Sometimes the rest of my life imposes on my writing schedule. I skipped last Sunday, a rarity, and this week I am writing from the road. While I was in the car yesterday, I heard an appeal from the National Audubon Society for everyone to grow some native plants in order to feed migratory birds. As I listened to the story, I was struck by how this simple appeal pulled together threads from a wide variety of my columns. Let me see if I can walk you through all of the connections that struck me. My apologies in advance if it is a bit rambling.
If you have been reading Common Science® for any length of time, it’s likely that you have encountered one of my anti-lawn rants. Let me recap. Lawns, at least as currently utilized in the Unites States, are absurd and wasteful. Only a very small portion of mown grass ever gets walked or played upon. Despite that fact, we dutifully buy grass seed, spread fertilizer, apply herbicides to kill “weeds”, irrigate with water that we have treated sufficiently to allow for human consumption, and fritter away our precious time cutting it back every week while burning 300 million year old sunshine in the form of the gasoline in our mowers. When we fertilize, we tend to use too much and it runs off into the local waterways which causes algae blooms – another topic I have written about – which harms aquatic life and has helped to inspire the ill-fated Solar Bee project in Jordan Lake south of Chapel Hill (subject of yet another column.) The fertilizer run-off problem is further exacerbated by the fact that lawns are, despite their green appearance, a rather impervious surface. Therefore, as towns devote more and more area to lawns, storm water problems worsen. (You guessed it, I have written about that too.) Lawns provide very little in the way of food or habitat for wildlife. Only ants, other small insects, and some grubs can make homes there. However, we often apply pesticides to kill them too. Really people, what are we thinking?
Devoting part of your lawn to natural areas, wildflower gardens, mini-meadows, or an area with a leaf pile has many benefits. You will save money not purchasing the items I listed in the paragraph above. You will provide food and shelter for many animals, including critical pollinators (Topic of a series of columns). Natural areas allow water to seep into the ground, which reduces water run-off into storm drains. Furthermore, deeply-rooted native plants, often referred to as weeds, help to sequester carbon in the soil. This last point is the topic of the fascinating book, The Soil Will Save Us, by Kristin Ohlson about which I wrote a series of columns.
Let’s return to the question of birds and the Audubon society. Birds eat seeds, berries, insects, worms and grubs. While it can be nice to fill your back yard birdfeeder with seeds and watch who visits, a far more reliable way to feed birds is to provide a natural area with a diverse group of plants which produce seeds and/or berries at various times during the year. Natural areas also attract insects, worms, and grubs during most of the year. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the history of the domestication of cats and the concern that the 60-70 million feral cats that currently roam the United States are killing off songbirds. While the cats are certainly not helping the situation, loss of habitat due to the prevalence of lawns at homes as well as surrounding public and private buildings and nearly every other open space is a far more damaging parameter in songbird populations.
There are a lot of illogical and shortsighted phenomena occurring out there in world, many of which are harming our environment and killing off our fellow species. In most cases, it’s difficult for an individual or small group of people to have much of an impact. But here is our chance. It’s March, which is a great month for gardening and new initiatives as well as college basketball. I want everyone who reads this column and has a lawn to find a sunny area at least 5’ by 5’ and create a natural area. Pull up the sod, toss in some new soil, or leaves, or compost. You can let Mother Nature provide seeds for new plants on the wind or go buy a packet of wildflower seeds. In less than an hour, you can save some songbirds, support some pollinators, save some money, reduce storm water run off, sequester some carbon, and strike a blow against nonsense. That’s a pretty good deal if you ask me.
Whether or not you have a lawn, contact your local officials and ask about mowing policies. There lots of public spaces and rights-of-way that could be allowed to become natural areas providing all of the advantages I listed above. There is no cost for this. Instead of mowing the area every week or so, it can be done just once a year. This is sufficient to prevent the growth of trees and allows for all sorts of native plants to thrive. For a couple of weeks every summer, the southern side of route 54 west of Carrboro, where no one has been inspired to mow very often, is the most beautiful place in the county. I’ll post a picture in July to show you.
I’ll be back on my normal schedule next week with am more substantive column, but I hope you enjoyed this little narrative.
Jeff Danner discussed this week’s column with Aaron Keck on WCHL.
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