan and Sally have supplemented their native landscapes with herbs, pollinator plants, native grasses and sedges. And their more traditional vegetable beds of tomato, peppers, squash and potatoes are all the better for it. They barely mow anything. Their neighbors are not right next door, so they can easily allow Nature to sprawl. Wildlife abounds—this is Susan’s latest encounter with a salamander.
But my property is in town and looks quite different from my friends’. You may recall the post when I first began my project in our front yard, the help I received from a local native plant expert Tom Shirrell in order to expand my project and even how my ongoing property transformation has dug as deep in my consciousness and soul as I have dug in the Earth. What an adventure!
While I don’t have a woodland and we do still need to mow patches of our property, I have wood poppies and Solomon’s seal under the trees, a serviceberry tree blooming in the front yard, my own patch of stinging nettles, violets and dandelions for a “smoothie garden,” and an ever-increasing spread of pollinator plants like milkweed, native ground covers and grasses, beneficial herbs and flowers to support the life we need on Earth. Last fall I was thrilled to discover a good number of praying mantis cocoons—a beneficial predator that will help me keep the insects under control in the veg garden, where I am less likely to want to share.
Ecosystems also happen on regenerative and organic farms: Remember Daydream Farm and The Family Garden? Both Bruce Haas of Daydream and Jackie Mills of The Family Garden basically maintain highly functioning ecosystems, on which they happen to also raise food crops, honeybees, chickens, a few livestock and herbs. What is different about their farms compared to industrial agriculture operations is the one key ingredient Tallamy knows will save the Earth: the preservation of diversity—actually a sort of specialized diversity that encourages what grows in our yards and on our farms naturally–think milkweed, bluestem, white oaks and redbuds–and discourages what has invaded (almost entirely by our own doing) our home regions—in the Midwest think bush honeysuckle, kudzu and Bradford pear trees. Sticking with our own natives, Tallamy tells us, not only balances our ecosystem so that invasives don’t wipe out native species, but assures plentiful food sources for the plants, insects, birds and animals who are our natural neighbors and are as vital to our existence as the food we eat. Invasives provide next to nothing in terms of a food and shelter resource for what we are trying to encourage.
So Only Natives…or I’ve failed?
No that’s not true. I have plenty of invasive ground covers, some that go all the way back to when we bought our house over 20 years ago and some (I’m ashamed to say) we unwittingly planted thinking they were “pretty.” I constantly rip and re-rip, though I will never eradicate my invasives entirely, I fear. I do the best I can and spend my energy introducing more beneficial plants into my ecosystem every year. Sally and Susan also battle invasives—bamboo is Susan’s bugaboo, and honeysuckle sometimes sends Sally into fits. Still these sheroes persist. Again, Sara Stein is a comfort on this issue. She advises us to do our best; if we all do our best, we will achieve our goals.
What Will the Neighbors Say?
Yeah, this can be a challenge. My daughter Heather, who works for a landscaping company that specializes in natural solutions for commercial businesses and residential customers, encouraged me to apply for certification as a pollinator habitat through the National Wildlife Federation. We already were members, so it just made sense. We have some rules to follow, like no chemical pesticides or herbicides; we must make water available for deer, birds and other wildlife; and we are limited to planting only native species for our region in the yard from the point of receiving our certificate and putting up our sign. Can do! And the sign is sort of an insurance policy that when our prairie plants are six feet high out front, no one is going to point to an ordinance that says we have to cut them down before the bees and birds have fully benefitted. So far, so good.
You Said Less Maintenance….
I did, and I wasn’t kidding. The work—and it can be hard work—is mostly up front—though, as I said, you’ll spend time every year taming back invasives and building out natives. But here’s an example of how we get rid of useless turfgrass in the fall to plant pollinator plants the next spring—once done, it pretty much stays done:
- We begin ideally after a soaking fall rain because the ground will be easier to rip up. Using a pitchfork, we rip up anywhere from three to four inches of turf—trying to get down to basic soil. The turf layer goes in yard waste containers that our city picks up for compost.
- On the bare soil, we lay down sheets of plain brown cardboard saved from boxes, heavy brown paper bags, anything that will eventually compost safely into that soil—it’s our natural weed barrier. We make a pretty thick layer. On top of the cardboard, we spread any spent potting soil we have on hand and a few bags of new topsoil to create a layer of good growing material.
- We top this with weighted plastic bags—whatever we can’t recycle like potting soil and topsoil bags. These are heavy enough to withstand most of the winter weather. Another weed barrier.
- Then we leave this alone until spring. It works pretty well, and, if we are full of energy, we’ll get several patches done in one fall. The following spring, we strip away the plastic (to be reused if we can) and have ready our newest natives.
This year we will replace a once-turf-covered slope with sedge grass—a native that will never need mowing, since it only gets a few inches high, and will need very little watering, even to start. Less work, less fossil fuel, less negative impact forever more. The sedge will spread naturally from its initial plugs and overtake some of the yard for us. Wee!
I did! Once you have an ecosystem of natives, you will mow less (possibly not at all!), water less, fertilize less and never worry about pesticides. Every spring I make a “tea” of unsulfured blackstrap molasses (one cup to one gallon of water) and water the base of all my trees—the serviceberry, the redbud and our four baby white oaks. That is really the only fertilizing I do.
You will get bugs eating your plants—of course, that’s the point. Hungry monarch caterpillars are the end-goal of planting milkweed, right? But to combat armor bugs on my squash in the food garden, I rely on diatomaceous earth—just sprinkle on after rains, if you need. Totally food-grade safe.
You will also come to value plants in the yard that you used to consider a problem: naturally growing violets (that are stunning in Sally’s garden beds) and dandelions are not only food for pollinators, they are food for us, too! Check out my Backyard Buffet post for more natural backyard ingredients and recipes for tea and smoothies.
In fact, the National Wildlife Federation has a great article on backyard ecology and concepts like “No Mow May” to encourage the proliferation of native flowers as a cover crop for pollinators in our yards; perhaps putting off mowing for a few weeks might not be so bad. Again depends on where you live and who your neighbors are.
It’s true that these ideas and others turn what we have been doing for years on its head. Adjustment is required, but benefit is assured—for us and the planet. Even though it seems as if we are creating some sort of wonky Oz, we are really just finding our way back to sustainability, true community, environmental and human health. After all, there’s no place like home.