The loons came back.
In northern Michigan at Au Sable Institute, where I taught a botany course, I had just returned to my cabin from a two-day extended field trip to the Upper Peninsula. When I left, the Memorial Day weekend was just winding down. The loons I had been hearing and watching each night for two weeks were absent from the lake by my cabin during the holiday weekend. In their place were water-skiers, pontoons, Jet Skis and lots of human activity. I neither saw nor heard any loons during the weekend, but a few days later at dusk, I again watched a pair of loons fishing on the once-again quiet lake.
This scenario has me wondering: Are there better ways we can live out our modern existence that would be more welcoming, more affirming of the nonhuman members of creation? Can we do a better job fitting in? This is an appropriate question to ask with regards to the portion of creation to which we are most intimately connected-the yards around our homes. Do we have to manage our yards in ways that exclusively appeal to one species, Homo sapiens, or can we care for these small portions of the creation in ways that benefit a broader community of creatures?
The typical manner in which we care for our yards includes fertilizers and herbicides for our well-watered lawns, individual non-native shrubs or trees separated from each other by a sterile ground cover of wood chips, and an assortment of gas-powered accoutrements that help us maintain all this plant material in shapes and heights we find aesthetically pleasing. The big problem with this approach is that when we care for our yards in this way we are essentially creating deserts for native biodiversity. As with the lake community and loons, our actions prohibit the creation to support native creatures, and we find ourselves living alone.
But this isn't the way things have to be. We have the option of caring for our individual pieces of creation in ways that invite, rather than repel, native biodiversity. To do this we simply need to refocus our yard-care objectives to include the interests of native biodiversity. It all begins with plants. When we incorporate native plants into our yards, whether in native habitat plantings or in more controlled, specimen-highlighting designs, numerous benefits are realized:
1. Native plants attract native pollinators. Long before human immigrants arrived on this continent, creatures such as butterflies and hummingbirds benefited from the nectar of native wildflowers and, in turn, they cross-fertilized these plants. Since human development first started replacing natural areas, both native plants and native pollinators have been in steady decline. When we make room for native plants in our yards we help to abate this unfortunate trend. If you are doubtful of this connection, just take 10 minutes and sit by a patch of daylilies or tulips and count the number of pollinators that visit these plants. Then do the same for a native patch of flowers-plants such as potentilla, penstemon or wild columbine-and compare your results.
2. Native plants mean less yard work. Native plants "knew" how to thrive in the part of creation in which we now live long before we were here. Once established, these plants need no fertilizer, herbicide, pesticide nor irrigation. Most native species even benefit from plant litter (fallen leaves and twigs), making fall raking unnecessary. This saves the landowner time and money.
3. Landscapes with native plants provide important sources of genetic diversity for wild populations. Native plants are declining not only due to habitat loss, but also because of dwindling genetic diversity. Most plants need to be cross-pollinated by genetically dissimilar members of the same species. Native plants in our landscapes can benefit natural populations of these plants by offering new sources of genetic diversity.
4. Native plants attract native seedeaters. Many homeowners maintain birdfeeders, yet our native birds are best served when native seeds are available. Planting native plants in our yards is like planting birdfeeders that will provide the most appropriate nutrition to our local feathered friends. Native sunflowers, coneflowers and goldenrods (not all goldenrods are weedy, and none of them contribute to hay fever) are best.
5. Landscapes with native plants help to more directly connect us to the place in which we live. The natural creation in which we now exist was one of great beauty and integrity. Much of this understanding has been lost, but with native biodiversity surrounding our homes we can appreciate and affirm the natural beauty that was once the hallmark of the regions in which we live.
6. Yards that attract and support native members of creation have greater potential to direct our thoughts to the Creator. A well-manicured lawn with carefully trimmed hedges says a great deal about the human groundskeeper. But a yard with native plants supporting all kinds of native biodiversity more appropriately directs our thoughts and praise to God, who was the original creator of this wonderful tapestry of life.
To conclude, I want to testify that I write these words from the perspective of a practitioner. My family has spent the past nine years converting our residential yard away from a traditionally landscaped home to one that is more of a blessing to the broader creation. We have been delighted to have monarch butterflies drink nectar from and lay eggs on our milkweed plants, amazed by the hummingbirds attracted to our wild columbines, mesmerized by fall-migrating juncos and goldfinches feeding on the seed heads of asters, coneflowers and goldenrods, and altogether grateful for the beauty and resiliency (and lack of required care) of the native plants in our yard. This has been a wonderful opportunity for all of us to learn more about the ecology of western Michigan and the intricacy of God's creation.
At Calvin College much similar effort has been extended to creating refuges on our campus for native biodiversity. These plantings have been the source of much beauty and much benefit for birds and butterflies and creatures of all kinds, including the human members of our campus community. You can join in this more creation-affirming way of caring for your yard by starting to introduce native plants into your landscaping.
Moving Toward a Stewardship Yard
Caring for the piece of creation that is your yard in a manner that reflects a stewardship commitment need not start with heroic endeavors. You can and should start small, building upon humble successes and finding motivation in positive changes that slowly accrue over time.
A good first step for many homeowners is to consider non-fossil-fueled methods of landscape care. For every gas-powered yard implement, a human-powered alternative is available. In a culture in which lack of physical exertion is a social malady, these options should find strong affirmation. Reel mowers can replace power mowers; substitute hand clippers for weed-whips; exchange electrical or hand edgers for gas-powered edgers. All such conversions will mean more quiet and less exhaust contributed to our already carbon-overloaded air.
A second useful step is to re-evaluate your lawn area. Lawns are good for many things-soccer, Frisbee, neighborhood games of pickle or tag. But even for those of us who have children or find delight in such activities, do we really need as much lawn area as we currently maintain? Lawns benefit human beings, but bear little to no positive influence on other members of creation. Reducing the amount of lawn we have will be a decision that affirms the broader creation.
For the lawns we maintain, we can ask if there is a way to maintain them that will not be so detrimental to the watersheds and other creatures (humans included) that are part of our communities and neighborhoods. A variety of safe, organic lawn-care products are increasingly available in all parts of the country. A simple Internet search for organic lawn-care products will connect you to these important and earth-friendly sources. At my house we use kitchen compost as a lawn additive every fall, sieving and then raking in the earthworm-enhanced substrate into the lawn, which provides a natural, slow-release fertilizer that lasts until the following autumn.
If we determine that we do not need as much lawn as we currently maintain, consider setting a portion of it aside for a native planting. To do this successfully requires a basic understanding of the soil and light conditions within which your area of "sacrificial lawn" currently exists. Sandy and sunny areas will support a different array of native plants than an area of shade with clay soils. It is always best to start small and determine which plants will grow best in the area you have prepared. There are native plants that will thrive in virtually any condition, but it is important to recognize the conditions you have so that you can increase your chances of a successful project.
Choosing areas that have been difficult to maintain as lawn (either too wet or too dry) is a good place to start. Once you have decided upon an area, clear the lawn surface away with a sod cutter or spade and select a variety of native plants you think will grow well in that spot. Again, an Internet search of native-plant nurseries will connect you to a source for these plants. However, if you have the ambition, you can simply collect seeds of your favorite wildflowers from a local source (a park with natural areas, railroad rights-of-way or cemetery borders) and distribute the seeds on your lawn-cleared area. Using plants grown from local seeds is always best because they will have the best genetic makeup to thrive in your yard.
One additional decision you will need to make is whether you want to establish an area that displays individual native shrubs or wildflowers or if you would like to create a habitat planting. Habitat plantings are more natural and will support a broader diversity of native creatures, but in some neighborhoods this type of landscaping is discouraged (and even legislated against). Once you have developed your plan, introduce the plants or seeds and then let nature take its course. Often with native plantings a thorough weeding is necessary in the first year, but once these native plants have become established they will do best when they are left alone. Fertilizers, pesticides and leaf removal will be unnecessary.
Another approach is to systematically replace non-native elements of your formal landscaping with native plants. Several non-native landscaping plants can cause significant problems (the term for this is biological pollution) when they are spread by seed dispersers to natural areas where they outcompete native species. Many native shrubs (such as dogwoods, ninebark, potentilla, elderberries, cherries and others) are easily pruned to the size you desire, and many native trees (oaks, hickories, sugar maples, beeches, white pines and others) will thrive in human-dominated landscapes if the soil and light conditions are right. Native perennials will easily fill the void left if you choose to use them to replace ecologically problematic species such as oxeye daisies, purple loosestrife, periwinkle and others. Simple replacement, over time, can offer a conversion that does not require large amounts of effort nor unsightly areas of significant landscape alteration.
An additional possibility is to consider whether your yard could support a rain garden. One need not live in a wetland for this to occur. If you can dish out an area at the base of one of your downspouts, the rain events will keep that area well-watered to the point that it will support wetland wildflowers. This practice will help to keep rainwater on your property, allowing it to more naturally percolate into the soil instead of running off to unnaturally contribute to markedly fluctuating water levels in your nearest stream or waterway. This addition will also increase the native biodiversity you can support in your yard.
The benefits of shifting one's yard from one that displays many non-native, human-affirming but biodiversity-quelling plants can usher homeowners into the exciting and creation-affirming practice of native landscaping. The potential benefits-both ecological and economical-will be well worth the effort.
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