Trade the Lawn for a Homegrown National Park
Fed up with invasive species and sterile landscapes, Douglas Tallamy urges Americans to go native and go natural. He wants his own ten acres in rural southeastern Pennsylvania to be a model for the rest of the country. A model for suburbs, exurbs, uninhabited woods, highway margins, city parks, streets and backyards, even rooftops and window boxes, basically every square foot of land not paved or farmed. He wants to see it replanted with native North American flora, supporting a healthy array of native North American butterflies, moths and other arthropods – which provide food for a robust population of songbirds, small mammals and reptiles. He even has a name for it: Homegrown National Park.
Plants can tolerate a wide range of environmental conditions, but insects tend to be specialists. Insects feed on and pollinate a narrow spectrum of plant life, sometimes just a single species. “Ninety percent of the insects that eat plants can develop and reproduce only on the plants with which they share an evolutionary history,”
Tallamy has found that within the same genus, introduced plant species provide on average 68 percent less food for insects than natives. A plant that in its native habitat might support dozens or hundreds of species of insects, birds and mammals may go virtually uneaten in a new ecosystem.
An estimated 40 million acres of the surface of the lower 48 states is lawn. Homes, golf courses and parks grow more acres of turf grass than U.S. farmers devote to corn, wheat and fruit trees — combined.Homegrown National Park is an aspirational project to repurpose half of America’s lawns (20 million acres) for ecologically productive use. The intention is to unite fragments of land scattered across the country into a network of habitat, which could be achieved, he wrote in Bringing Nature Home, “by untrained citizens with minimal expense and without any costly changes to infrastructure.” The plots wouldn’t have to be contiguous, although that would be preferable. Moths and birds can fly, and you’re helping them just by reducing the distance they have to travel for food.
In the state of Michigan, between 3 to 5 percent of the total land area is covered by turf grass (lawns, golf courses, etc.). The Michigan Garden Clubs has adopted Homegrown National Park as one of its major initiatives – encouraging homeowners, farmers, land managers, and anyone with soil to plant native and eliminate invasives. Lawns not only eliminate habitat for North American insects and birds, but they generally account for 50 – 75 percent of a home’s water use during the summer. Homeowners spill nearly 17 million gallons of gas while filling mowers, and tens of millions of pounds of chemical fertilizer and pesticides are used on our lawns – much of it running off into our waterways.
Doug Tallamy has some suggestions to help rejuvenate the nation’s yards:
1. Shrink your lawn. Tallamy recommends halving the area devoted to lawns in the continental United States—reducing water, pesticide and fertilizer use. Replace grass with plants that sustain more animal life, he says: “Every little bit of habitat helps.”
2. Remove invasive plants. Introduced plants sustain less animal diversity than natives do. Worse, some exotics crowd out indigenous flora. Notable offenders: Japanese honeysuckle, Oriental bittersweet, multiflora rose and kudzu.
3. Create no-mow zones. Native caterpillars drop from a tree’s canopy to the ground to complete their life cycle. Put mulch or a native ground cover such as Virginia creeper (not English ivy) around the base of a tree to accommodate the insects. Birds will benefit, as well as moths and butterflies.
4. Equip outdoor lights with motion sensors. White lights blazing all night can disturb animal behavior. LED devices use less energy, and yellow light attracts fewer flying insects.
5. Plant keystone species. Among native plants, some contribute more to the food web than others. Native oak, cherry, cottonwood, willow and birch are several of the best tree choices.
6. Welcome pollinators. Goldenrod, native willows, asters, sunflowers, evening primrose and violets are among the plants that support beleaguered native bees.
7. Fight mosquitoes with bacteria. Inexpensive packets containing Bacillus thuringiensis can be placed in drains and other wet sites where mosquitoes hatch. Unlike pesticide sprays, the bacteria inhibit mosquitoes but not other insects.
8. Avoid harsh chemicals. Dig up or torch weeds on hardscaping, or douse with vinegar. Discourage crabgrass by mowing lawn 3 inches high.
If you want to maintain an area of turf grass, take a look at this article from Plant it Wild about the best way to care for it: https://plantitwild.net/lawn-care/
Homegrown National Park Website:
Michigan State University Native Plant Finder for Northern Lower Peninsula:
Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council Native Plant List:
Plant it Wild
Northwest Michigan Invasive Species Network:
State of Michigan Invasive Plants:
Michigan Native Plants for Bird Friendly Landscapes: