It also raises an important question: who really wants an ugly lawn? An admirable and dedicated contingent, who embrace the ecological good faith of ugly lawns, are willing to attract “looks of disgust from neighbors – and a round of applause from around the world”, as the competition organizers put it.
But many more people just want a nice backyard that won’t upset the neighborhood homeowners association (HOA).
“If we’re saying we’re all going to have the ugliest landscape in the world, that’s not going to stick,” insists Doug Tallamy, an entomologist at the University of Delaware, who proposes a different approach. “I’m trying to reduce lawn area and do it in an attractive way so you don’t get kicked out of your neighborhood.”
Tallamy is part of a growing movement to create ecological Edens in backyards while keeping them palatable to society. Want a rebellious meadow? Clear a path that invites you in. Planting a profusion of native trees and shrubs? Make a border with a strip of well-manicured grass.
These subtle but crucial signs differentiate a mess from a “lawn.” That could be enough to take wildlife conservation beyond public lands and into the backyards—and even balconies—of millions of people, spreading organized wilderness areas across the country.
“We need ecosystems to function everywhere, not just in parks and reserves,” he argues.
Here’s how to create a backyard—or container garden—that’s good for nature while also being the envy of your neighborhood.
Americans transformed 95% of the country’s natural landscapes. About half of the lower 48 states are now cities and streets, infrastructure like airports and shopping centers, or patches of isolated habitat, with farms covering much of the other half.
Only about 13% of the United States enjoys some form of protection.
This is hardly enough to sustain wildlife. If nearly three-quarters of the habitat is lost, ecologists say, we are likely to lose three-quarters of the species as well. In just half a century, for example, a staggering 3 billion adult breeding birds, or nearly 30% of their populations, have disappeared.
To save America’s biodiversity, Tallamy wants us to share the earth. To do this, he is recruiting private owners from more than 83% of the U.S. to create what he calls “local national parks,” from small urban lots to corporate campuses. He plans to transform half of the 40 million acres of grassland in the United States – an area roughly the size of New England – into endangered native plants and trees, embracing what Aldo Leopold, widely regarded as a father of modern conservation, called “ethical land .”
“We abuse the land because we consider it a commodity that belongs to us,” Leopold wrote in his 1949 book. book, “A Sand County Almanac,” popularizing the idea that healthy ecosystems are vital to humanity’s survival. “When we see the land as a community to which we belong, we can begin to use it with love and respect.”
This means restoring four ecological functions that healthy landscapes perform: nourishing the food chain, providing clean water, removing carbon from the air, and feeding and sheltering native insects and pollinators.
“Lawns don’t do any of that,” says Tallamy. But they could, on almost any scale, including a small side yard or even a shipping container.
Imagine your backyard as a buffet. Insects have evolved over millions of years to feast on hundreds of regional cuisines made up of native plants, from Florida to the Pacific Northwest. Some, like monarch butterfly larvae, depend on a single endemic plant species. If all you have to offer are grass and ornamental plants, mainly from Asia and Europe, you can also grow AstroTurf.
That leaves insects and everything that depends on them — including about three-quarters of all flowering plants on Earth that they pollinate — out of luck. A 2019 study by Tallamy and others found that hedgerows infested with invasive shrubs and trees supported 96% fewer caterpillars, by weight, than those dominated by natives.
Because many animals eat caterpillars, says Tallamy, without them we have a failed food chain.
Organized wildlands that even the most conservative neighbor could celebrate could restore nature’s banquet table and all the wildlife that depends on it, in US cities and suburbs.
What would the new patio look like?
The typical objection to “natural” yards and native plants boils down to one word: “messy,” says Haven Kiers, a landscape architect at the University of California, Davis.
The public perception of lawns is binary: trimmed and well cared for or abandoned and ugly. Kiers is charting a third path, transforming his own shaggy Davis lawn into an explosive riot of native plants combined with some ornamentals that people and pollinators love.
“It would be great if everyone only planted natives,” she says, “but I’m also dealing with an audience that wants to perform well and wants the gardens to look good.”
So she’s designing native landscapes as formal gardens. Her students design elaborate botanical landscapes that are based on orderly garden styles, using only Western plants. Ironically, this may mean reintroducing them to Americans in a new light. Our native plants, such as knotweed, American sweetgum, and Virginia creeper, are found in formal gardens in Paris and elsewhere in Europe. We just need to learn to love them as much as they do.
The key is a landscape philosophy called “suggestions for care.” First introduced in a 1995 paper called “Messy Ecosystems, Orderly Frames,” it argued that intentionally designed elements — edges of cut grass, flowering plants with sharp edges, or trimmed shrubs — should delineate larger “messy” wild areas, like a meadow. or prairie gardens. . These signs of human presence make landscapes socially acceptable, while preserving their ecological value, which is often invisible.
Ultimately, the lack of social acceptance is what makes the “ugly” picture so difficult to sell. Backyards are not an afterthought for most people. They are status symbols and artistic expressions. To make native landscapes acceptable, we need to marry human touch with ecological function.
How to Create an Organized Wilderness Area
Make one small patch at a time. Kiers recommends slowly replacing strips of lawn with native plants (or some suitable ornamentals) that can support pollinators and local wildlife. For Kiers, the yard is a work in progress. With each passing year, the grass thins out as the beds and natives grow.
And if you’re concerned about HOA restrictions, most rules are about preserving property value. “Suggestions for care” mean your HOA can accept your native yard – or you can join your HOA to make sure it changes its rules.
HOAs are also losing influence: A low-impact landscaping law passed in Maryland prevents homeowners associations from banning green backyards. Florida, Utah, Arizona, California and other states and cities have similar laws in effect or under consideration.
Go native – but there’s no need to fear all ornamental plants. Native plants will provide the greatest ecological return on your investment. Typically, they will not need water once they become established. Start by asking your native plant society or nursery. There’s one in every state, or search for master gardener groups and extension services online in your area that can answer your questions (for free!).
Adding ornamental plants to the mix can add appeal without losing much ecological value. “There’s a lot of pressure to just go native,” says Kiers. “That’s nonsense.” Just prioritize the natives and avoid the invaders.
Plant key species, feed the food chain. These plants support most wildlife. White oaks and their relatives, for example, are specimen trees for wildlife in 84% of U.S. counties. But every region is different, so find your ecoregion here and Backyard National Parks lists the best plants for your area.
And don’t forget to leave areas under trees and bushes with leaves, trunks or small native seedlings. More than 90% of caterpillars abandon the host plant and need soil cover to complete their life cycle.
Spread seeds for an instant flower garden. Any clearing on the side of a path, around a tree or even a sidewalk can become a thriving garden with a few seeds and occasional watering. If you purchase potted plants, use small pots (1 gallon vs. 4 gallons) as the plants are more likely to thrive.
Don’t have a lawn? Plant a balcony or become a guerrilla gardener. Biodiversity can thrive on your balcony, terrace or roof. Find key plant species suitable for container gardening (and tips) for ecoregions in the United States and Canada here. The containers are “refueling stops” for native pollinators, says Homegrown National Park. Large pots are best and some perennials will return year after year.
And there are many forgotten spaces where one a wildflower garden can take root—you don’t even have to own it. Drop a few “seed bombs” onto bare soil and, after some initial watering, a native garden can flourish almost anywhere, from a Brooklyn sidewalk to alleys.
Express yourself. The natural world has an almost infinite variety of species you can grow into. After some trial and error, you may end up being more than a gardener, but the creator of your own organized nature.
“The good news is that we can solve our ecological problems by compromising rather than sacrificing,” says Tallamy. “It’s been very difficult to address environmental issues by asking people to give up something.”
You can share and map your new yards here with Homegrown National Park.