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This summer, create your own Homegrown National Park and save our ecosystem in the process

Turn a portion of your lawn into a meadow, or just plant a few native species, and enhance earth's biodiversity.
Erica L. Shames
Experts say you can enhance earth's biodiversity by turning a portion of your lawn into a meadow, or just planting a few native species.

The health of the planet—the oxygen we breathe and water we drink, as well as flood control, food-crop pollination, and carbon storage—is dependent on a biodiverse ecosystem, from the tiniest insect to the mightiest mammal. We humans each have the power to heal the planet, environmentalists say, and we can start in our own proverbial back (or front) yard.

According to environmentalists, we have been conditioned to think of a well-manicured lawn as a vital component of an attractive and desirable home—a status symbol, in fact. We spend our valuable free time mowing lawns, controlling weeds, and planting and tending flowering ornamental shrubs, all of which take a terrible toll on the planet. Ironically, experts say these practices have helped destabilize ecology by disrupting and destroying the insect population, a vital and unseen component of the natural balance.

“For ecological purposes, a lawn may as well be a parking lot,” cites Doug Tallamy, an entomologist with the University of Delaware.

Birds and insects are disappearing

According to Tallamy, the worldwide population of insects has declined by 45 percent since pre-industrial times. Consequently, the bird population has deteriorated by almost a third in the past half-century, according to a 2019 study in the journal Science. These statistics are important, Tallamy says, when you consider the role insects—particularly caterpillars—play as the first step in the food chain, serving as nourishment for songbirds, small mammals, and reptiles, and as pollinators of food crops.

“If you have an ecosystem that doesn’t make a lot of caterpillars—think of your front yard – then you have no functional food web: you don’t have any birds that can breed because it takes thousands of caterpillars to sustain one nest of birds. The good news is we can all do something about it,” says Tallamy.

He references the 135 million acres of residential landscape in the United States—all of it privately owned and potentially teeming with life, if only we nurture it the right way.

“Private citizens who own 44 million acres of lawn have to start practicing conservation on private property,” he urges. “Parks and forests are not large enough to foster the biodiversity we need to survive.”

We can do it

To encourage this effort, Tallamy two years ago started a movement, Homegrown National Park, to place nature at everyone’s doorsteps. It’s a grassroots call-to-action to regenerate biodiversity and ecosystem function that calls on each of us to create new ecological networks. This is accomplished, he says, one person at a time, in a variety of simple ways, depending on where you live.

For lawn owners, Tallamy recommends removing half your lawnscape and replacing it with plants native to North America. If you’re a city dweller, it’s as easy as planting natives in containers and placing them on your window ledge or doorstep. You can register your property or plants at HomegrownNationalPark.org and join the nearly 30,000 people across the country who already support the cause.

“The goal is to get everyone to cut their area of lawn in half—whether they own 10 acres or one-tenth of an acre,” envisions Tallamy. “That would give us 20 million acres to put towards conservation. Homegrown National Park would actually be the biggest park in the country!”

At the same time, we must remove 70 percent of invasives and ornamentals that populate our world, says Tallamy. “If you measure the amount of biomass that doesn’t belong here, it’s about a third of the greenery that exists,” he said. “These plants aren’t functioning ecologically because they are poison—insects can’t eat them. The crepe myrtle in your yard is pretty, it’s a decoration, but it’s not passing on any of its energy.”

At HomegrownNationalPark.com, each state is rated on the extent of its involvement and performance in the crusade. Pennsylvania ranks in the top tier, and 8th in the country, with 1,282 users and 2,767 plantings over an area of 11,766 acres. However, that represents less than half of one percent of what’s possible.

“One person can make a difference and see that difference—just by planting the right plants on your property,” encourages Tallamy. “We all are responsible for the future of conservation. We have a biodiversity crisis and we are the solution. If we own a piece of the Earth it’s our responsibility to take care of it.”

Tallamy recommends starting small. “The easiest thing to incorporate into a suburban neighborhood is a white oak tree—plant one or two or three—and install a native bed under that tree. That tree is going to generate insects as many as 530 caterpillar species, for example—that run the food web. It’s also going to manage the watershed and sequester a lot of carbon.”

Another idea, says Tallamy, is to create what’s called a pocket meadow of about 5 feet by 10 feet, and fill it in with three or four native plants. “Enjoy watching monarchs, hummingbirds and bees come for the nectar,” he promises. “It creates positive feedback, and encourages people to want to do it again in another portion of their lawn.”

Ask for assistance

Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources can help. Its Lawn Conversion Program offers assistance to those who want to create a meadow or forest on their property. It kicked off in early 2020 as a result of goals set to improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay. Phase III of the Watershed Implementation Plan, specifically, details how Pennsylvania is going to meet its federally mandated total maximum daily load—aka the pollution diet—to improve water quality. Pennsylvania has a goal to convert 5,000 acres of lawn to forest and another 5,000 acres of lawn to meadow by 2025.

“Much of the work previously done to improve water quality was really focused on agricultural settings, and with people who actually own streamside habitat,” notes Kelsey Mummert, coordinator of DCNR’s Lawn Conversion Program. “But with lawn conversion, we’re able to expand some of those nature-based solutions to water quality further upslope and into backyards.”

Mummert sees an uptick in the number of people interested in converting their lawns. “People are trying to figure out what else to do with their lawns,” she says. “Some are interested in getting back some free time on their weekends. But there’s a huge influx of people who are really starting to understand the benefits of native plants and the role they as landowners play in providing habitat and providing native plants in their space to improve biodiversity.”

Converting a lawn to a meadow or forest positively impacts the ecosystem in a variety of ways, according to Mummert. “Maintaining a lawn requires fossil fuel inputs—nutrient input, chemical use, water use, and the release of carbon,” she explains. “Just running your lawnmower every week compacts your soil. Lawns are typically composed of non-native species with really short and dense root systems that don’t promote water infiltration. They are also a monoculture that native pollinators and insects and other wildlife don’t use. By converting your lawn to a meadow or forest, you’re changing
both the above ground and below ground structure. With less lawn, you’re offsetting all those negatives.”

Native plants, conversely, are equipped with deep root systems that improve water infiltration into the soil, which recharges groundwater and improves soil health. It also reduces soil compaction. Instead of running off, water is absorbed into the ground where it can be soaked up, reducing flooding and promoting nutrient processing in the soil.

“Converting [your lawn] to a meadow or forest also means you’re adding a diversity of native species, which improves soil biodiversity, to allow for a great diversity of moth and butterfly caterpillars that typically only feed on one or a few different plant species,” adds Mummert. “It’s providing critical habitat for all of the life stages of a variety of wildlife throughout the entire year.”

Landowners, municipal governments, places of worship, and corporations are eligible to receive assistance from the Lawn Conversion Program. That assistance can take many forms, from financial remuneration to the creation of conversion plans, guidance on site preparation or maintenance, or serving as a liaison to a conservation organization with additional resources. The DCNR webpage https://www.dcnr.pa.gov/Conservation/Water/LawnConversion provides links to other resources, DIY meadow implementation guides, native plant resources, and native garden templates.

“Planning is really important before anyone jumps into this,” underscores Mummert. “I really encourage people to take the time to think about what they want, and form a vision for how it’s going to look. Also, no effort is too small to benefit wildlife and pollinators. Even if someone has just a garden bed. Putting in a bunch of native plants provides a lot of food for caterpillars, pollinators, and bees that otherwise wouldn’t be there. I highly encourage everybody to do it, even if all they can do is put a couple of native plants in a planter on their doorstep. That’s awesome, too.”

Brian Auman, a landscape architect, is on board. He imparted a natural vibe to his lawnscape at his Lewisburg home 22 years ago. “Formerly, we had traditional lawn and landscaping,” he recalls. “We planted a lot of diverse native trees around the edge, and we’ve reduced the lawn component over time. In 2001, I transposed a section of the lawn into a native grasses and wildflower meadow. It’s the antithesis of a manicured lawn, filled with dandelions and wild violets. The lawn is bunchy and looks unkept, but it’s very little maintenance and you have a lot more biodiversity going on.”

Auman has become a birder by default, while sitting on his deck and watching what happens in his backyard. He uses Cornell University’s Bird Lab app, Merlin, to identify what he’s hearing. “I’ve been recording little segments to see how many birds the app picks up in one minute. My record is nine, everything from northern cardinal, affiliated woodpecker and song sparrow to house finch, American robin, chestnut-sided warbler, black bernie, house wren, and red wing black bird. It’s interesting, and it’s indicative that nature is thriving here.”

Auman sees a societal shift taking place, even among his clients, as people gradually learn about the benefits of less lawn. “From a financial standpoint, it’s not cheap to maintain a perfect lawn for large park areas and people are looking for parks to be an integrated part of nature. An external walking trail, for example, lends itself to not being mowed or maintained, and it looks different in every season. It offers a richer experience for being out in nature.”

And by incorporating the edge concept into his project, as he did in his backyard, Auman promotes a variety of ecological benefits.

“The ecological term is an ecotone—a very biologically diverse area,” said Auman. “We have the edge of a woodland, and a natural grass meadow, so you get species endemic to both in those areas. You have bird habitat in the shrubs and in the trees, and different types of bird habitat in the meadow. It’s a concept I try to work into a lot of my plans, and it’s an experiment in my own backyard.”

One of his recent projects, at Penns Prairie Park in Centre County, encompassed 175 acres of athletic fields for youth sports, and large areas of grass. The goal was to create a gathering place for the community.

“They realized it is costly to maintain turf grass and were looking for options,” said Auman of his client.

“We went back to the historical reference of that area—a map from the 1700s shows it as a large plain, so we built off the idea of the Great Plains and installed an oak savannah. Penns Woods is a misnomer, indicating that everything in Pennsylvania was wooded at one point. The Native American land management of that area created large grass lands. There was a great diversity of greenery there. We’re replicating that with a mixture of grasslands and tree species that are fire resistant, so prescribed burning is an option to maintain it.”

Auman cited another meadow-oriented project he is starting at Turtle Creek Park in East Buffalo Township near Lewisburg. He referenced 2006 photos from when the property was a dog park and grassland. By the time it was purchased about a year ago, invasive shrubs had encroached and deteriorated the biodiversity of the site.

“It was mowed down and nature reset it,” Auman said. “Natural doesn’t mean you just let the land go. We have to be rigorous about controlling invasive species, otherwise the biodiversity and ecological integrity of the site will deteriorate.”

Auman will use the site’s rich biodiversity—uplands, wetlands, and a stream corridor—to its fullest capacity.

“My plan will include both a park recreation plan, including an enclosed dog park area, a trail network, seating areas and parking. It will also include an ecological land management plan, indicating the different habitats created on the site. We’ll go through a public process with birders, the Linn Conservancy, and anyone else with an interest in this space to get everyone’s ideas on paper. It will be exciting.”

Where to start?

While most nurseries are stocked with ornamental non-native species of plants, there’s a growing industry of native trees and shrubs. Ask for native options when you shop and encourage your local nursery to begin to stock more native species.

Pennsylvania’s Keystone 10 Million Trees Program, a Chesapeake Bay initiative the PA DCNR helps administer, gives out free native trees to people willing to plant them and document where they’re planted.

For anyone looking at this big picture, and feeling overwhelmed, thinking they have to take some extreme measures to make a difference, Auman has some advice.

“You can start small and experiment,” he advises. “The next time you are replacing a tree or shrub, consider the native options. The state has a simplified list of what to plant where—shady, sunny, moist, dry, under a power line, etc. – so it doesn’t have to be complicated or difficult.”

What must change, Auman says, is Americans’ fascination with a well-manicured lawn.

“It's a bizarre relationship Americans have with lawns, with medieval roots – when lawns fortified castles—and it was a safety issue. Later, lawns translated to a status symbol with the upper classes in Europe: a manicured lawn proclaimed you were so well off you no longer had to grow food. Now it’s a conformity issue, and it’s been applied to deserts and everywhere else people irrigate lawn. I like to think we’re in a less conformist era, where we can rethink these standards. Analyze the value of your own time and the expense that goes into maintaining a lawn, against what you can do for ecological value to enhance wildlife habitat and the aesthetics of your yard. The timing is right: let’s reevaluate our
strange relationship with the lawn.”

Erica Shames is the emeritus founder and publisher of Susquehanna Life magazine, Central Pennsylvania’s original lifestyle publication.