Playing in a backyard blanketed in soft, thick, green grass (or in some cases thirsty, prickly, brown grass) is a staple of many suburban childhoods. Many Westerners allow our eyes to pass over manicured lawns with nothing but thoughts of cleanliness and normalcy in our minds. The truth is that what we survey is a biodiversity desert with harsh implications for insects and birds.
A history of green lawns
In his book Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari gives an in-depth analysis of the origins of green lawns and their spread from a wealthy man’s luxury to a middle-class nessecity. According to Harari lawns originated as a status symbol in Western Europe during the middle ages. There was nothing more indicative of wealth at the time than to show off expanses of this crop which humans could not eat, animals could not graze, and could only be kept tidy if you had enough servants (or slaves) to put in the manhours (1).
In modern times some credit Frederick Law Olmstead (1822–1903), the architect who designed Central Park in New York City with its own extensive grassy meadows, with the popularization of grass in North America (2). Olmstead also designed several suburbs wherein each lot had its own miniature green lawn (2). Following the development of the first lawnmower by Edwin Budding and its subsequent optimization lawn maintenance became easy and obtainable without the requirement of long hours or the ability to hire staff for the task (2).
The threat to biodiversity
When we think of endangered species we may conjure up an image in our minds of polar bears struggling on melting sea ice. Or an orangutan wandering through the ruins of a rainforest culled for palm oil. I don’t blame you, these are referred to as charismatic megafauna (3). These are animals that stir up fond childhood memories of the zoo or perhaps remind you just a little bit of the kinds of animals you kept as pets or plush toys. They are often used as the poster children for environmental protection efforts because people care about them on an emotional level and these are not the animals who benefit directly from a homeowner’s decisions regarding their lawns.
The species that are harmed by suburban grass deserts are bees, butterflies, and other insects which are considered pests. These are crucial pollinators that support the base of an intricate ecosystem and they need diverse food sources to survive and thrive.
A few species of insects that are classified as endangered in Ontario:
- Gypsy Cuckoo Bumble Bee
- Monarch Butterfly
- Rusty Patch Bumble Bee
- Yellow Banded Bumble Bee
The government of Ontario acknowledges that these species are primarily threatened by habitat loss, pesticide use, herbicide use, and pathogens spread from managed bee colonies (4). For monarch butterflies, the species on this example list with the best-studied and best-understood life habits depend on the endangered four-leaved-milkweed which is specifically at risk due to habitat loss to residential and agricultural land-use (such as suburban grassy lawns)(5).
As insect and wildflower populations decline in urban environments we see a concurrent decline in suitable habitat for many migratory bird species.
What homeowners can do
The David Suzuki Foundation’s website is filled with articles on small actions homeowners can take to make heir little patch of suburban more friendly to the birds and the bees (pardon the pun!).
There are four key items to making your yard a bee-friendly paradise according to the David Suzuki Foundation (6).
- Allow native vegetation to flourish
- Provide a water source
- Collect twigs for a wood pile
- Leave a patch of bare ground
If you don’t feel quite ready to give your whole lawn over to having a bee-friendly messy yard you can plant wildflowers in your garden with such beautiful and delicious species as blueberry, goldenrod, lavender, raspberry, raspberry, chive, and squash.
Imagine looking out your windows and seeing a food forest with birds and butterflies flitting about! Many species that are considered bee and butterfly friendly are edible ones native to North America.
I live in an apartment and have planted pollinator-friendly butternut squash in a large planter on my patio which has flourished in the two months since I planted it.
The trouble with bylaws
In May 2020 a woman living in Waterloo, Ontario attempted to participate in No Mow May, a campaign aimed at protecting insect habitats and promoting the diversity of wildflowers throughout the summer by abstaining from lawn mowing in the month of May, and was given a notice from bylaw officers for having weeds taller than six inches (7).
Municipalities all across Canada are handing out bylaw infractions as concerned citizens attempt to use their personal property to help support struggling insect populations. A couple in La Peche, Quebec is facing fines for their “nuisance” wildflower garden (8). The City of Moncton in New Brunswick received complaints regarding one man’s front lawn vegetable garden (installed as a pandemic-project) which did not constitute approved ‘landscaping’ for a front yard (9).
At this time there seems to be a lack of awareness on the level of municipal politics of how individual choices regarding lawn maintenance can benefit endangered insects. The status quo which is being enforced by these bylaw officers is causing significant harm. However, conservationists in Canada seem to be on board and municipalities will soon be taking note. In Toronto, Ontario citizens are even being encouraged to come up with ways to help support bee populations with their unique PollinateTO Community Grant program for passionate individuals who do not have a lawn to take into their own hands (10).
- Harari, Yuval Noah. Homo Deus, Harper, 2017
- “Lawn History”, Planet Natural, No Date, https://www.planetnatural.com/organic-lawn-care-101/history/, Accessed 20 July 2020.
- Hoyt, Alia. “How Charismatic Megafauna Work”, How Stuff Works, No Date, https://animals.howstuffworks.com/endangered-species/charismatic-megafauna3.htm, Accessed 20 July 2020
- Ministry of the Environment Conservation and Parks (MECP), “Species At Risk in Ontario”, 9 July 2019, https://www.ontario.ca/page/species-risk-ontario#section-3, Accessed 20 July 2020.
- Ministry of the Environment Conservation and Parks (MECP), “Four-Leaved Milkweed”, 8 May 2019, https://www.ontario.ca/page/four-leaved-milkweed, Accessed 20 July 2020.
- “Messy Yards Help Bees”, The David Suzuki Foundation, No Date, https://davidsuzuki.org/queen-of-green/messy-yards-help-bees/, Accessed 20 July 2020
- Bueckert, Kate, “Waterloo woman handed bylaw infraction notice for observing No Mow May”, CBC News, 2 June 2020, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/kitchener-waterloo/waterloo-bylaw-lawn-grass-too-long-no-mow-may-1.5593682, Accessed 20 July 2020
- CBC News, “Couple battling municipality over ‘nuisance’ wildflower garden”, CBC News, 20 July 2020, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/fine-masham-wildflower-garden-bylaw-lawn-1.5653829, Accessed 20 July 2020
- Letterick, Kate, “Front-yard vegetable garden brings ‘a lot of smiles,’ but City of Moncton wants it gone”, CBC News, 2 July 2020, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/new-brunswick/moncton-front-lawn-vegetable-garden-1.5635213, Accessed 20 July 2020
- Boisvert, Nick, “Why ‘No Mow May’ could be a boon for Toronto’s bumble bee populations”, CBC News, 17 May 2020, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/no-mow-may-toronto-1.5568446, Accessed 20 July 2020