Imagine waking up one morning and declaring that orange is now the only color you want inside your home. Only pumpkin colored walls, an apricot bedspread, carrot-colored floors, and cantaloupe-tinted furniture will be accepted. One may find this drab mono-culture of color tedious and dis-interesting when gazing upon it day after day. Yet this is the very thing that we have done to the world outside our homes. We place a precise breed of grass (often a nonnative species) that we deem acceptable and declare any other competing (often native) species an outcast- a weed. If we look at how yard mono-cultures originated and how the chemicals we use to maintain them effect the ecosystem at large, it becomes clear that an array of species in the great outdoors may be the challenge to undertake today.
Humans have had a fascination with lawns that dates back to the middle ages and continues today. Lawns were historically used to keep the area clear so that enemy soldiers could be easily spotted. Wealthy land owners used sheep, cattle, and hired help to keep their yards of chamomile or thyme sheered short. Fast forward to the invention of the lawn mower by one Edwin Budding in 1830, England. Lawns were a phenomenon for sporting events, and grass seed had made its way across the Atlantic to the yards of North Americans.
Herein lies the problem. Today, a "well-manicured" lawn is a show of status, effort, and general put-togetherness. The cost for this man-made show of social standing, however, is high. Mono-cultures in and of themselves create problems. Disease that happens to effect one species can wipe out entire areas very quickly. In edition, the elimination of native grasses and flowers hurts the ever-struggling pollinators and garden critters that are displayed proudly in any third-grader's picture of a happy yard.
The largest issue comes not from the mono-culture alone but from the lengths we go to maintain them. Pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers tremendously damage our health and the health of our environment. It has been well documented that people and pets can be poisoned by the chemicals we spray on our lawns. They also do not stay on our lawns. These harmful chemicals (sold as such, just read the warning labels) are then washed into the environment, into nearby bodies of water, and eventually into the ocean. They contribute to and feed naturally occurring harmful algal blooms (eg. red tide and ocean dead zones). Spraying chemicals and poisons in your yard is equivalent to spraying them into the ecosystem at large. While large farm-land areas do contribute to this problem on a huge scale, all of our small lawns make a difference.
A yard devised of many native species, rich in diversity, and a safe-haven for small yet essential organisms is nothing to be ashamed of. This month I am going to end my cautious silence about how we treat our yards. It is an important topic and one that needs to be discussed.