Hummingbird on purple flower

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?"



When it comes to mowing, here’s some good news: It’s better to do less. "The longer the top of the grass is, the more extensive the root system will be, which means your lawn will be more likely to withstand drought and even lawn pests," Mizejewki says. "If you let your grass grow to be a few inches long, it’ll be more resilient and healthy."

Mizejewski is also a passionate advocate of the push mower, which is quiet, nonpolluting and a provider of good exercise. But if such a mower is not practical, you can still make environmentally responsible choices. "Lawn mower technology has come a long way. Electric mowers are generally considered more energy efficient and certainly don’t have the clouds of carbon pollution coming off of them," he says. "If you’re using a gas mower, at the least, just like with a vehicle, do your research and buy the most fuel-efficient model that you can."

Less Is More

But the most important factor for wildlife is the factor that will also minimize your lawn care chores the most: Try to have as little grass in your yard as possible.

An animal’s basic needs are food, water, cover and places to raise young, so conventional lawns don’t provide any habitat for most wildlife. There’s certainly no cover in a wide-open swath of grass. "Animals need places to hide from predators and get out of bad weather," Mizejewski says. "A lawn doesn’t provide any of that compared to dense vegetation, shrubs or even a wildflower garden." Lawns are also very resource intensive, requiring a lot of water, as well as tempting you to use all those chemicals and that polluting gas mower.

So think about how you actually use your lawn. Save a space for the kids to play and to set out chairs, but then consider what you’re looking at when you’re sitting in those chairs. "An acre of nothing but lawn is boring, is a lot of maintenance and doesn’t support any wildlife," Mizejewski says. 

If, instead, you replace your lawn (or some portion of it) with beds of native plants, you can look at flowers and the birds and butterflies they’ll attract. "There’s a myth that native plants mean weeds, that if you use natives, your yard will be scraggly and ugly, and that’s just not true," Mizejewski says. "A lot of the most popular ornamental plants happen to be native species — purple coneflower, black-eyed Susan, flowering dogwoods are just a few."

And, best of all, those native plants will entail less work than either a conventional lawn or most introduced garden varieties. "Native plants tend to be lower maintenance once they’re established because they’re adapted to the local conditions — climate, soil, so on," he says. "From a practical point of view, native plants are great workhorses in the garden."

Working Together

Native plants not only flourish with less coddling, they are also the most help to local wildlife, since they’ve evolved to work together. "Native plants are in sync with the cycles of wildlife," Mizejewski says. "For the fall migration, native plants are putting out seeds and berries at the exact time native birds are migrating. Same with pollinators — native plants put out their blooms at the same time that their native pollinators are active."

In the short run, replacing your lawn may involve some serious work, but it’s worth it. "Commit each season to creating one new garden bed," Mizejewski says. And remember that the impact will be felt far beyond your property line. "What you do in your yard can help animals locally, but it also can have an impact downstream and beyond your backyard as well. And even if you don’t care about the environmental point of view, if you’re just thinking, ‘I want to see more birds and butterflies,’ you’re going to get that result, too."

For more information on finding ornamental native plants for your yard, visit the National Wildlife Federation’s American Beauties Native Plants.

More on