Any way you cut it, the non-native turf lawn is an environmental disaster. So get over any lingering love you have for the crisply maintained suburban lawn. That’s so 1950s!
Lawns take up lots of space. There are 40 million acres of turf grass: an area the size of New York State and 3 times larger than any other irrigated crop.
We use up lots of water, fertilizer and pesticides by:
Lawns provide scant help to birds, butterflies, bees or beneficial insects, all of which are in steep and fast population decline. Lawns do not typically produce seeds, nectar, pollen or cover to feed or shelter birds or insects. Since nestlings rely primarily on insects for food, no bugs means no baby birds. Shallow turf roots don’t much build topsoil, sequester carbon, mitigate erosion, or hold on to much of the hose or rainwater they receive. Perceptions are changing about what gardens should deliver. Homeowners increasingly shop for gardens that fight climate change and support wildlife. Their children even more so.
Our community health, wildlife and the health of our planet demand it To maintain green lawns, we threaten our health by adding pesticides, broadleaf herbicides, carbon and pollutants to our yards. Children and pets that play on lawns are particularly impacted. Evanston’s elevated levels of asthma (19% compared to 12% across Illinois) can result from a variety of factors, but as lawns are our largest ‘crop’ in Evanston, less toxic grounds management could help. Lawn equipment kicks up toxins we have applied, particulates, and fuel that breathe in, and damages our hearing.
Moreover, an ‘insect apocalypse’ has been documented globally, with German studies reporting a 75-82% drop in insect populations in 27 years, and Puerto Rico reporting a 98% drop compared to the 1970s. We each have experienced the decline in insects: think back to car windshields covered in bugs after a long drive, compared to now when we drive for hours with few to no bug spatter. The absence of insects is dramatic. Insects overwinter in the soil or leaf litter. Lawn maintenance destroys their habitat by adding toxins, and using leaf blowers to sandblast and remove any insect eggs, larvae, cocoons or leaf cover that remains.
Replace lawn grass with native groundcovers that will thrive in the sun, soil and drainage characteristics of their specific locations. In shady areas, grow native grasses or sedges, or groundcovers that love shade.
Landscape for kid adventure play. A lawn isn't the only surface suitable for play. An arbor or treehouse can be a “secret” clubhouse. One Evanston gardener says her National Wildlife Federation certified habitat offers “play spaces for neighbor kids with a climbing tree, mud kitchen, picnic table, and lots of kid-made forts and teepees.” Butterfly habitat, rain gardens, and backyard ponds, call out for science exploration and watching the small critters that surround us.
Need knowhow? Ask other gardeners, plant societies, environmental groups and arboretums how to start a natural garden. Other gardeners often offer free plants. Establish groundcovers and shallow barriers to contain native plants that spread. After that, the main effort is weeding, and pruning.
If you can’t ditch the lawn:
Plant from seed, not sod, to save carbon and energy, and reduce reliance on sod farms.
If you plan to transition to a natural garden gradually, prioritize removing lawn areas:
Take it on a bit at a time or all at once. Watch for pollinators, like the preposterous little sphinx moth, or the fairy-like firefly and other magical creatures. Enjoy.
Why not tidy up a garden in the fall? Doesn’t it look better that way?
More and more people say “Leave the Leaves”. To the growing numbers of gardeners aware of the winter needs of birds, bees, butterflies and beneficial insects, tidying leaves is a waste of time and money, and a wasted opportunity to help declining species.
Leaves are nutrients
Leaves are how trees, shrubs and wildflowers retain summer nutrients. Leaves decay and add the plant’s accumulated nutrients in the soil, making trees and other plants better able to withstand drought, flood and other climate impacts. Lose the leaves and we toss away the nutrients that our plants have tailored for our gardens.
Leaves are habitat
North America has over 3,500 native bee species, many of which need winter protection from cold and predators. They find it in hollow plant stems, fallen tree bark and underground. Most butterflies, bees, beetles, fireflies, ants and moths stay north, overwintering as adults or eggs in leaf litter or in underground burrows. Others overwinter as pupae in chrysalises attached to dead plant stems or tucked into soil or leaf litter.
Native ladybugs — not the Asian ones that invade homes — winter in leaves and at the base of plants. They are voracious pest eaters that will give you a head start against pests in the spring. This goes for many other predatory insect species as well.
Many bird species eat insects and/or feed them to their nestlings. The more nutritious caterpillars and other protein rich insects your garden contains in early spring, the more birds you will attract.
It saves cost and labor
Leaving the leaves saves labor, whether yours or your lawn service’s. It can cut lawn care costs, and also air and noise pollution from leaf blowers, and the gas or electricity used to power them. Leaves are free natural mulch and fertilizer.
Less yard waste going into a landfill is less cost to the city. Fewer leaves decomposing in landfills means less methane released, a powerful greenhouse gas.
There even is beauty in undisturbed winter gardens for those who look for it.
In the spring
In the fall
Perhaps you have heard that honeybees are in trouble. That is true, and is a big concern for beekeeping, agriculture and our food supply. But we aren’t just losing the non-native honeybee. Native bees, moths, butterflies, ants, beetles and many other insects that pollinate our crops and gardens are declining. Birds too. It isn’t only that certain species are at risk. Even common birds are becoming less abundant.
What to do? Fortunately, we can make a big difference. Suburbs are key habitat, if we can move away from traditional lawncare and reliance on chemicals.
One of every three bites of our food requires pollination. ~ 80% of Earth’s flowering plants depend upon pollinators. We need birds, bees, flies, moths, butterflies, even ants and beetles to pollinate our plants. We need to remember, before we spray trees and plants, that many caterpillars become pollinators.
Even apart from pollination, we need bugs. We need earthworms, roly poly bugs, crickets, millipedes and diverse others to break down nutrients, consume waste, and enhance soil. We need dragonflies and wasps to keep nuisance bugs in check. We need fireflies for summer magic. Insects are essential to wildlife as well as to us. Grasshoppers, caterpillars, mosquitos and other bugs feed mammals, fish, reptiles, amphibians, birds and even other insects. They underpin our ecosystem.
Eliminate chemical pesticides They don’t only kill targeted bugs, but also poison nestlings in their nests, and the birds that eat poisoned bugs. They poison beneficial insects and the predator bugs that keep nuisance bugs at bay. They poison cocoons hanging on milkweed. Save the cost of pesticides, and let the bugs munch in your garden. Caterpillars may take leaves, but the leaves usually bud anew and rarely is the plant or tree killed by the pests. Aphids suck on plants, but usually predator bugs arrive to help return balance to the garden. Birds also may move in if your garden offers bugs.
Skip chemical fertilizers They kill or disrupt underground critters, like fireflies, earthworms and the native bees that burrow underground. Instead use compost, compost tea or mulch to enhance your soil.
Rather than using herbicide, pull the weeds If you must keep a lawn, let the broadleaf plants grow. Violets are a host plant for the violet fritillary butterfly; its caterpillars need violets, just as the monarch caterpillar needs milkweed. A lawn with violets, dandilions and clover means it safe for kids and pets.
Watch out for Neonicotinoids! Sometimes called a ‘bee-killing pesticide’, neonicotinoids are neurotoxins banned by many countries. Illinois state legislators are also considering restricting it. But in the meantime, nurseries treat seeds and plants with it to avoid bug-damage to plants they sell. The effect? The pesticide is very toxic not only to insects. Birds that ate 1-2 seeds suffered immediate weight loss and were forced to delay migration, which can impact their survival and reproductive success. Fish are affected and mammals too; a study of white tailed deer indicated the pesticide contributed to hypothyroidism and lethargy.
Watch for brands that include imidacloprid, clothianidin, thiamethoxam and acetamiprid, which are neonicotinoids. Common brands containing these chemicals include Bayer, Ortho, Amdro, DIY Tree Care Products, Ferti-lome, Green Light, Hi-Yield Systemic Insect Spray, Knockout Ready-To-Use Grub Killer, Monterey Once a Year Insect Control, Bug B Gon, Surrender and Maxide.
Plant native plants Native plants, evolved over thousands of years, have adapted to our local geography, hydrology, and climate. They have evolved together with other local plants and native wildlife that depend on them.
Seek out host plants Some caterpillars eat only limited plants, called host plants. Similarly some bee species will only seek out certain plants. Many people know that the monarch butterfly needs milkweed. Well, there are many other examples, such as that the spicebush swallowtail needs spicebush, the violet fritillary needs violets and the pearl crescent needs asters. Oak trees feed an amazing 518 native species of caterpillar.
Plant for all seasons To help pollinators and birds throughout the year, select plants that blooms, fruit and generate nectar spring through autumn, and produce berries and seeds that last through winter.
Birds need layered landscapes. Some nest near the ground and others in high tree limbs. For them, plant groundcover, wildflowers, shrubs, understory trees and shade trees to attract diverse songbird species to your yard.
Thanks for caring for the little creatures.
Every year in the United States up to one billion birds die from collisions with glass and approximately 2.4 billion die from outdoor cats, according to the American Bird Conservancy.
You can reduce bird window strikes at your home with simple, inexpensive steps.
Regarding keeping cats indoors, what’s good for birds is also good for cats: People for Ethical Treatment of Animals urges keeping pet cats indoors for their health.
Birds help us
Birds help plants
American Bird Conservancy has tested the many easy ways to reduce bird strikes against windows. Here are some examples:
What doesn’t work? Window decals. They only work if they are placed close enough to avoid 4” x 2” gaps, much closer than manufacturers usually recommend.
What about cats?
Cats are non-native and abundant. There are more than 100 million pet cats in the United States, and they are effective at killing birds. We love, feed and care for cats. So they become strong, and strong predators are effective at snagging birds. Cats kill birds even if they are well fed, driven by pure instinct to hunt. Often times a snagged bird doesn’t die immediately; it may fly away. But a claw or tooth puncture may be a mortal injury or become a lethal infection. The bird may not give up and may use its last strength to escape, leading people to think it survived when it didn’t.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) recommends transitioning outdoor cats to the indoors for their own health as well. Transitioning an outdoor cat to indoor life may seem a daunting task, but it protects cats from untreatable disease, parasites, vehicle injury and other dangers.
Some advocate for “trap, neuter and release” (TNR) programs for cats. Usually well meaning folks catch feral cats, vaccinate, neuter and release them. These feral cat colonies exist even in Evanston, with folks feeding the cats as well. But the reality is that TNR programs have been studied and don’t reduce cat populations fast enough. Birds, especially nesting birds, can be wiped out while a TNR cat colony persists or feral cats continue to hunt. Studies have also shown that new cats are abandoned at TNR sites, increasing the colony, rather than turning in added cats to shelters. In the meantime, these feral cats run the same risks that PETA cites: untreatable diseases, like highly contagious feline leukemia, parasites and injury.
Reduce it if you can. Bright lights at night attract birds in the same way that bright porch lights attract moths, which can result in fatal collisions. Birds see lights on the horizon and orient toward the city. As mentioned in Science Daily, “there is no place in the northeastern United States where they can’t see the sky glow of a city.”
Audubon has determined that “While lights can throw birds off their migration paths, bird fatalities are more directly caused by the amount of energy the birds waste flying around and calling out in confusion. The exhaustion can then leave them vulnerable to other urban threats” (like collision with building windows).
Thanks for considering how you can help birds.
Because trees reduce carbon pollution and help us adapt to climate change, and because tree mass can be measured, Evanston’s Climate Action and Resilience Plan makes maintaining and expanding the tree canopy on city land a priority, as well as encourages you to do the same on land you own.
Trees and greenery clean our air and water
Trees and greenery make dollar sense
Trees and greenery calm and lower tensions
We are losing so many big trees around Evanston, and they are irreplaceable. A white oak that is 35” across its diameter (at around breast height (4.5’ high)) is estimated to be about 270 years old. An acorn in 1749, it long predates the city of Evanston (1863), the American Revolution (1776) and George Washington’s presidency (1790).
What can you do for Trees? Preserve and help them.
Whether you have a big old tree or a young-un on your property, protect it from work at the house, construction, mowing, and toxins.
Protect the base and roots of your trees
Water young trees in dry weather
Ensure your garden provides for wildlife: food, water, cover, a place to raise young and sustainable steps for birds, bees, butterflies and other pollinators. Learn more at NWF's website (link below).
In June of 2019 we at Natural Habitat Evanston reached our goal! Evanston became the first city in Illinois to become a National Wildlife Federation Community Wildlife Habitat. Each additional garden certified with NWF helps to maintain our status.
Take more steps for sustainability and insects. For human health and to combat the devastating declines in insects and songbirds, pledge to take the six steps listed on our yard sign below:
To help educate your neighbors on the Pollinator Pledge, you can get a yard sign from Natural Habitat Evanston (NHE) by emailing us. The sign explains the steps you are taking and how to get more information online. NHE is offering the signs for a minimum $10 contribution to cover its costs. (No sign is required though to take the pledge.)