Simple steps can make your lawn friendlier to native life

·5 min read
Simple steps have an immediate impact on turning your yard into a life-supporting oasis for our struggling ecosystem.
Simple steps have an immediate impact on turning your yard into a life-supporting oasis for our struggling ecosystem.

Last week we learned that our lawns are not good for the environment, and that is true even if you do not water or fertilize them. They just simply do not support our native ecosystems. It’s easy to understand why that is. It seems much more difficult to do something about it — but it doesn’t have to be.

Of course, replacing your entire lawn with native plants and grasses would be best, but that’s a big mental shift and a lot of work — so let’s look at some less dramatic changes that still offer support to our ecosystems.

Remember, the goal is to provide places for wildlife to find food and shelter. This starts with the beneficial insect species as, without them, there are no humans.

Plant a tree — an oak, if you can

This step is so simple, yet so many people don’t do it. Planting trees in your yard makes a huge difference in providing spaces for wildlife to habitat. In addition, trees greatly increase the resale value of your home.

Now, not just any tree will do. It needs to be a native tree that supports our local ecosystem. Even better, plant an oak tree. Researchers have found that while all native trees are beneficial, oak trees support more caterpillar species (which turn into butterflies and moths, and are food for so many other animals) than any other tree.

In addition to providing caterpillar habitats and boosting your home’s value, the trees save you electricity by keeping your yard and house cooler in the summer. The shade from the tree also slows the growth of the lawn, allowing you to mow less.

New subdivisions are the worst at this. Developers often come in and clear all trees and topsoil from the land.  What is left is a very stark-looking street with no natural life.  Planting trees will dramatically make the street look better while supporting our ecosystems.

Create shade gardens

Trees feed the caterpillars, but most caterpillars fall to the ground and burrow into the soil to pupate into a butterfly or moth. This is almost impossible in most lawns because lawns, and the soil below them, are very difficult for the caterpillars to burrow into. Lawn roots do not go deep enough to break up the compact soil.

Researchers have found that the first and easiest step to reducing your lawn is to create natural shade gardens under your trees. These circular gardens should extend at least to the tips of the branches, anywhere where the caterpillars would fall.

The native shade gardens do not need to be watered, break up the hard soil and provide more habitat for local species. You have also taken the first step to reduce the amount of lawn you mow and maintain. How easy was that!?

Take back your hellstrip

A hellstrip is a nickname for the small strip of grass between the sidewalk and street.

Somebody gave it this name because it takes so much abuse. Road salt, oil and other road contaminates regularly splash onto this strip, making the soil rather contaminated. It is also the most compacted, hot and dry section of your yard due to being surrounded by the hot concrete.

A rather simple, effective way to allow the environment to reclaim this abused area is to plant low-growing (so not to block the line of sight for drivers) native plants in= this area. You don’t have to do the entire hellstrip. Start with a section on each side of your mailbox or driveway. You just eliminated more lawn!

That’s it!  How hard would this be? To review, this article is not demanding you eliminate your entire lawn. Just follow these simple steps to make a big difference to the environment, your finances and your time.

— Plant several trees in your yard. Any native tree will work, but consider oak trees for maximum benefit.

— Replace the lawn under each new or existing tree with native shade gardens. This will further help the ecosystem, will look great and reduce your mowing.

— Start with a small part of your lawn and replace it with native plantings. See how you like it and expand from there.

These simple steps will have an immediate impact on turning your yard from a relatively hostile place to a life-supporting oasis for our struggling ecosystem. You don’t have to spend a fortune or completely change your lifestyle to help in a big way. Be a model and start the change.

Mike Szydlowski is a science teacher and zoo facilitator at Jefferson STEAM School.


1. What is a hellstrip?

2. What are the benefits to planting trees in your yard?

3. While trees feed caterpillars, what needs to be done to help them to turn into butterflies and moths?

4. Why is the soil below our lawns often difficult to dig into?

5. Why would people want to save insects? Don’t we try to get rid of them?


1. What is the difference between our lawns today and the open grassland “lawns” in Europe?

Natural glades in Europe were diverse grasses that housed a diverse ecosystem and did not need maintenance. Lawns today do not support a diverse ecosystem and require much maintenance.

2. Where were the first “lawns” intentionally created and why?

The first lawns were built around castles to help guards easily see incoming threats.

3. What caused the obsession with keeping nice-looking lawns in the United States?

A single family-owned homebuilding created the idea of pristine lawns back in the 1950s.

4. What benefits and drawbacks do lawns provide?


Lawns take in carbon dioxide and produce oxygen.

Lawns support some insect life.


Lawns are a monoculture, so insect diversity is very low.

Lawn maintenance (watering, mowing, fertilizing and weed-killing) harms all of our native ecosystems.

5. Why are insects so important to humans?

Insects support all life on Earth. If insects continue to disappear, so will humans.

This article originally appeared on Columbia Daily Tribune: Simple steps can make your lawn friendlier to native life