Born to rewild: why now is the perfect time to make your lawn an eco-paradise

Megan Mayhew Bergman
Photograph: iStockphoto/Getty Images

Chances are, your lawn isn’t natural, environmentally healthy, or necessary – but it is part of a prevalent national standard. Americans spend an estimated $36bn on lawn care annually, and the amount of lawns we maintain could roughly cover the state of Florida. Lawns, not edible agriculture, are the biggest irrigated crop in America – and they are partly to blame for the decline in bees, insects and songbirds.

Why should you care? Recent studies reveal that insect numbers are remarkably low – monarch and rusty-patched bumblebee populations are both down nearly 90% in the last 20 years. Scientists estimate the arthropod population on Earth is down 45% from pre-industrial numbers. Plummeting insect populations affect everything: birds and fish can’t eat; portions of our food supply go unpollinated; entire ecosystems are at risk.

Related: A growing concern: is it ever OK to steal plant cuttings?

“All of our good fortune – and our ecological future – depends on diversity,” Benjamin Vogt, an urban prairie designer and author of A New Garden Ethic, tells me. With a shift in habits, your yard can change from a chemically drenched monoculture of little ecological value to a patch of land that supports critical biodiversity.

Why are we so fond of lawns? Social scientists have traced our affection for lawns to “savanna syndrome”: an affinity for the short-grasses of east Africa where humans evolved. Though short grasses may please us and register visually as “safe”, ornamental lawns became a phenomenon in the late 1800s after authors Andrew Jackson Downing and Frank J Scott prescribed them as standards of beauty.

An illustration of the front of what was seen as an ideal American home in 1936. Photograph: GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

Americans were lured by an age-old marketing approach, one utilized by razor and makeup entrepreneurs: convince consumers your products will transform their lives, and elevate an unkempt and slovenly appearance to a prosperous one. Lawn maintenance – once accomplished by slave labor for elites attempting to mimic the landscapes of European estates – is a hallmark of wealth, the opposite of swept-dirt lawns dotted with grazing livestock.

A manicured lawn hints at patriotism, too. In 1914, the New York Times showed a photograph of Roosevelt mowing his lawn. After the second world war and white flight from city to suburb, the lawn became an aspirational symbol of white middle-class homeownership. In a 1989 opinion piece, Michael Pollan questioned the “unmistakable odor of virtue that hovers in this country over a scrupulously maintained lawn”.

But what is virtuous about a habit that uses 7bn gallons of water a day, dumps an estimated 59m pounds of pesticides in residential areas each year, and bears responsibility for the deaths of millions of songbirds and bees?

A better alternative exists, and not just for elites. The novelist and gardener Jeff VanderMeer feels that “benign neglect” is superior to traditional lawn care. “Not spending any money at all on fertilizers, or raking leaves,” he says, “is preferable, and doable on any budget.”

‘Lawn monocultures don’t support life’

When it comes to lawns and pesticide use, there’s a gulf between what we know, and the decisions we make. I ask the author Benjamin Vogt about the moment he changed his own approach to gardening.

“I was working in my yard and saw a bug eating my milkweed,” he says. “I thought: ‘I need to save my plant!’ I ran inside to get poison, but on my way back, I became curious, and after some research realized that it was a monarch caterpillar eating the milkweed.”

Vogt now runs a business installing prairie ecosystems in place of lawns. “It’s not just about individual plants,” he explains, “but the life they support. Lawn monocultures don’t support life.”

VanderMeer’s conversion moment happened after returning to his home state of Florida after a stint in New York, and feeling as though he had taken wilderness for granted. “When we moved to the new house on the edge of a wooded ravine,” he tells me, “I didn’t expect to become obsessed with rewilding, but I soon had to because the lovely jungle behind the house turned out to be invasive [non-native] air potato vine, invasive ferns, invasive spiderwort and invasive nandina bushes as well as invasive coral ardisia. Once I learned this, I was horrified, because there were 30-year-old box turtles down there and other wildlife that was severely compromised.”

Even if you don’t rewild entirely, consider aiming for a restorative practice; the goal is to support more life

The invasive species on VanderMeer’s property were reducing the native species that insects, birds and herbivores relied on for food and habitat. Without intervention, the life that had previously called his part of Florida home would eventually die or move in search of food.

Rewilding lawn space doesn’t have to be all or nothing. For some, simply giving up heavy pesticide treatments is a beginning. VanderMeer focuses on his backyard and the ravine, while Vogt suggests people begin with one square foot.

“Imagine if everyone started creating even a little rewilded space,” he says. “Eventually, those square feet become acres of important habitat, maybe even a few corridors for wildlife.”

VanderMeer, who has spent several years undertaking a significant rewilding project, shared the following steps for replicating his efforts:

  1. Evaluate what you have that’s beneficial and already readily growing, and encourage those plants. In his case, those included elderberry bushes, beautyberry bushes, pokeweed, native oak, pine and sweet gum.

  2. Evaluate what invasive species you have (as opposed to native) and prioritize – relative to your ability to remove it – which species need to be eradicated first. (You can research the best native plants for your garden zone here and find out what species of bug and butterfly they host.)

  3. Evaluate prior land use and institute immediate benign neglect. Discontinue pesticide and herbicide use; stop raking leaves, stop mowing wherever possible; mitigate prior damage if simple neglect is insufficient.

  4. Observe and evaluate practices by neighbors. If neighbors have outdoor cats or use lawn poisons, this might change your desire to attract birds.

  5. Make immediate improvements in some small area to attract pollinators and birds. (In VanderMeer’s case, they planted wildflowers in two locations and put up bird feeders, with the understanding they would decommission some bird feeders once more native plants that could feed them were in the yard)

  6. Direct most efforts to eradication (through natural means) of the foremost invasives to allow the native seedbank to recover.

  7. Continue to plant native plants while removing invasives and studying “volunteers” – new plants that sprout because the invasives have been removed.

  8. Evaluate results at the end of every season and recalibrate efforts accordingly.

Not all non-native species are equally problematic. When prioritizing which non-native plants to remove from your property, think about the food value they provide to wildlife, and what native plants they are crowding out.

Even if you don’t rewild entirely, consider aiming for a restorative practice; the goal is to support more life.

You can expect some challenges (including from neighbors)

An aerial view of Menifee neighborhood, a residential subdivision vila in Riverside county, California. Photograph: Bonandbon/Alamy Stock Photo

Rewilding a lawn will probably invite curiosity, admiration, confusion and disapproval. Vogt recalls a client who said: “Look, I know we’re going to have issues with neighbors. But I’m OK with that. We’ll talk it out. I know we need more examples of healthy lawns.”

Homeowner associations (HOAs) and neighbors are notorious for policing each other’s attention – or inattention – to lawn care. Some HOAs fine homeowners daily for unmowed grass over 6in high. If you live in such a neighborhood, it’s important to find out what rules are in place, and the process for challenging them.

Vogt is less concerned about what the neighbors might say. “We need to be less afraid of outdated standards,” he says, “and more afraid of not implementing these changes.”

VanderMeer has generated what he considers a much healthier life in his backyard for possums, box turtles and migratory birds. His native plants provide more food sources and sanctuary for exhausted flocks en route to Latin America.

The VanderMeer lawn now hosts endangered plant species including Chapman’s azalea, of which there are only 4,000 in the world; a torreya tree; and royal flycatcher. Vandermeer notes that these plants are endangered because of contemporary development and landscape practices that clearcut native species for new housing, and then landscape using exotic species.

Vogt talks about how beneficial the change can be on spirit and wallet. “You’ll see fertilizer ads that suggest fertilizing your lawn four times a year. That’s unnecessary, because most of it ends up as runoff in a storm drain. Plus,” he adds, “a 3in blade of grass can’t clean our air the way a tree or meadow garden can.”

Be part of changing collective taste for the better

What would it take for a nation to admit that its devotion to growing monocultures doused in non-organic chemical compounds is a harmful and outdated practice? Changing taste is difficult, especially where perceived beauty and prosperity are concerned. I turn to the renowned landscape architect and Harvard professor Gary Hilderbrand for his thoughts.

Contrary to belief, one doesn’t have to sacrifice visual narrative entirely to improve environmental outcomes. “Meadows are a culturally important form, but people worry they look unkempt,” Hilderbrand tells me. “But if you mow a narrow strip along the edge, suddenly it all begins to look cared for – like you’ve intentionally let it grow long.”

Hilderbrand believes that cultural values are expressed through landscape, even at an institutional level. He points out that many lawns have cultural importance and intention, but can still incorporate sustainable methods like stormwater storage, improved soil ecology, drought-tolerant landscaping and native meadows.

He asks me to consider the public realm: downtown blocks, city tree plans, communal greens. As citizens, we don’t just notice what we see in these spaces, but how they make us feel. If we’re able to create attractive and sustainable landscapes in public spaces, the aesthetic may inform personal taste. This is how lawn culture arose, and how it can shift again, ideally to a more sustainable practice.

Hilderbrand believes in sharing images of like situations elsewhere in order to raise someone’s appreciation for what a landscape can become. It is, he says, like giving people a new set of eyes.

And in this moment, where we’ve been forced by a pandemic to retreat to our private homes and gardens, perhaps we can challenge ourselves to reimagine them not as icons of individual prosperity, but as spaces that host and encourage living.