Celebrate Garden for Wildlife Month by Creating an Ecofriendly Yard

Hummingbird on purple flower
Photo by Pam Koch for the National Wildlife Federation
Here, a rufous hummingbird flits through a garden.

It's finally spring, so it's time to get out and work on your lawn and garden! There are lots of easy choices you can make that will help wildlife and the environment — and some of them can save you time, effort and expense as well. May is Garden for Wildlife Month, and we're celebrating by exploring environmentally friendly ways to spruce up your landscaping.

The Far-reaching Lawn

For most of us, the lawn is probably the biggest chore — and how you care for it also potentially has the biggest effect on nature. It may sound obvious to say that minimizing chemicals is good for the environment, but the benefits of limiting chemicals stretch far beyond your own backyard.

"Everyone lives in a watershed," says David Mizejewski, a naturalist with the National Wildlife Federation, the creator of Garden for Wildlife Month. That fact means that what you put on your grass ultimately ends up in wilder places. "It rains, water runs through your lawn and ends up going into the storm drain, and people think it goes into the wastewater treatment facility — but it doesn't," he says. "The storm drains dump out right into your local stream. Your local stream connects to the bigger stream that connects to the local river that ultimately ends up in the ocean or bay."

So if you do use fertilizer, you need to read the label carefully and use no more than recommended. You probably think of fertilizer as a good thing, but in the wrong amounts and the wrong place, it can cause a serious problem. "The Chesapeake Bay, for one example, has a huge dead zone from fertilizer runoff," Mizejewski says. "People put on way too much fertilizer, and the excess all runs off and ends up in the bay, where it causes big algae blooms and creates these big dead zones."

Diversify Your Lawn

So is there an alternative to fertilizer? Mizejewski says yes. There are a variety of ways to minimize chemical use and actually have a healthier lawn — and many of them involve buying fewer products and doing less work. One simple option is to let other plants grow freely in your yard.

"Don't be so obsessive about 'weeds,' " Mizejewski says. "The American lawn as a pristine monoculture of just Kentucky bluegrass is an aesthetic ideal created by the lawn care and lawn industry. Before that, clover was considered an absolutely necessary plant in a lawn."

Why clover? It's a legume, which is a plant that takes nitrogen out of the atmosphere and puts it back in the soil. And if you read your fertilizer label, you'll see that nitrogen is the No. 1 ingredient — so clover basically makes free fertilizer. Mizejewski says the lawn care industry "created a campaign against clover, and now we treat it as a weed and put chemicals down to kill it. And then the soil doesn't have natural nitrogen, so you have to buy the nitrogen and put it back in."

Letting volunteer plants grow naturally in your lawn is good for wild creatures as well. "Clover is also a great nectar source for all sorts of pollinators, and all our pollinators are declining," Mizejewski says. "Violets are a great nectar source in the early spring before a lot of other things bloom, and violets also are the host plant for lots of butterflies — the plant they need to lay their eggs on so their caterpillars will have something to eat. So having violets in your lawn means you might have more butterflies."

Love Your Bugs

In addition to curbing fertilizer use, minimizing pesticides is good both for your lawn and for any local wildlife. Pesticides typically kill good bugs as well as bad bugs, and the good bugs are important. "Soil should be alive. It should be full of earthworms and other invertebrates that keep the soil healthy," Mizejewski says. But you won't find those creatures in soils where a lot of chemical fertilizers and pesticides are used. "The more reliant you are on chemicals, the less likely your soil is going to be healthy and alive, so the less healthy your lawn is going to be."

And bugs also play a very important role in the food chain. "Ninety-six percent of terrestrial birds rely on insects as the primary food source for themselves and their young," he says. "So if you want to attract birds to your yard, the worst thing you can do is try to get rid of all the bugs."

If you must get rid of certain pests, Mizejewski suggests that you look for products that  target specific species — but keep in mind that you might not need them if you let nature take its course. Instead, he recommends creating "a balanced garden that attracts predators like songbirds and predatory insects to keep the pests under control."

And if you've got pets, that's one more reason not to rely on chemicals. "Your pets are much closer to the ground, and they're much more likely to ingest and inhale these things," Mizejewski says. "That's kind of scary. Do we really want our pets rolling around in these chemicals?"

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