In this inaugural post, I want to share why I started my business--Growing Garden Habitats. We live on a modest Boston neighborhood property that is maintained as a habitat for insects and birds. This fall, we received a $15 ticket from the Boston Public Works Department for “overgrown weeds on property.” This ticket literally brought home the ignorance that exists in the public about basic ecology and our need for a new aesthetic for yard care—one that invites in and supports insects and native plants, rather that maintaining sterile lawns of non-native species.
The so-called weeds are in fact, stalks and seed heads of small white asters (Symphyotrichum vimineus), Eastern purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium), and other native plants (though purple coneflower is native to southeastern and midwestern US, not New England). We maintain our property to the benefit of wildlife, not with a mowed lawn. We have over 200 native plants on our property and the "weeds" that we purchased, planted, and maintain support over 250 different kinds of insects and 85 bird species. The native asters and goldenrods provide seeds for birds, nesting and overwintering habitat (in the hollow stems) for native bees, and cover for numerous native butterfly and moth larvae and eggs.
The front yard has signs stating; "this is a wildlife certified habitat" (from the National Wildlife Federation) "A Monarch Way Station” (from Monarch Watch) and "Pollinator Garden.” Every year over the last 14 years since we began the garden, abutters and passersby alike have expressed how much they like our flower garden and support for our efforts to provide habitat in our neighborhood. However, those in the Public Works Department only saw weeds.
The idea that a regularly mowed lawn with nary a fallen leaf in sight is a "well-maintained property," is deeply rooted in the American psyche. Stemming from the late 1800’s aesthetic of Fredrick Law Olmsted and Frank J. Scott, lawns were viewed as contributing to the public good. As Michael Pollan eloquently detailed in his 1989 New York Times Magazine article “Why Mow? The Case Against Lawns,” “Mowing the lawn, I realized the first time I gazed into my neighbor’s yard and imagined him gazing back into mine, is a civic responsibility.” Pollan mowed and mowed attempting to keep up his end of the civic bargain, but began to realize that something was wrong with this artificial relationship to the land (turf grass is not native to the U.S.).
Now, thirty-three years hence, not a lot has changed in how homeowners maintain or steward their little piece of the collective ecosystem we call yards. Yet, as the climate continues to become less stable with more extreme temperatures and precipitation fluctuations, we need to rethink what it means to be a civically responsible homeowner.
In this blog, I will share an alternative approach to yard care and gardening that broadens the use of our domestic landscapes to bolster stressed plant and animal communities—if you will... to construct functional garden habitats.
(Also some cool stories about plants!)