It bears stating: I’m not into gardening in general. To me, walking through a row of neatly trimmed roses over perfectly manicured grass is about as exciting as a walking past the paper towel section at Costco. But when my wife and I moved into our house in Northeast Los Angeles, we had a kid on the way, a blank slate of a yard, and the daunting realities of the 21st Century to ponder. Once we got the house livable, I turned my attention to the yard, and quickly realized two things: 1) Kids or no kids, this tiny outdoor space beside a bank in a busy area was about to be our main connection to the natural world, and 2) I didn’t want something more stressful than life already was. So, rather than thinking about a “lawn”, I began to read about creating habitat where you live.

Here’s what I found out (spoiler alert- it gets better as you go):

Our Yards Have Issues

The American lawn covers roughly 40 million acres of this country, making it our largest crop and growing. It consumes up to 9 billion gallons of water a day, 9 million pounds of pesticides annually and accounts for about 5% of our emissions, courtesy of leaf blowers and lawn mowers. In short, lawns are a staggering, toxic waste. As if this wasn’t enough, the combination of that 40 million toxic acres with the amount of land taken up by agriculture and grazing leaves us about 4% pristine wild space left in the US, according to renowned entomologist Doug Tallamy.

4% pristine wild space left in the U.S. That number brought me to my knees.

At the same time, The World Wildlife Fund estimates that up to 10,000 species a year are becoming extinct, in large part due to habitat loss.

“But wait”, you might be saying, “My grass is green, and my trees have leaves, isn’t that ‘habitat’”

Well, no, not necessarily. The fact is, the overwhelming amount of plants used in the average US yard are actually non-native, resourced from mass growers and distributors (often grown with lots of fertilizers) from plants that originated in China, Australia, and South America. Why does that matter? Because evolution takes a long time. In this case, we’re actually talking about co-evolution, the relationship between plants and insects, because this is where a healthy habitat begins. Insects are a fundamental building block of biodiversity, and much of what passes for “green space” in the US is actually sterile and lifeless, an exotic, over-fertilized, pesticide-soaked “dead zone”. How do I know? Just look around. What do you see in the air around you where you live? If its a place teeming with a variety of birds, butterflies and bees, then lucky you. But most people see very little. And that’s because we’ve driven it all away with fertilizers, pesticides and our exotic plants.

The New Wilderness Begins at Home

BUT, here’s the catch: You can bring it all back.
Okay, maybe not the Woolly Mammoth, but hundreds, maybe thousands of vital
birds, bees and insects. And I know, because we did. Simply by planting native
plants in our yard instead of generic, exotic plants, we’ve transformed what
was once a dead lot of upturned earth into a people-friendly yard teeming with
life. Today, the yard is home to some 50 different species of native plants and
trees, visited by at least 10 different varieties of birds on a daily basis,
and busily worked over by a huge variety of bees and butterflies. Side note, I
used to think “bees” meant only honey-bees and bumble bees, but here in
California there are about 1000 different species of native bees. They run the
gamut from the diminutive, metallic-green Sweat bee that lingers over the Red
Buckwheat to the massive, copper-colored male Valley Carpenter Bee, that bends
the stems of our Indian Mallow when it lands on the cupped, yellow blossoms.
It’s a little known fact that native bees actually do 50% of the pollinating critical to our food stream.

Threatened native Bee, pollinating Clarkia Amoena in the authors garden (photo by David Newsom)

Of course, we wouldn’t know any of this if we didn’t plant our yard with native plants, and watch the natural world arrive. Four years later, my kids have a breezy, voluminous rapport with the life in the garden. They clock the Coopers hawk patrolling the skies for dinner, report with dire urgency the furrowed mulch left by the skunks, differentiate between bees and wasps in heated debates, and tip-toe like Baryshnikov between the tiny buds of new perennials pressing up each spring as they pluck blueberries from their bushes. 200 feet from a four-lane boulevard, my kids now possess a formidable base-line grasp of nature.

Peace of Mind

You say birds and bees aren’t your thing? Then how about your own sanity? Checked your stress level lately?

The benefit of creating a yard with native plants extends far beyond the habitat you create. For me, the big surprise has been the profound sense well-being I experience, every time I’m in my yard. Science has proven that spending time in nature is effective in managing anxiety and depression. But as a busy dad with two kids and a job, I don’t get to hike and wander the way I once did and I admit that my worries about the declining natural world can make me feel depressed. But a few minutes unplugged in our yard, watering plants (which I need to do only rarely) or staring into space (which I need to do often), chills me right out. Our wilderness getaway is literally right out the front door. And, as Lisa Novick, Director of Outreach for the Theodore Payne Foundation will explain, it’s much, much cheaper to own and maintain. Native gardens demand very little weeding, no pesticides or fertilizers, and far less water than a lawn or traditional garden.

Sense of Place

In a world where everyone has their heads down, buried in the mobile phones and computers, connectivity has obliterated “place”. But where we live- each of us- is actually a distinct and vital location on the planet. How many of us know what ecosystems surrounds us? Here in southern California, people like to say we live in the desert. But we do not. We live in Mediterranean Chaparral, one of the most unique ecosystems on earth. Many of the plants and animals that live in this ecosystem live nowhere else on earth, and when we plant the plants, the wildlife follows, even if we live deep in the city. And this is true for everyone across the country. Indeed, the dirt beneath our feet and is our connection to the mountains, praries and shorelines that host us. For me, getting my hands dirty and creating this connection is a thing of joy, a shameless engine of pride. Knowing what grows where and what relies upon it to live is the single most grounding feeling I’ve felt in a long time.

Rethinking The Future

The brilliant gardener and landscaper Thomas Rainier once wrote, “The next Renaissance of human culture will be the reconstruction of the natural world in our cities. Plants will be at the center of it all.”

And that brings me to one final thought: In a time when there’s so much bad news about the natural world, creating a native garden has given us a profound sense of possibility. If our tiny little yard can generate so much life, then I have to wonder, what would happen if this new landscape became the norm? Imagine the radical transformation that would take place if every family in urban and suburban America retrofitted their outdoor areas for native life. Just consider what 40 million acres of newly native, beneficial landscape might look and feel like. As of this writing, more and more people across the US are doing just that, transforming their tired, generic yards into vibrant, beneficial habitat. Don’t have a yard? Not a problem. Even a deck or a windowsill with a few native plants can introduce you to a world you didn’t know existed while restoring the native environment, and your sanity, in the process. We did it, and you can too.