By Karen Mulvahill | May 28, 2022
When I was a girl, I spent hours prying dandelions from our front yard. Our “grass” was actually a collection of various shades of green weeds. But when the bright yellow dandelions reared their perky heads, the green disappeared under their sunny umbrellas. My parents worked, supporting three kids, a mortgage and a car payment, and didn’t care about our lawn quality. But our neighbor, Mr. Melton, had the greenest, plushest lawn you’d ever seen. He was out there constantly—watering, fertilizing, edging, applying weed killer, mowing. He put our tattered turf to shame. Eventually, I came to agree with my parents: There were better things to do. Over the intervening years, I have just kept my motley green weeds short.
That is until about five years ago, when I visited Saving Birds Thru Habitat in Omena (SBTH). Founded by Kay and Jim Charter in 2001, SBTH is a “conservation education organization that teaches people of all ages how to create habitat.” According to Douglas W. Tallamy in his book Bringing Nature Home, more than half of the land in the U.S. is now occupied by cities and suburbs. Overall, he continues, when you factor in other uses, U.S. land available to wildlife is five percent of its original size.
Loss of native habitat contributes to serious species decline. According to the American Bird Conservancy, “12 percent of 4,230 bird species are declining in population and headed for extinction in our lifetimes without immediate conservation action.” SBTH reports, “Nearly one third of North America’s birds have vanished in the last 50 years.”
We’re also experiencing a severe decline in our bee population that threatens our food sources. According to Ohio State Insights (March 2018), bees are responsible for pollinating about one-third of the world’s food supply.
Inspired by what I learned on my SBTH visit, I replaced most of my front lawn with native trees, shrubs and flowers.
Plants are generally termed “native” if they were present before European settlers arrived. It’s logical that native plants are a gardener’s best choice. Flora and fauna evolved together; thus insects have favorite plants, birds have favorite insects, etc. We disrupt this beneficial ecological symbiosis when we bulldoze our native plants and replace them with lawns, ornamental shrubs, and flowers that originated far away.
The ornamentals favored by nurseries and their customers were brought to this country without their natural enemies; thus they can outcompete and replace native plants. Non-native species may provide some food, but it’s not nearly as nutritious as the native species. For example, the invasive Autumn Olive has an attractive red berry that could be compared to red pop. Birds like it, but it’s not particularly good for them. And ornamental flowers generally do not contain enough nectar for bees.
In addition to providing food and habitat for birds, bees, and mammals, landscaping with native plants can also help combat climate change. Native trees and shrubs sequester carbon much more effectively than grass. When you factor in the pollution from pesticides, fertilizer, and lawn mower exhaust, eschewing lawn in favor of planting natives is a big win for the environment.
Once established, native plants require little tending. A bit of pruning, some watering if there’s a drought. But they are adapted to our conditions, so they’ll put up with a lot…and reward you immensely.
There’s milkweed, upon which monarchs cocoon, and ironweed, which grows from the ground to six feet plus each summer, sprouting purple flowers covered by butterflies. St. John’s Wort, a small shrub, explodes into a profusion of yellow flowers mid-summer, above each of which hovers a bee. The pink flowers of the ninebark shrub glow against its wine dark leaves. Phlox, aster, black-eyed Susan, purple coneflowers—these are just some of the gorgeous native flowers available.
Native plants are even showy in the winter—the red and yellow twigs of dogwood, the blue berries of arrowwood, the red berries of highbush cranberry, a tiny nest in the hazelnut. How can a flat patch of green compete with all that?
I can still be spotted digging dandelions in spring. Given their proliferation, you might think otherwise, but dandelions are a non-native species, brought to our shores from Eurasia with the earliest European settlers. I root them out not because they mess with my grass, but to preserve space for my natives to spread—which they are very good at—and for other natives to voluntarily plant themselves. (Goat’s beard and aster have traveled to my garden.)
Now that it’s finally that time of year again, when everything buzzes with new life and we ache to get our hands dirty, seek out native varieties at your local nursery. Four Seasons in Traverse City and Peninsula Perennials near Northport are two of my favorites. If you live in a subdivision that requires or pressures you to have a lawn, initiate discussions about the advantages of planting native. See if you can change some minds and some by-laws.
Karen Mulvahill is a writer living in northern Michigan.