ReWilding the Lawn: Lessons from My Neighbor’s Yard

After moving across the country from Brooklyn, New York to Tulsa, Oklahoma, I finally finish unpacking. I shove the last of my moving boxes into the recycling bin and decide to explore my new neighborhood. Like many suburbs, I find rows of neutral-colored houses flanked by squares of lawns. Everything is orderly and still, each home consistent with the next.

Until one yard stops me in my tracks.

A rainbow of flora spills from this yard into the street. Golden petals of black-eyed Susans bask in the sunshine, and blue-green strands of Russian sage gesticulate in the breeze. Bright red cardinals sing alongside the hum of foraging bees, providing ambient music to the monarch butterflies as they feed upon milkweed nearby.

Like Dorothy’s emergence from Kansas into Oz, the world appears suddenly sharper and brighter to me.

A series of signs adorn this yard’s fence, bearing the seals of prominent nonprofit organizations like the Humane Society and the Audubon Society. They proclaim, “I’m a Humane Backyard,” “I’m a Wildlife Sanctuary,” and “I’m a certified Pollinator Garden.”

The border between the wildlife habitat garden and the lawn next door

This yard’s wildness, I realize, is not the product of neglect — it is intentional. The homeowner has deliberately created a space for wildlife to thrive. And judging from the various certifications, programs exist to encourage this approach.

Until now, I had never questioned the presence of lawns. They were a normal element in nearly every residential and commercial landscape. But this wild yard has ignited my imagination. I begin to wonder about the possibilities lying dormant beneath the grass.

Lawns are as American as baseball and apple pie. They adorn the homes of 80 million people and occupy over 31.6 million acres of land–nearly triple the size of America’s largest national park at Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve in Alaska. Why do we give so much land to lawns?

Like the founding fathers themselves, lawns can trace their roots back to 16th century Europe. There, lawns indicated that a homeowner could afford to use land for decoration rather than agriculture as well as hire maintenance staff. Lawns were a public announcement of wealth and status. In the early years of U.S. history, Thomas Jefferson’s vast lawn at Monticello helped popularize this trend among the American elite.

With the rise of suburban communities in the1950s, the lawn became a mainstream element of the American dream. It carried the promise of pristine order over one’s domain, a refuge from the crowded tenement living of the inner city. Suburban housing developments established yard rules, like in Levittown, Pennsylvania, requiring residents to mow and weed their lawns weekly. Since then, the lawn has evolved into the centerpiece of an industry. By 2022, the demand for lawncare products is projected to reach $9.6 billion.

These patches of grass may seem innocuous. But they have had significant ecological impact. Unlike the native plants that preceded them, lawns do not provide food for pollinators, shelter for wildlife, or soil structure for insect life. They do not produce much oxygen or capture much carbon. For these reasons, ecologists have dubbed lawns “green deserts” and implicated them in the habitat loss contributing to mass species decline and extinction.

Current lawn-care practices impact human health as well. Lawns need frequent watering to maintain their green aesthetic, and Americans use 9 billion gallons of water daily for this purpose. As regions struggle with increasing drought, community members are being forced to rethink their water usage. In addition, some chemicals in fertilizers and pesticides have been linked to cancer. When water passes through lawns treated with these substances, it absorbs the chemicals and creates toxic runoff. It then flows into storm drains and out to the rivers, lakes, and oceans that provide our food and drink.

As with many trends that became popular during the 1950’s — let alone the 1600’s — it may be time to rethink lawns.

Throughout the nation, people are rising to the challenge. In drought-stricken regions like Southern California, authorities pay homeowners to get rid of their lawns and replace them with drought-tolerant alternatives. Landscaping company PT Lawn Seed in Portland, Oregon developed Fleur de Lawn, a low-maintenance mix of grasses and flowers that feed pollinators and require no fertilizer. In Ohio, resident Sarah Baker risked hefty local fines by refusing to mow her lawn in order to create a garden that would be safe for wildlife. And here in Oklahoma, this yard was visibly making an impact as well. It was teeming with plant, insect, and wildlife — an oasis amidst green deserts.

Curious to meet my new neighbor, I venture into the yard and knock on the door.

A woman greets me with a cat at her feet. She introduces herself as Clara, and she is eager to discuss her yard. Clara explains that she spent twenty years converting her lawn into a wildlife habitat. I ask her why she has made this choice.

“The beauty feeds my soul,” she says. “The wonder of nature never stops delighting me. I’m thrilled every year when I see a caterpillar — it never gets old. Each swallowtail butterfly is just as wonderful as the first. I feel rewarded that my damage to the planet is mitigated and am hopeful that it doesn’t take that much to undo it. Nature is forgiving if we let her.”

Clara’s tips to start a wildlife habitat garden:

1. Think win-win

What serves wildlife, and what would serve us too? How can we mutually enjoy this space?

2. Get to know the land

How much light do you have? How much space? Use native plants and honor the local ground’s preferences as much as possible. Plant nurseries can help tailor selections for you based on sunny or shaded areas so that you use as little water as possible.

3. Start small

Build gradually.

4. Get certified

If you have food, water, and shelter for wildlife in your yard, you can get certified as a wildlife habitat and receive a sign. National Wildlife Federation, Monarchwatch, Humane Society, and Audubon Society provide checklists for their programs. These organizations want to acknowledge your efforts to make a healthier and gentler planet, and signage helps spread awareness to the community.

Social norms are powerful. So is individual choice. Behind the conventional lawn lurks its hidden cost: the sacrifice of our wildlife heritage. But perhaps we can renegotiate these terms to find a new agreement. In our backyards and courtyards, we can choose to cultivate reciprocity with nature. As we receive food, air, and shelter, we can also give them back in return. Clara’s yard is evidence that a single person can make a difference.

Lianna Gomori-Ruben is a naturalist, writer, and educator committed to a world in which all living beings may fully bloom.

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