For many of us, our yards are as personal as our living rooms. Front yards introduce our home to passersby. Backyards can be our private havens or our favorite places to meet with friends and enjoy the quiet of a summer afternoon.
But our yards can be so much more. They can be important parts of habitat wherever we live, helping to support a healthy, vibrant, and diverse ecosystem.
About six years ago, my partner, Bernie, and I looked around our lot and decided to make it into a sanctuary for us, for pollinators, for birds, and for wildlife. We live in a small town, with a sidewalk separating us from a very busy road. There are homes to the south of us and a wetland between us and our neighbors to the north. Directly behind our lot is a wooded area, and beyond that is an open field, a good-sized beaver pond, and more woods.
A little research convinced us that we could take many steps to add diversity and make our yard more “natural” — and two were so important that, even if we did nothing else, we knew we’d get results.
The first was to plant shrubs, trees, and perennials that are native to our part of the world in northwest Vermont.
In any given area, songbirds, insects, and plants have evolved together. As birds evolved, they learned what trees, flowers, grasses, and bugs provided the food they needed. And the insects learned what plants provided food for them, as adults and as larva. And then plants protected themselves by evolving chemicals that taste bad or are toxic — and then the insects evolved to tolerate those chemicals so they could keep feeding on those plants — and so on, for millennia.
Many property owners and gardeners don’t want anything munching on their plants, so they buy plant varieties advertised as “pest-free.” The caterpillars and other insects adapted to feed on those plants have been left behind, usually in Europe or Asia. Our native insects haven’t developed immunity to the chemicals in these plants, so they don’t feed on them. That might sound wonderful to gardeners — but the vast majority of our birds need those “pests.”
Insects — especially caterpillars — are a main food source for many, many kinds of birds, including most songbirds. Many eat insects year-round. Many more, even those we think of as seedeaters, forage for insects during breeding season to provide easily digested protein for their growing chicks. Others chow down on insects when they’re fattening up in preparation for arduous migrations to South and Central America.
We’ve all read that world populations of songbirds have been declining for decades, with an alarming number of species now in danger of extinction. Planting native trees, shrubs, and flowers is a surefire way to help, because the plants will attract and support the insects that our birds need to survive and reproduce.
So — more native plants, more beneficial insects (especially more caterpillars), and more birds.
However, we don’t have to get rid of every imported iris, daffodil, hosta, peony, sedum, day lily, and rose. Some of these plants, while not supplying caterpillars for Vermont’s birds, attract Vermont’s pollinating bees, wasps, flies, and butterflies. Our Rosa rugosa plants are covered with bees every single day for months!
And apple trees are a wonderful addition to any yard. Apple trees and all their many relatives are happily munched by native caterpillars and happily used by native pollinators. Many people call this family of plants one of the five or six most economically important crop groups in the entire world.
The important thing is to balance our old nonnative favorites with natives. Approximately 1,400 plants are native to Vermont, and other parts of the country have even more. We’ve all got lots to choose from!
And here’s another reason to go native: Plants that have evolved in a specific area are adapted to that climate and environment, so they generally need less maintenance and a lot less watering.
The fight against nonnative plants
While we were planning, buying, and getting gifts of native species, Bernie and I spent hours studying how to manage a few nonnative species that were becoming invasive. Nonnative plants don’t have to cope with insects eating them so they can easily crowd out the natives, replacing plants that provide important services for wildlife with plants that provide fewer or none of these services.
Here in New England, fully one-third of the plants are nonnative, and many of those have become invasive. We’ve all heard about milfoil and water chestnut clogging our lakes, purple loosestrife and phragmites killing off native cattails, and Japanese knotweed coming up just about anywhere. And, in recent years, many of us have become unhappily familiar with wild parsnip, which can increase the skin’s vulnerability to sunburn and cause painful blisters.
Our property doesn’t have wild parsnip, phragmites, or knotweed — yet. But we are engaged in a constant battle with goutweed. Goutweed (also known as Bishop’s weed) is a wonderfully hardy plant introduced to the U.S. as a groundcover requiring almost no care or attention. The hype was true! The stuff thrives in pretty much any kind of soil, in full sun, partial sun, or full shade. It multiplies and spreads quickly, covering ground very efficiently by killing off just about anything else growing there.
We have dug and weeded and weeded and dug. We have covered large patches of goutweed with black plastic, cardboard, and layers of newspaper. When we peeled back the coverings on one area, after two full years, we found goutweed shoots alive and ready to bounce back! One gardener we know has a one-word recommendation for anyone with goutweed on his or her property: MOVE!
We’re not going to move. We’ll keep weeding and digging, and digging and weeding, and covering and weeding some more. And we have found a few native plants that can hold their own, including a lovely creeping plant called Jacob’s ladder. And comfrey, planted in a goutweed bed that’s weeded often enough to give the other plant a chance, will kill off the invasive plant!
Reducing the size of the lawn
Once we started making a list of native plants, we had to start thinking about where to put them all. So, we did the second-most-important thing that anyone can do to turn a yard into an important part of the natural habitat. We reduced the size of our lawn.
Lawns have little value to birds or other wildlife, and they use up fossil fuels and water. Worse — much worse! — many people feel they must use fertilizers, weed killers, and sometimes even pesticides on their lawns.
According to the National Audubon Society, many suburban lawns have 10 times more chemicals per acre than farmland. Americans spend over $70 billion a year on lawn chemicals — and these chemicals are implicated in the staggering loss of pollinators worldwide. Bees and butterflies, in particular, are quite susceptible to the chemicals, and we really need these insects! It’s estimated that one out of every three bites of food we eat is thanks to pollinators. Many of North America’s pollinators have disappeared already or are fading fast. If the rest go, we could lose as many as 1,200 crops and over 100,000 different plant species.
We don’t all have to take our lawnmowers to the dump immediately. But every one of us can and should think about how much lawn we actually use. Many people do nothing on their lawns but mow and mow and mow. And rake. And blow leaves. All of that takes hours and hours of precious time that could be spent doing something much more fun! If we all start with a few areas for new native plantings, or even a few areas to leave wild, and mow paths between those areas, we will all be on the way to making the world a better place for pollinators, birds, other wildlife — and us!
Raking leaves is another time-consuming activity that many homeowners feel they must do. We in the U.S. have been brainwashed into believing that we absolutely have to get rid of fallen leaves, not realizing that we’re destroying vast numbers of pollinators at the same time. Most of our butterflies, unlike beautiful monarchs, aren’t migratory. They overwinter as eggs, caterpillars, chrysalises, or adults, and they need leaf litter for winter cover. When we treat leaves like trash, we are literally throwing out many of next summer’s moths and butterflies. At the very least, we should move leaves under trees and shrubs because that’s where caterpillars will drop and overwinter.
After a backyard walk a few years ago, one of our guests gave a huge sigh. “You have given me permission!” Research shows that many landowners mow their lawns and take their leaves to the dump not because they hate leaves or love lawns but because they worry about their standing in the neighborhood. Every one of us who does a bit of “delawning” can help alleviate that anxiety by offering guided yard tours and/or putting up attractive signs. Signs that say “Pollinator Friendly Area” and “Leave the Leaves” are available from the Xerces Society. Homeowners can earn a Certified Wildlife Habitat sign from the National Wildlife Federation or a Wildlife Sanctuary sign from local Audubon chapters or plant societies. Advertising what we’re doing, showing why we’re doing it, and exhibiting pride in our somewhat “wild” yards might encourage others to do the same!
Six years of changes make a sanctuary
It has been six years since we made our vow to transform our 1.3 acres into a sanctuary. What has happened since?
First, the yard looks very different. Before, our yard was divided approximately in two, with a soggy section left alone and the rest about half lawn, a quarter perennial beds, and a quarter raised beds for vegetables. We estimated we had between 50 and 60 species of plants, including a handful of natives. Now we have almost 150 species and have significantly increased the percentage of species that have been in Vermont for hundreds of years.
Second, our yard is edible — for us, for insects, and for birds. We have over two dozen kinds of shrubs and trees that produce fruit or nuts, as well as 30 perennials that are used by a wide variety of pollinators. We’ve also greatly expanded the vegetable garden, filling the pantry and two freezers and insulating us a bit against inflationary food prices.
Other changes: We’re doing much less work! We’re weeding less, mowing less, raking less, and spending a lot more time sitting in our lawn chairs reading, having a snack, watching birds, just soaking up the beauty.
And we’ve got lots of wildlife! Bernie is a dedicated contributor to iNaturalist, a community science tool to which people post photos of living things and have the photos identified by experts, while at the same time adding to a vast data bank used by scientists. Over the past two summers, Bernie has posted photos of more than 550 species of insects — in our 1.3 acres!
The two of us have also recorded 24 mammal species and six amphibians and reptiles. And — delighting both of us bird lovers — our yard bird list is now almost 130 species. Gray Catbirds, Chestnut-sided Warblers, Common Yellowthroats, American Redstarts, American Robins, Hairy Woodpeckers, Black-capped Chickadees, and Tufted Titmice nest on the property. We’ve enjoyed a young Black-billed Cuckoo perched on a stump right outside the back door. We’ve hosted 16 species of warbler, most during spring and fall migration, when the birds visit our old plum and apple trees to chow down on tiny caterpillars. Cedar Waxwings try to beat us to the honeyberries and elderberries, and they even duck under the chicken wire to steal strawberries. And for the past two Septembers, small groups of Scarlet Tanagers have spent days stocking up for their long migrations to western South America.
The amazing fact is that many, many yards could be this full of birds! After those two essential first steps — increasing the percentage of native plants and reducing the size of lawns — here are some other actions that will transform every single yard into a healthy and contributing part of nature.
Don’t use any kind of insecticide. Insecticides kill bugs. That’s what they’re for. Insecticides are also implicated in the increase of various kinds of cancers in humans. We really don’t want them in the air we breathe, the water we drink, the grass we walk on, or the food we eat!
Keep cats indoors. Domestic and feral cats in the U.S. kill about a million birds every single day. Cats are the most abundant carnivore in North America. Cat numbers are rising, but nearly one-third of U.S. bird species are endangered, threatened, or in significant decline.
Make a brush pile, preferably in a corner of the yard or along a fence or near existing shrubs. Many insects nest in brush piles. Many birds hunt, roost, or nest in them. Brush piles are even more important in suburban and urban yards than they are in rural areas because the surrounding habitats in cities tend to be more manicured or simplified.
Let dead or dying trees stand — unless, of course, they are an immediate threat to your house, garage, barn, or neighbor’s property. Dead trees provide nesting cavities and places for birds to take shelter during bad weather. Dead trees also are full of yummy insects like grubs and ants.
Celebrate dead flowers. In late summer and autumn, don’t rush out to neaten your dead flower garden. Instead, think of the dried plants as an all-you-can-eat buffet for cardinals and goldfinches (who will eat seeds) and nuthatches, titmice, and chickadees (who will find insect and spider eggs).
And what about apartment dwellers or people who rent their house or people whose homeowners’ associations prohibit brush piles and dead leaves and other types of “mess?” They can still make a big difference! They can talk with property managers or city arborists about the importance of native trees and other plants. They can get on the boards of their homeowners’ association and then spread the word about smaller lawns, native plantings, being pollinator-friendly, etc. They can advocate for small pollinator gardens as a way of introducing neighbors to the importance of pollinating insects.
Every one of us can be part of transforming our surroundings, our yards, into rich and productive habitat that provides the food and shelter needed by insects and birds and mammals and humans. The worldwide environment needs us!
Why do we have lawns, anyway?
Scary wilderness — One theory is that a mowed lawn was a way to keep the wilderness at bay.
Looking wealthy — Another theory is that only wealthy people used to be able to have acreage that produced no food for humans or livestock, and only wealthy people had servants to keep that acreage looking spiffy. Middle class people in this country wanted their homes, their “castles,” to look like what rich people had — so they began having lawns.
Savvy advertising — As the number of small farms declined precipitously in the 1950s and ’60s, the demand for small tractors, balers, plows, and the like also dropped. Big manufacturers like John Deere quickly switched to lawn-care products — and ads started showing up in magazines and on TV, reminding readers and viewers that the neighbors would think SO much less of them if they didn’t have a manicured lawn. And the public was hornswoggled into believing it!
Fretting about the neighbors — One of the biggest impediments to “delawning” is worrying about what the neighbors will think. Once a few people change their lawns, however, others will feel more comfortable about following suit.
This article was first published in the March/April 2023 issue of BirdWatching magazine.