How to grow a forest

Deforestation is one of the primary global threats to biodiversity. Forests improve our air and water quality, and support diverse ecosystems. But growing a forest requires more than just planting trees. To grow forest like a pro, you’ll need to think like a forester.

Steps to grow a forest

During my time as a professional forester, I would grow hundreds of acres of new forest each year. But even if you only have half an acre, following these steps will ensure you end up with a healthy mature forest on your property.

1. Site-preparation

One of the biggest mistakes you can make when creating a forest is to just start planting trees. This can lead to damage to the trees and other common mistakes like over-mulching and root compaction. But it’s easy to avoid this mistake by considering what your trees need to grow.

Trees grow if they get a combination of sunlight, water, nutrients, and air. That’s all. Air is probably not going to be a limiting factor for your trees, so let’s talk about the other three: sunlight, water, and nutrients. Sunlight comes from above. But plants get water and nutrients from below, in the soil.

So, competition above (older trees) will restrict a tree’s access to sunlight. And competition below (smaller plants and younger trees) will restrict access to water and nutrients.

Set your forest up for success

Site-prep is the method foresters use to increase access sunlight, water, and nutrients just before planting trees. Unfortunately, in the world of commercial forestry this often involves spraying herbicides and plowing soil. Burning debris or existing vegetation is also considered a site-prep technique, and is appropriate in some cases.

site prep is the first step to growing a forest
Disking with a bulldozer. Source: http://extension.msstate.edu/publications/site-preparation-the-first-step-regeneration

Site-prep is an issue of scale. If you are planting a few individual trees for a mini-forest, you can site prep by hand in the area immediately surrounding them. But, if you want to convert a 10-acre field to a forest, you might need a tractor.

It’s important to use the right site-prep technique for your project to avoid unnecessary damage to the environment. Common forestry site-prep techniques include:

  • Chemical herbicide use
  • Broadcast or debris burning
  • Raking and piling
  • Plowing or bedding
  • Disking/harrowing
  • Chopping

Some of these techniques only affect vegetation, while others move around debris or the soil. For converting grass, surface-level tilling to break up the grass root-mat is a good technique. If the area is small enough, covering the tilled soil with newspaper or cardboard can prevent erosion and keep weeds down.

How to pick the right site prep technique

Answering a few questions can help you figure out what kind of site prep to use.

Is there debris on the site that will make it hard to plant trees? If so, you will need to either clear it away or speed up the decomposition process by burning it. You don’t need to clear all of it, though, because your trees will need some space between them. We’ll revisit this idea in the planting step.

Is there woody competition? For seedlings of most tree species, dense woody vegetation is a major problem. You will need to kill or clear away some of the existing vegetation to create space for your trees. The more competition you kill, the more sunlight, water, and nutrients are available for your trees. But it comes with a financial cost and environmental impact.

Are there nonnative invasive plants on the site? This is when chemical herbicide can start to look like a good idea for some sites. Nonnative invasive plants can do irreparable harm to a forest if left unchecked.

Some other considerations that will impact your choice of site prep technique include

  • cost
  • timing
  • need for future actions (e.g. burning more than once may be needed)
  • equipment and labor availability
  • a need to manipulate the water table (this is only common along the coast)
  • a need to break through a rock or hard-pan layer

The best site-prep technique for mini-forests and lawns

If you’re growing a mini-forest or converting your lawn to a forest, this is the best site-prep technique. Use this technique at least 3 weeks up to 3 months before planting.

  • Till the top 2 inches of soil using a roto-tiller or farm tractor to disturb the grass’s root-mat across your planting area
  • Cover the exposed soil with cardboard, newspaper, or another biodegradable material
  • Wet thoroughly
  • Optional: add mulch or topsoil to hold everything down

2. Planting

Planting trees is a crucial step in establishing your forest, for obvious reasons. But, some forest regeneration can happen naturally if nearby trees drop fruit and nuts into the area. Planting offers a few advantages over natural regeneration, such as:

  • control over tree spacing (to manage competition and get even coverage)
  • control over genetic stock
  • a head start after site-prep

Natural regeneration is made more difficult due to the prevalence of nonnative invasive species today. And even strictly managed forests are prone to invasive plants, except in the most remote locations.

Logistics

Planting is, like site-prep, an issue of scale. If you are planting 10 or 20 acres, it is doable by hand or with a tractor. If you are planting 200 or 1,000 acres, you will need professional help that can be expensive and hard to find.

planting a tree in a future forest
Planting seedlings can be time-consuming and expensive. Photo by Lara Jameson on Pexels.com

Different species of trees are planted with different spacing and techniques. And site conditions can also dictate which technique is appropriate. But the most important factor for choosing a planting technique is definitely the cost.

Planting trees is expensive! Hand planting pine trees will cost at least $50 per acre (with higher costs for smaller jobs), if you can even find anyone to do the difficult labor. Planting machines can be used on some sites for improved survival and more accurate spacing. But they are more expensive.

If you want to plant the trees yourself to save money, expect to cover less than an acre per day until you get the hang of it. You’ll need a tool like a dibble bar or a hoedad (or just a shovel) to open and close your planting holes. Tree roots need to be kept wet or they’ll die off, killing the tree.

If you don’t have the budget to pay for planting over your whole project area and can’t do it yourself, you might want to consider natural regeneration. You can always supplement with a few older seedlings, especially if you aren’t trying to grow timber.

How to make natural regeneration work

To grow a forest while planting no (or just a few) trees, you need two things to happen. One is a seed source. Often a nearby forest can drop or blow in seeds, and sometimes seeds can remain dormant in soil for decades. So, if your land was formerly a forest, you might luck out. But if your future forest is located somewhere with no trees and no seeds, natural regeneration might not be right. Spreading purchased or collected seeds to grow a forest might work, but it will probably take a lot of babysitting, weeding, and luck.

The second requirement for natural regeneration is competition management. In the natural process of forest development, forests colonize grassland very slowly. A gradual shift in light levels and soil makeup allows tree species to move into an area in stages. To speed this process up (to happen in less than a human lifetime), you’ll need to control competition.

Controlling competition

Controlling your trees’ competition is important whether you are planting or using natural regeneration. First, you need to be able to identify and decide which plants are competition and which ones are trees. But not all trees are “trees.” If 3 trees pop up within a few inches of each other, only one of those is considered a tree, and the others are its competition and should be removed. And you may want to select for desired species. So, marking your “crop trees” early on is a good idea.

Culling the weeds

Next, you should apply control techniques to individuals or groups of competing plants. The correct control technique will vary depending on the type of competition. For example, if invasive tree species are competing with your crop trees, using the “hack-and-squirt” method to apply herbicide will kill them without impacting other plants. But if fast growing vines are climbing your trees, herbicide would do more harm than good. Using clippers or loppers to cut and manually remove the vines would be more effective. Herbaceous plants competing for water and soil (space and nutrients) can be mowed or trampled.

forester stands in front of a smoky forest during a prescribed burn
In 2018 I burned the understory of a 12-year old loblolly pine plantation on a State Forest to control competition from gallberry and vines.

On larger and more remote tracts, fire might be an effective tool for managing competition, if your crop trees can survive a low-intensity burn. But use caution! Fire is dangerous, and some species are not adapted to fire and will die. Bush hogging is also effective for covering a lot of ground, but your crop trees are at risk of accidental chopping. Common techniques for controlling competition are:

  • selective herbicide use
  • prescribed fire (for some species)
  • bush hogging
  • mowing
  • mulching/debris spreading
  • trampling/crushing
  • manual removal using machetes or other tools

Thankfully, you don’t need to be very diligent about controlling competition, especially if you did site prep. For the first year, you will want to check your crop trees and “release” them from competition once in the spring and again in fall. The second year, repeat your spring and fall evaluation and release treatments. For the greatest survival and growth, continue to evaluate and release your trees for the first five years.

3. Maturation

As your forest grows taller than you, your role in keeping it healthy shrinks. But there are still some situations that can call for intervention to keep your forest healthy. Specifically, there are threats to mitigate and opportunities to seize.

Threats to your forest

Your trees are always vulnerable to individual diseases, pests, and weather. But your forest should be able to survive the loss of a few individuals thanks to the natural resistances it has to these threats. Trees tend to be most resistant to these dangerous forces when they are growing vigorously.

Most mortality will happen when one stressor causes growth to slow down, then another comes in for the kill. The clearest example is during a drought or flood, when trees are vulnerable to insects or pathogenic fungi. The stress caused by having too much or too little water forces your trees to lower their defenses, and a beetle infestation or root rot finishes them off.

Defending your forest

You can’t do much to protect your forest from bad weather. Choosing native species that are well suited to your site and using good planting techniques gives your forest the best chance of surviving. So, plan accordingly. Don’t plant a dry-site species in a swampy area, or vice-versa.

Some other threats to your trees include:

  • damage from wildlife (especially deer)
  • invasive nonnative insects and diseases
  • severe storms including ice and wind
  • wildfire

You should expect your forest to experience some tree mortality, even when everything goes smoothly. The reason for this is straightforward: older trees take up more space than younger trees. So, as your trees age they will start to bump into one another and compete for sunlight and resources. Individuals that grow slower or are in a worse spot will become suppressed and lose out on vital resources and eventually die. Culling diseased or suppressed trees is called thinning.

Thinning

Thinning is one of the most effective tools at your disposal for growing a healthy forest. It promotes increased growth of the remaining trees, and reduces the overall susceptibility of your forest to threats like insects and fire.

It may seem counterintuitive to cut trees down to benefit the forest. But if you want your forest to reach a mature state, you’ll have to see plenty of trees die along the way. Deciding which ones will take the hit and beating nature to it is a powerful strategy.

Speeding up selection

Part of the reason thinning works so well is because of the pattern of growth that forests exhibit. To summarize: young forests have lots of little stems, old forests have a few big stems. If all of the trees in the forest are the same age or age-class, then a few of them will die over the years to make space for the remaining ones to grow larger. If the forest is grown with two or more age classes, then a few of the older trees will die every few years to make room for younger trees to grow. Of course, some of the younger trees may also die before reaching maturity.

lots of trees die to grow a forest. the trick is to keep the good ones alive!
This study by the U.S. Forest Service shows how even in a healthy forest, plenty of trees will die over the years. Reukema, D. 1979. Fifty-year development of Douglas-fir stands Planted at Various Spacings. USDA For. Serv, Pac. Northwest PNW-253.

Thinning is a way to speed up the process by identifying individual trees that are unlikely to survive long enough to meet your goals – whether that means sexual maturity for a self-sustaining forest habitat or commercial viability as timber. Removing these trees at the correct time keeps your crop trees growing vigorously and reduces competition. This can be enough of a leg-up to protect them from diseases and droughts.

4. Age-class establishment

In the world of forestry, research time and money tends to go towards one particular goal: growing as much timber as possible as quickly as possible. To that end, most commercial forests are usually made up of one cohort of trees. All the trees are planted within a few days of one another, thinned once or twice as they mature, and then clearcut when they have grown large enough to do so. The process is then repeated.

Forest forever

I’m going to assume that some readers will have different goals in mind from the timber industry. How can you sustain the forest you grow so that it will always be a forest? If individual trees die off over time, where does that leave your forest long-term? To remain sustainable in a forested state, your forest will need diverse cohorts (groups of around the same age) of trees. This is called uneven-aged management.

forests can be grown in even-aged, two-aged, or uneven-aged stands
Textbook examples of the diameter distributions in even-aged and uneven-aged forests.

In an uneven-aged stand, you will have lots of small stems, AND a few big stems. So, parts of your forest appear young, and other parts appear old. Of course, these terms are relative. Your forest doesn’t need to always have trees in the 0-3 years age-class. Generally speaking, having cohorts separated by 10 or 20 years is sufficient to achieve a sustainable population. But it can depend on the species and site.

Achieving an uneven-aged state is tricky. Younger cohorts are shaded by older cohorts, and they are usually isolated in dense, small groups. So, they can be vulnerable to threats. And planting trees in the middle of a forest is much more labor-intensive, because site-prep may not be possible.

Creating an uneven-aged forest

To get your forest in a state that will support multiple cohorts, you’ll need to cut trees selectively. Thinning is one type of selective cut. But select cuts can be dangerous for the forest. And irresponsible select cutting has led to major problems for the timber industry across much of the Eastern U.S. High-grading is the practice of removing only the largest and most valuable trees. This practice allows loggers to extract the most value from a forest, but it can jeopardize the future of the forest. High-grading removes the best genetic material for future generations. The trees that are left tend to be slower growing and more susceptible to pests and diseases. Not the best genetic stock for the next cohort.

The opposite approach is usually the most desirable in terms of forest health. By removing ONLY the diseased and slow-growing trees, so-called “thinning from below” creates space for the offspring of the best trees to sprout. But, as usual, some degree of compromise is typically needed to make the project worthwhile for a logger while also improving the overall health and genetics of the forest.

Other types of select cut

Select cutting does not necessarily need to be a form of thinning, though. Other approaches, such as the patch or group clearcut and shelterwood, can be effective methods for growing multiple cohorts. But the bottom line is that you’ll need to remove some of your older trees to make room for younger trees. Some sunlight needs to reach the forest floor for seedlings to grow.

5. Long term management

Finally, we need to put it all together. Your forest should outlive you, and your kids, and your grandkids, unless someone along the way decides to cut it down. Those crucial early years get a lot of attention. And it’s hard to overstate the importance of starting your forest off on the right foot. But long-term management of the forest is just as important for keeping your forest healthy and sustainable over decades or even centuries.

Watch for weeds

Keeping nonnative invasive plants at bay is a constant battle in many forests. The earlier you spot and eradicate an infestation of these noxious weeds, the cheaper and more effective your treatment will be. Full eradication of invasive weeds is often a multi-year project (if it’s possible at all) once they get established in a forest. So walk your forest often and be ruthless with these pests.

Grow your soil

Growing a forest is more than growing some trees together. A rich soil ecology can support and enhance the health of your forest. Healthy soil will also sequester carbon from the atmosphere and improve the water quality of nearby streams and rivers. Avoid soil compaction by limiting heaving equipment use, especially during wet weather. And prevent erosion by following your state’s best management practices (BMPs) for any silvicultural management. Having a healthy O-layer (organic layer) on your soil’s surface will help your soil grow, hold more nutrients, and resist floods and droughts. Thankfully, you don’t need to add compost to create an O-layer. Just let leaves, twigs, needles, and roots decompose without too much disturbance.

Advanced regeneration

As you walk your forest, keep an eye out for the future generations of trees. Try not to trample the knee-high saplings that appear when an older tree dies and a new patch of sunlight appears on the forest floor. And try not to trample the ankle-high sprouts that grow in the shade of mature trees. These seedlings are the offspring of your oldest trees, and are poised to spring up if an older tree dies. In fact, scientists have found that the mother tree will often send nutrients to its offspring through their shared root network during times of stress.

Don’t panic

a flooded pine forest
A little wetter than usual today.

Listen: bugs happen. Floods happen. Ice storms, tornadoes, droughts, and fires can all seriously harm your forest. But growing a forest often requires you to step back and be patient. See how your forest responds to these disturbances over the following growing season or two. Often, these types of disturbances end up significantly improving the long-term health of your forest. They not only create opportunities for new cohorts to spring up, they also cull the weakest members of the gene pool. Of course, if you’re only interested in timber value, the best response to a major event might be to salvage harvest and start over.

What kind of forest should you grow?

Forests come in all shapes and sizes. Your site is going to determine what kinds of forest are feasible on your property, but your vision and goals will ultimately determine what kind of forest you grow.

What are your priorities?

Are you growing a forest for financial gain? For scenic beauty? For wildlife habitat? Write down your priorities to help guide your forest planning. You will need to research forest issues in your state or region. If you’re interested in selling timber, find out what mills are near you and what species they accept. If you’re going for wildlife habitat, find out what kinds of forest habitat are disappearing from your area.

Types of forest

Forests are grown in a few broad categories. Deciduous forest is more prevalent in the temperate Eastern U.S. and in some wetlands. But conifers dominate in more extreme climates, both cold and hot. The deep south is excellent pine habitat. Pines also thrive in the high altitudes of the rocky mountains. In central and eastern Canada and the lake states, spruce performs well, although deciduous forests also make an appearance. Along the west coast, unique forests types like redwood and sequoias, as well as western hemlock (all conifers) find their niche.

The U.S. is also home to several temperate rainforests. The Great Smoky Mountains area of Tennessee and North Carolina, and the Olympic peninsula in Washington are home to rainforests.

grow forest that is appropriate to the region
USDA forest types: https://data.fs.usda.gov/geodata/rastergateway/forest_type/

Conifer forests

Conifers evolved earlier than their deciduous cousins, and they behave a little differently. Conifers will generally grow straight and narrow in an effort to occupy the highest spot in the canopy. Many conifers also develop a taproot – a wide, tough root that penetrates straight down to seek the water table. Conifers are typically “soft” wood (as opposed to hardwoods). Additionally, conifers tend to grow needles instead of broad leaves. On pine trees, these needles fall off periodically, but never all at once, causing the soil pH to slightly decrease (become more acidic).

Conifer forests can be dense, like the Black Forest in Germany. They can also be very sparse, like the longleaf pine savannas in Florida. Softwood conifers dominate the timber market in much of North America, but most of that timber comes from commercial plantations. Conifer forests are on average less diverse than deciduous forests.

Deciduous forests

a trail through deciduous forest at Radnor Lake State Park in Tennessee
I much prefer the aesthetics of a deciduous forest

Deciduous forests are made up of trees that lose their leaves during the dormant season. There are conifers which aren’t evergreen, and there are broadleaf species that retain their leaves (like Magnolias). So, there is some overlap. However, deciduous forests are generally composed of a diverse mix of species working together.

Deciduous trees differ from conifers in that they will often spread their canopy horizontally at the top, rather than forming a Christmas-tree shape. Their roots will also spread horizontally under the soil surface, rather than penetrating straight downward. Because of this characteristic, hardwood forests tend to have an upper limit on stem density. They can still be very dense, though. Layers of vegetation under the canopy are usually full of shade-happy shrubs and trees.

Because of the high level of diversity in a deciduous forest, they are prone to changing cover types over time. For example, across the Eastern U.S. white oak forests are in decline. The reason for this is that shade-happy maples make up most of the understory in existing white oak forests, and slowly replace the oaks as individuals die out.

Species composition

Forests are largely defined by the dominant species in the overstory. The forest canopy and its characteristics can often define what other plants grow there and how the forest functions as a habitat. Some desirable species compositions, or forest types, include:

  • oak-hickory
  • spruce-fir
  • longleaf-slash pine
  • oak-gum-cypress
  • aspen-birch

There are many other types of forest native to the U.S. like pinyon-juniper and maple. No forest type is “bad,” but they all have different characteristics. Forests that are dominated by mast-producing species like hickories will support more and different types of wildlife than those that don’t, like maple.

Visit local forests and see what appeals to you and your priorities.

How many trees make a forest?

Where is the line between a grove of trees and a forest? Does it have to do with acreage or the number of trees? Some forests have as few as 10 adult trees per acre, while others can have hundreds.

There is probably some academic, research-based way to make a distinction between a group of trees and a forest. But for the purposes of an average landowner, it isn’t about size or the number of trees. The characteristic that defines a forest (in my mind at least) is that nature shapes a forest. While groves are intensively managed with pruning, mowing, fertilizing, and irrigation, forests are mostly left alone.

Don’t get me wrong – foresters frequently use techniques like fertilization, pruning, and passive irrigation in different parts of the world. But human intervention in forests is limited. In a given year, a forest might be burned and fertilized, resulting in obvious signs of human activity. But that activity takes place in an environment that is largely shaped by nature. In a grove, offending branches are removed. Infrastructure is built to support and enhance the purpose of the grove. Humans are needed to keep the system working. Not so in a forest.

Mini-forests

Because forests are defined more by their character than their size, the concept of mini-forests is often asked about. The invention and spread of Miyawaki Forests is redefining how human society sees forests. Many of these forests are a few hundred square meters or less.

Of course, a mini-forest lacks some of the benefits of a larger forest. Generally speaking, connections between good habitat are incredibly important ecologically. When a forest is larger, it is much easier to chart connections between the ideal habitat for a given species within that area and nearby forests. If a mini-forest is isolated from other habitat, its effect is limited.

Can you grow an old-growth forest?

Ask any forester about old-growth forests and you’ll probably get an eye-roll and a long explanation. Old-growth forests are some of the most important and rare resources on the planet, but misconceptions and myths about them abound.

Old-growth forest is a “climax community,” meaning it is a stable ecological state. This means that the forest will not undergo significant changes to its species composition or its ecological function unless some outside force causes a change.

Trees still die in an old-growth forest, and so young trees still sprout to keep the system stable. An old-growth forest is not just old trees. It is also many young and middle-aged trees, plus (usually) plenty of shrubs and herbaceous plants. So, if you want to grow an old-growth forest, you will need to plan carefully and get the right species composition.

How not to grow an old-growth forest

Many environmentalists I know believe that if landowners would just leave forests alone for a long time, it would result in plentiful old-growth forest. This is true, if by “a long time” they mean 500 years or longer. But because of introduced pests, many of the tree species that dominated old-growth forests when North America was re-discovered by Europeans are now extinct or in decline.

Since we cannot reproduce the old-growth that previously grew in America, we will need a different approach to growing forests if our goal is to create stable systems. Forests need to be evaluated regularly, and when problems arise they should be addressed. Leaving forests alone can result in overcrowding and homogenization, leaving the forest less stable. It can also invite unintended species composition shifts, as shade-tolerant species become dominant and prevent sunlight from reaching the forest floor.

Grow a forest at home

Even if you don’t have a few hundred acres in the country to play around with, you can still grow a forest. Start with a small planting, following The Unlawning Guide. Getting neighbors involved can expand your forest across property lines. And if your property backs up to stream or existing forest, the ecological benefits of planting trees will be enhanced.

Climate change and kids

Climate change is a tricky subject, especially when we start to involve kids. How do we explain it to kids? Is there a moral implication to having kids? What kind of problems will our kids have to face? And what kid-friendly activities can we do to fight climate change?

What is climate change? The kid friendly definition.

Climate change used to be called global warming – it’s the same thing. The whole planet is getting a little hotter every year. And it’s happening so slow you can barely even notice it, but people are starting to. NASA has proven global warming and has a thorough guide for kids.

polar ice could disappear due to climate change in kids' lifetime
Polar ice is melting as a result of climate change. Photo by Valdemaras D. on Pexels.com

The reason the name is now climate change is because the warmer temperatures aren’t the main problems that people are noticing. But the warm temperatures are causing other problems in the climate, like

  • more frequent and worse storms
  • water shortages
  • worse flooding
  • sea level rise
  • ocean acidification
  • droughts and famines in parts of the world

Global warming is making the Earth a harder place to live for many animals, including humans, as well as plants and fungi. And the way that climate change is currently going, there is little doubt that it could cause the collapse of our society or even human extinction unless things change very quickly.

Climate anxiety in kids

If you’re an adult, think about growing up in a world that is headed for major problems. You might start to notice the climate mentioned on the news by 5 or 6 years old, and by 9 or 10 you would be learning about climate change in school. Schools have a responsibility to teach about current events, and this is one of the biggest. And as you reach your teenage years, you will start to wonder why we are still on this trajectory. Decades of scientific research have predicted major problems due to climate change. If our parents haven’t been able to fix this, how can we?

For some kids, the threat of climate change becomes a source of anxiety. And this ever-present source of bad news starts to enter every aspect of their daily life. They may see an airplane in the sky and worry about its emissions. Or a thunderstorm reminds them that the weather is more extreme thanks to climate change.

student protestors march against climate change
Student protestors tell us how kids feel about climate change Photo by Vincent M.A. Janssen on Pexels.com

And dissatisfaction with the government is linked to climate anxiety. Kids perceive that governments are failing to act to halt climate change. This combined with anxiety can lead to strong feelings of anger, fear, and sadness.

How to handle climate anxiety

Mental health is easy to ignore, especially with the distraction of social media. And distractions have quickly become much more prevalent in our lives (e.g. the Metaverse). So escapism is also extremely prominent in our culture. But dealing with the climate crisis requires presence in the real world. For some, it may take help from a mental health professional to get to this point.

Reminder for anyone who is feeling climate anxiety: nobody knows what is going to happen. Yes, the predictions are bad. Yes, the politics are next to impossible. And no, the status quo does not want to do much about climate change. But any of that could change next year, or tomorrow. And we have no control and no way of knowing what could happen.

The only thing you can control is your intention. Do you intend to do something about climate change (such as unlawning)? You aren’t obligated to do more than you want to. And you don’t need to worry about the “best” way to fight climate change. But you should find some ways that work for you, and then go do them.

The anti-natal movement

Climate change is closely linked to the global population. The number of humans alive on the planet has been on a very sharp upward trend over the last few hundred years. This boom has been driven almost entirely by readily available energy in the form of fossil fuels. People began to use fossil fuels during the industrial revolution to grow our civilization, farms, economy, and population. But these fuels emitted carbon, and each generation continued to grow its footprint and economy along with its emissions of greenhouse gasses.

a graph showing human population by region from 1820 to 2019
The human population has skyrocketed in the last few hundred years

Now, the human population is almost 8 billion people, worldwide. And each one has a “carbon footprint.” Some argue that reducing the population is necessary to stop and reverse climate change. And the logical way to reduce the population is to choose to stop having kids.

It’s hard to argue with the logic that decreasing the population would probably decrease carbon emissions. But there are also compelling reasons to have a child, and it is a personal choice. And if you do have children, don’t feel guilty about their carbon footprint. Instead, make sure they understand their relationship with nature and what they need to know about climate change.

The future that kids face thanks to climate change

Climate change-related predictions are now common in disciplines like economics, sociology, and ecology. And few of those predictions are good. Kids today will inherit challenges ranging from the loss of coral reefs to climate refugee housing. And the implications of climate change for jobs and the economy, reliable food systems, and clean air in the future are all disturbing.

If we don’t do anything to slow the rate of climate change, out kids will inherit some of the worst case scenario outcomes. And they will need to adapt to a quickly changing world. It could become common for children to grow up facing personal difficulty like hunger, expensive housing, and water shortages.

kids walking on road in refugee camp
Climate change could force kids into refugee camps more than war soon. Photo by Ahmed akacha on Pexels.com

Kids should prepare for a life with the impacts of climate change, and we should help them. Preparing for natural disasters is a good way to start. Slowing climate change down is not necessarily within our control. But we can try to support local farmers, protect and restore local wildlife habitat, and insulate or flood-proof our homes. These actions help protect our homes and neighborhoods from some of the predicted effects of climate change.

Kids want to fight climate change

It seems like kids can have boundless energy. And kids love to help with problems. But kids need guidance and help to put that energy into a problem in a way that helps. Parents and teachers can play a vital role in helping kids channel aggressive feelings or anxiety into fighting climate change.

Each generation of our culture seems to become less and less connected to nature. But kids used to grow up playing in the woods. One of the benefits of unlawning is that it creates opportunities to connect with nature close to home.

girl wearing eyeglasses smelling flowers
Kids are quick to spot the benefits of being close to nature. Photo by Michael Morse on Pexels.com

When kids form a close connection with nature, they are able to share that with others. And they can help other kids who are interested in climate change understand how they can help in their own life.

Habitat at home

How do we treat the Earth around our homes? What does the grass lawn represent in our culture? And how can we bring habitat home and treat our part of the Earth as an ecosystem?

Should you have wildlife habitat near your home?

Caring for an ecosystem is more complex than just mowing the grass once a week. To restore a healthy ecosystem to your lawn, you’ll have to put in some time, learn new things, and get your hands dirty.

What you give up for habitat

Do you want to convert part of your lawn into a wildlife habitat? Before you start, you should think about what you could be giving up, including:

  • having a lawn that conforms to your neighbors’ aesthetics
  • access to a wide open area to walk freely or play
  • time, which you may need to devote to learning, planting, weeding, or otherwise managing the habitat

If you’re like most Americans, you don’t need a big grass field to walk or play in. But, even if you do, unlawning gradually allows you to keep your grass lawn and create habitat near your home in areas that you use less.

native pollinator habitat at home on a shady hillside
Not the best place to kick a soccer ball

And it’s true that managing this land will take some of your time. But, with some planning it could average out to less time than mowing every week takes. The time you spend researching and planning your habitat at home will translate into reduced maintenance time.

The biggest sacrifice you make by adding habitat is the change of aesthetics. The manicured grass lawn is still associated with wealth and excess of a different age. This association is linked to the first American mansions and estates with owners so wealthy, they could sacrifice good farmland for mowed grass that looked clean and sanitized. Of course, now it is just a symbol of typical suburban living to have a grass lawn. But America hasn’t quite let go of the lawn as a status symbol yet.

Quality habitat near a home

Creating good quality wildlife habitat is easy. The complication with doing it near people is the people, not the ecology. So why is it so difficult, and how can you get around these difficulties to create a habitat at home?

The required components for wildlife habitat

Ecology is an incredibly deep and complex field of study. There is a huge amount of information left to discover about the living world. But we know some basics about creating a habitat for wildlife. The National Wildlife Federation will tell you the only 5 things needed are food, water, cover, places to raise young, and sustainable practices. The technical procedures for each of these requirements are mostly quite simple and accessible to the average homeowner.

You could research and plan for years and still not know enough to guarantee success with your habitat. For an overview of everything you need to know, read The Unlawning Guide. Luckily, mother nature does most of the work of creating wildlife habitat near your home when you unlawn. In the meantime, visit some local forests or other natural areas and pick a small or unused part of your lawn to be your first unlawning experiment.

Boosting habitat quality at home

Once you’ve met the minimum requirements for a wildlife habitat on your first few square feet, you may want to increase the ecological benefits of your habitat. The key here is diversity. You want to have a large variety of native plant species that fill different vertical layers and ecological roles.

If your neighborhood is full of mature trees that are surrounded by lawns, adding more trees might not benefit local wildlife nearly as much as a meadow or prairie. If your neighborhood is all lawn with no forest, you might consider a grove of native fruit trees to increase diversity. It all depends on your local needs and conditions.

Challenges for your home habitat (and how to handle them)

From upset neighbors to unexpected encounters, wildlife habitat can come with some problems. By creating a habitat near your home, you are inviting animals to come into that space. This could include wasps, rodents, snakes, and even coyotes. You may also find some native plants growing that have thorns or cause rashes (like poison ivy).

Pests in the home habitat

While hazardous plants and animals are a legitimate concern, you aren’t in much danger. You’re unlikely to be stung or bit unless you are bothering animals. Some bugs like mosquitos and horseflies may want to prey on you, but you can protect yourself with long sleeves or bug spray. And identifying hazardous plants is an easy skill to learn. In fact, the more time you spend learning and visiting your habitat, the safer you’ll be when interacting with nature. Still, it’s a good idea to leave at least a few yards of buffer between your home and habitat. This helps to protect your home from risks like insect infestations and fire.

a honey locust with spines stands in front of a meadow in winter
honey locusts grow long, sharp spines when grown in a natural setting

But the plants that are most hazardous are the nonnative invasives. Especially if you’re in a city or suburb, the chance of an invasive plant popping up in your home habitat is nearly 100%. Learn to recognize the most common invasive plants in your region and cut them back at least twice a year. Pull them out by the root if you can.

People in the home habitat

Neighbors pose a different type of challenge. Homeowner’s associations have earned a reputation for being pesky and controlling when it comes to landscaping choices. And many cities have lawn maintenance codes that can result in steep fines for tall grass. Finding out what rules apply to your home habitat is a good idea before getting started.

For the best chance of placating neighbors and the authorities about your lawn’s new aesthetic, consider placing a sign. Groups like National Wildlife Federation and Homegrown National Park can provide yard signs for your home habitat. This proves that you intended for the space to look different from the typical landscaping in the neighborhood, and that you are willing to explain your reasoning.

The stewardship ethic

In the conservation world stewardship is a popular concept of caring for the land. The idea of a stewardship ethic emerged in the early 1900’s as the national parks were being created. Stewardship of the Earth implies a responsibility for what happens to it, but not complete control over nature.

a black dog basks in the sun in front of some virginia bluebells in a home habitat
spending time in nature boosts your mood!

Stewardship is about being a good caretaker and neighbor, but also about what you leave behind. When you create a habitat at home, you are stewarding a piece of land that has been mistreated, but is still part of the whole Earth. As our Earth ails from climate change and its 6th mass extinction event, your land has a role to play. Creating habitat at home is one of the most effective ways for individuals to help heal the Earth. And it’s not as hard as you think! Start with an unlawning project this year!

3 mistakes to avoid when creating pollinator habitat

Creating a pollinator habitat is one of the best and easiest ways to increase your lawn’s biodiversity. But supporting native pollinators can be complicated, especially in areas where they don’t have much habitat available. Ensure success when you create a pollinator habitat by avoiding these three mistakes.

Mistake 1: focusing just on flowers

While it’s true that pollinators rely on flowers for nectar as adults, these animals have a complicated life cycle with many other needs as well. When you are creating a pollinator habitat, in addition to native flowers you should provide:

  • native host plants with edible leaves for larvae (especially oak, cherry, and willow trees)
  • native plants with hollow stalks that larvae can live in during winter
  • a water source
  • appropriate soil conditions for native pollinator species. This could be sand, clay, deep mulch and leaf litter, etc.
we created this pollinator habitat and saw monarch butterflies the first year
A monarch butterfly enjoys a zinnia bloom

You should also consider the timing of your blooms when creating a pollinator habitat. Flowers in early spring and summer are great, but the animals coming to your habitat may be in for some hard times if they can’t find food after September. There are unlimited details you can consider, explained in The Unlawning Guide. But keeping it simple and small at first will help you take new information in stride.

Mistake 2: creating generalist pollinator habitat

If you plant non-native flowers in your pollinator habitat, you put a low ceiling on the potential ecological benefits. Using a large variety of native perennials is the best approach to promote biodiversity and maximize the benefits of your pollinator habitat.

The reason it’s so important to use native plants is that many native pollinators are specialists. They can only complete their lifecycle if a specific plant or two can be found. This is why movements to save Monarch butterflies focus heavily on planting milkweed. The monarch doesn’t need milkweed nectar as an adult, but monarch larvae (caterpillars) can only eat a few kinds of leaves, and their favorite is milkweed.

creating pollinator habitat with goldenrod and asters will bring in specialists and generalists
Pollinators on your goldenrod will attract native birds as well. Photo by Chris F on Pexels.com

Other native butterflies and bees are dependent on certain goldenrod, aster, or coneflower species. So, create your pollinator habitat using a wide variety native plants to take care of the specialists. Generalist pollinators, the ones that are happy to visit any flower and eat many kinds of leaves, will visit any of the plants the specialists rely on.

Mistake 3: trying to control habitat like a garden

The pollinator habitat you create is like a buffet for bugs. Along with pollinators, you might find slugs and aphids. And before you can pull out your garden pesticide, you notice flowers in need of dead-heading, and you wonder about adding some fertilizer to keep those blooms coming.

But what effect will this kind of management have on the ecological function of your pollinator habitat? Some of these practices, especially the use of pesticides, will severely damage your habitat’s productivity. Generally speaking, your pollinator habitat differs from a traditional garden in that:

  • no fertilizer or pesticide is needed (adding compost may be an exception)
  • dead stems and branches should be left alone
  • prune plants for shape infrequently, depending on the plant species
a butterfly enjoys native pollinator habitat
Pollinator habitat doesn’t need deadheading. Photo by Rajukhan Pathan on Pexels.com

Remember, you created a pollinator habitat to provide for the needs of these animals that serve as the foundation for our ecological wellbeing. Generally speaking, habitats appear untidy compared to manicured landscaping.

How to create the best pollinator habitat

For a successful habitat, it’s important to leave it alone. Don’t fret over an individual plant that dies. You can put off weeding for months at a time. Remember that the pollinator habitat you’re creating will be around for decades. So, the first few years are about creating the conditions needed for nature to come back into the lawn environment. For increasing the ecological benefits of the rest of your lawn, read How to create an eco friendly lawn.

Shade rewilding plants

Rewilding a shady piece of land requires a planned approach. Once you remove grass from a shady area, it’s harder to get it back. You’ll want to consider plant choices and locations to ensure the best outcome. But don’t worry, we’ll walk you through everything you need to know for shade rewilding.

Why is rewilding in the shade a challenge?

Shade rewilding can be difficult because only certain species are considered shade happy plants. Any many of these are nonnative plants with limited ecological benefit.

Plants only need a few things to grow – sunlight, air, water, and nutrients (soil). The reason trees invest so many resources into a tall, thick trunk and branches is to take up as much sunlight as possible. Under the forest canopy, shade happy plants slowly spread out in a natural setting.

This slow spreading can create an additional problem when selecting shade happy plants for rewilding. Exposed soil is vulnerable to erosion, which is your worst enemy when working with land. You need something to grow quickly enough to “stabilize” the soil.

Types of shade

Before we dive into native shade happy plants, let’s look at the types of shade. Gardeners will be familiar with the distinction between “partial shade” and “full shade.” This is a subjective measure of sunlight levels in a particular spot, but it can be misleading.

Tree shade

Trees produce the shade in forests, which is the natural setting for most shade happy native plants. But the leaves creating most of the shade in the forest are translucent. Light can pass through them. So, underneath the canopy light is still reaching the ground.

worms eyeview of green trees
Full shade doesn’t mean zero sunlight. Photo by Felix Mittermeier on Pexels.com

The canopy will also occasionally lose a branch or a whole tree. Levels around the opening skyrocket until it can be filled by neighboring trees. Similarly, wind can cause trees to sway, giving the forest floor short, intermittent bursts of stronger sunlight. Some trees also drop their leaves for part of the year, and some shade happy plants take advantage of this by waiting to go dormant or keeping their leaves altogether.

Rewilding in the shade of a tree is going to closely resemble the natural conditions that most shade happy native plants prefer. You’ll have more options for placement and species selection in this type of shade.

Structure shade

Houses and buildings produce plenty of shade, too. And you may want to rewild the shady side of your house. This can be an extra challenge as most structures are fully opaque and permanent. The north side of your structure is similar to the north face of a steep hill in nature. In places, the only sunlight that reaches a plant has to be reflected off another surface, like the clouds or a neighbor’s house. There are plants that are happy in this insane amount of shade, too. But the list of them is short in most climates.

Structure shade has its benefits, though. Once your plants are established in an extremely shady spot, they should need virtually zero maintenance. And because your structure has a clear outline that does not sway, you can easily predict how much sunlight your plants will get, depending on the time of year. No guesswork needed.

Important characteristics of shade for rewilding

Shade affects your water levels

Some plants are both shade happy and “mesic.” Meaning they don’t mind standing water on their roots for part of the year. This can be important, because shady spots are going to hold water in the soil much longer than sunny places. If your plants are susceptible to drowning or root rot, a shady place that tends to get muddy will invite diseases.

rewilding created shade here. The only plants growing in this field are both shade and water loving.
Shade and moisture on a dirt road can cause major mud problems

Why does shade affect water?

The energy from sunlight makes water evaporate quickly. Without that energy, water will either flow over the soil, flow through the soil, or pool on top. If you have land that doesn’t naturally allow water to flow over the soil, adding drainage used to be the norm. But drainage is environmentally damaging and has a negative impact on stormwater control and flooding.

So, what makes the difference between water flowing through the soil rather than sitting on top of it where it creates a muddy mess? It’s plants.

Plants create a flow of water through the soil through photosynthesis. They need 6 water molecules to go with their 6 carbon dioxide molecules to make sugar. Where do they get these water molecules? They pull it up from the soil through their roots. Which also happens to bring along nutrients that are dissolved in the water.

Mitigating wet shade

So, in tree shade you are more likely to find dry sites, while structure shade is more likely to be wet. This is extremely general, and “dry” or “wet” depends on many factors. But there are things you can do to dry out your wet spots in the shade. Increase your soil’s ability to hold and move water by adding organic matter like mulch or plants that self-mulch. If you are working with a grass lawn in clay, you could aerate the soil (when it’s dry). Taller plants will allow water to flow more quickly, and plants with deep roots will allow better infiltration into the soil.

Besides plant selection and soil amendments, your other option is to change the shape of the land. You should NOT add drainage unless the water is threatening a structure or road. If you feel that you must change the shape of the wet area, do so by adding a rain garden or a swale. These structures will contain the excess water, similar to the purpose of a retention pond. But they have the added benefit of being potentially excellent plant and wildlife habitat. Adding native habitat has lots of other benefits as well.

Shade affects temperature

The sun’s energy that evaporates water also raises the temperature of the air. Without it, shady spots stay cool after the sun rises. On hot days, this represents shelter from searing temperatures. On colder days, it can mean death by freezing. Plants from a hardier zone might do well in your shady spots. This effect is compounded if you have wet shade. The moisture in the soil evaporates on hot days, cooling the ground like sweat. It also retains cold during freezes better than dry soil, which can kill roots.

Shade affects animal behavior

Shade is closely associated with “cover” in biology. Cover refers to basically anything that is over top of the thing being covered. Cover can be from predators, sunlight, rain, or a number of other things. Shade is one aspect of cover that is used by certain species.

Animals use shade for sleeping during the day, but also for sneaking up on prey. Shade is also useful for hiding a nest or offspring, but physical cover is more important for those things. Food like nuts and berries grow in the shade, and some leaves and shoots are edible. Generally, there is less to eat in the shade than in the sun because there is less sunlight energy to convert into sugar. Shade makes gardening difficult for this reason.

pink flower field
You can still attract pollinators in the shade. Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Shade affects aesthetics

The design of a landscape has to match the nature of the things that are in it. Shade may make up most of your property now or in the future as trees grow. What effect will that have on how your landscape represents you and your home?

For animals, the shade is a place for nesting and resting, and sometimes stalking and sneaking. That sounds like a recipe for great bird photographs to me. For other people, it might make you look reclusive or lazy, or even hostile. We definitely want to avoid upsetting the neighbors.

The tried and semi-true method of appeasing the neighborhood is to add a tasteful level of garden kitsch. Some neighbors will be even more appalled at your landscaping choice, though, if you add glass orbs and gnomes.

The more recently thought-of gesture of neighborliness that is gaining traction these days is official signage. Obtaining a wildlife habitat certification for your yard is pretty easy.

Working with shade for good aesthetics

It all comes down to what message you want to send to your neighbors about this place and who lives there. So, if your place is naturally shady, make sure it is also inviting. That could mean signs, paths, or flower beds. Shady places are naturally quiet. Things move slowly in the shade. Make your shade an opportunity to slow down and take refuge from the busy day. If you slow down, you will start to see incredible things. With the help of shade happy native plants, you will discover a new world of insects, birds, and other wildlife.

Take advantage of spots of brightness for contrast. And combat overgrowth if it starts to detract from the ecological value. For example, vines may completely cover a tree, preventing all sunlight from reaching the ground and damaging or killing the tree. Or a shrub may produce fewer berries over time and need pruning.

Shade happy rewilding plants

With ALL that information in mind, let’s talk about plants. In our plant selection we need to account for

  • Light level
  • Hardiness Zone (temperatures)
  • Water level
  • Drainage
  • Soil pH
  • Nutrients in the soil
  • Aesthetics
  • Plant maintenance & rate of spread
  • Cost

That’s quite a few variables! Luckily, if you start by restricting your search to only shade happy plants that are native to your region or close to it, you can produce a fairly short list. Check it against these variables to find a plant match for your shady spot. There are lots of native plant databases online. But sadly, none of them are set up for this kind of research. However, nurseries like Prairie Nursery in Westfield, WI have excellent regional information that is well organized.

Example of shade rewilding

Let’s do an example – the north side of my house. It happens to be a short, steep hill and it used to just have some grass growing on it.

  • Light level – extremely low. The north side of a hill and a structure.
  • Hardiness Zone – 7a
  • Water level – fairly low (for the area) due to quick drainage and the house uphill diverting most rainfall around this area.
  • Drainage – the steep slope lets water from short storms run off quickly. But frequent rain will soak the clay soil which takes a long time to dry in the shade
  • Soil pH – slightly alkaline
  • Nutrients in the soil – poor
  • aesthetics – the area is hidden almost completely from view from the street and our house. It is right next to the main entrance to the neighbors’ house.
  • plant maintenance and rate of spread – Erosion must be prevented, but I would prefer not to have to work on the steep hillside every year
  • cost – we aren’t going to invest in a big project here, where we won’t easily be able to see it. But we also don’t want something ugly where our neighbors have to look at it.

We left the grass on the hill. With limited sunlight and water, it grows very slowly. I mow part in the summer to keep it from getting onto the neighbor’s driveway. We planted coral bells, which are native to most of the eastern U.S., in the grass in groups. A few of them died of sunburns in the summer near the edges of the shade. We replaced these with columbines.

Example outcome

Grass isn’t suited to this spot, so it’s slowly dying off. But it’s holding the soil in place and mulching the ground while the coral bells and columbines spread their seeds across the hillside. Under the taller grass, mosses are growing since we stopped mowing.

Aesthetically, both of the added native plants produce beautiful blooms that attract pollinators. They leave tufts of stalks in the winter where insect larvae hide from predators. The hillside wasn’t useful as a lawn before. It just looked barren against the brick of the house. Now, it fills up with butterflies and bees, especially on hot days.

How to find shade happy native plants for your yard

The easiest way to find plants for your shade rewilding project is to visit a native plant nursery website like Direct Native Plants. Then all you need to do is create conditions for your native plants to thrive and spread. You may find that a species just doesn’t like your yard. That’s OK, try different native plant species until you have a healthy and stable mix of perennials. Don’t forget that you can always add understory trees and shrubs to shady spots, too.

How to create an eco friendly lawn

Creating an eco friendly lawn is definitely easier said than done. And a lot of different options are out there. So how can you make your lawn environmentally friendly?

How can you have an eco friendly lawn?

There are three strategies for making a lawn environmentally friendly.

  1. Reduce the need to mow, use pesticides, and water
  2. Shrink the size of the lawn and replace it with something else
  3. Do both of these at once

Reducing lawn maintenance

Mowing your lawn is a requirement for keeping grass healthy. But many homeowners choose to mow much more than is necessary. This keeps their lawn looking nice and tidy, and makes mowing easier. Mowing less often without changing anything else could be a frustrating strategy.

To reduce the amount of maintenance your lawn needs, you need to change how your lawn grows. If you water less and don’t fertilize, you can probably mow less. But your grass might be brown in August.

high angle view of lying down on an eco friendly lawn
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com An eco friendly lawn might have some weeds

What about the extreme of mowing schedules? You could mow just once a year. If you time it correctly for your climate and the type of grass you have, it could work. You would have a meadow instead of a lawn. Maybe try this strategy on a small part of the lawn before you commit to the whole thing.

Another way to reduce your lawn’s need for maintenance is to change the ground cover. There are lawn replacement seed mixes available for homeowners who want to have a grassy lawn with a low maintenance need.

Shrinking the lawn

The ecological problem of lawns is really just that they take up a LOT of space. If every square foot of lawn needs maintenance, why not just get rid of some? Some people replace their lawn with hardscaping. Things like paths, walls, patios, and rocks. Or, you could add a waterfall, stream, or pond. But these are all fairly large design projects.

Increasing your lawn’s ecological benefits

If you want to have the biggest impact by shrinking your lawn, you should think about what will replace it. Reducing the amount of lawn you had to maintain is great, but replacing your lawn with native plants is even better. Creating habitat where you used to have lawn tips the scale back toward a healthy ecosystem. Part of your lawn could become habitat for pollinators, birds, and other local wildlife.

Monarch butterfly enjoys native pollinator habitat
This garden brings in plenty of pollinators, including monarchs. Milkweed is the most important plant to support monarch reproduction

How to add habitat to your lawn

Adding a pollinator habitat area to your lawn is an easy way to cut down on mowing. It’s simple, too. You just need a few good native pollinator plants like bee balm, milkweed, and wild blue indigo – the more variety the better. Then, mark out an area in your lawn, as small as a few square feet, to be your pollinator habitat. Plant your native pollinator plants right in among the grass, but pull the grass away from them 2 to 3 inches. Now, lay cardboard or newspaper over all the grass, leaving gaps for your pollinator plants. Lastly, add some mulch for aesthetics and water everything thoroughly.

Once you establish your pollinator garden this way, the mulch and cardboard will turn into soil. You can then add a native ground cover to fill in the gaps between your pollinator plants. Ground cover gives winter interest and makes the border between your lawn and your pollinator habitat look smooth and natural.

Creating a wildlife habitat for birds and mammals is easy too. The pollinators are a great source of food for birds, they just need some nearby native trees or shrubs. The denser it is, the more likely you’ll get nests. Wildlife need water, food, and shelter. So, add some water sources, dense native shrubs, and herbaceous plants like native forbs that will attract insects and can be eaten or produce fruit.

Shrinking the lawn can backfire

The primary ecological benefits from your lawn are that it prevents erosion and is better than concrete. It allows water to penetrate soil, kinda. And it photosynthesizes, kinda. It also contributes less than concrete to urban heat islands.

So, when a lawn is removed, there should be a plan in place. Without a ground cover, the soil could erode. If the plants replacing the lawn can’t survive without constant watering, does nature benefit more than it pays?

Erosion is hard to control near streams, especially on trails

You want your lawn to be eco friendly, and you want to avoid unnecessary risks. Unlawning is a way to enhance your lawn’s ecological benefits without letting it go completely feral.

Doing both: the eco friendly lawn combo

Replacing your whole lawn with a no-mow seed mix or a xeriscape is NOT necessarily an effective way to boost your lawn’s natural benefits. Instead, you need to think about the defining characteristics of your lawn and what those mean in nature. Then, use those characteristics to tailor your maintenance and the size of your lawn.

Characteristics of your lawn

To understand your lawn and it’s effects on nature, you need to know a few things about it. Does it retain water and get muddy? Or is it fast draining and prone to droughts? Is it shady or sunny? What planting zone are you in? Are parts of it flat? Are certain parts of it perfect for the kids to play or for socializing with friends?

Decide which parts of your lawn are most useful to you. These are places that you could continue to water, mow, and even fertilize responsibly. Places that are annoying to mow, like steep hills or muddy spots, probably don’t need the same level of care. Especially since they also make poor play areas for kids and can’t be used for barbecuing or yard games.

These problem areas are perfect for creating habitat. If your lawn backs up to a stream or woodland, adding habitat to the edge of that natural area has huge ecological benefits. If not, native pollinator habitat is useful anywhere.

Manipulating your lawn’s characteristics for ecological gain

Those characteristics we talked about (water level, light level, and terrain shape) can be changed. Adding woody plants (trees and shrubs) will add shade, which means less mowing and watering. Our unlawning guide further explains how layers of vegetation work together.

Creating a depression to act as a rain garden can prevent muddy grass nearby. Mowing on a steep slope is dangerous and irritating. So, reduce mowing to once or twice a year to create a meadow. Don’t worry too much about seed mixes for this, as your soil is probably already chock-full of wildflower seeds just waiting on the right conditions to sprout. Still, it never hurts to add a handful of native group plantings.

a monarch butterfly emerges from its chrysalis near an eco friendly lawn
We swapped part of our lawn for eco friendly pollinator habitat. Within a year we got to watch a monarch leave its chrysalis.

Designing the eco friendly lawn

When taking the approach of combining reduced maintenance with a shrunken lawn, you don’t want to neglect aesthetics. The last thing you want is a sprawling thicket blocking the view of your house and offending your neighbors.

If you decide to shrink your lawn by replacing it with native habitat, your house will start to look different. You’ll have taller vegetation, more shade, and maybe some trees or shrubs that reduce the visibility onto your land. You’ll also have wildlife hiding in that reduced visibility, munching on leaves or insects. Some neighbors may view this as less beautiful, or even ugly.

While you can’t please everyone, you can at least make your new habitat look intentional and inviting. Signs, pathways into the habitat, and borders around it are good tactics to manage your neighborhood relationships.

a wildlife habitat certification in an eco friendly lawn
Adding wildlife habitat will help make your lawn eco friendly

How is this doing both? Won’t I still have to spend a lot of time and resources on yard work?

Sure, you could just replace your lawn with something eco friendly without changing its size. That would reduce the harm your lawn causes – great! And you could continue to manage it with just mowing. If you add habitat, you aren’t sure what kind of maintenance it will need, how much it will cost, or how it will look when complete.

Instead, start small. Pick a small area of your lawn to restore as habitat each year. If you focus on one project at a time, you can easily test new ideas, manage your budget, and get rid of things you don’t like before they become overwhelming. This approach lets you get to know your land and your plants gradually, while slowly inviting nature back into your space. By taking your time, you’ll notice more of the small things that happen, like seeing a new kind of bird or butterfly for the first time, or finding out that the fruit of one of your plants is edible (and tasty).

You’ll find out that this approach to lawn maintenance, just getting to know your land, is meditative and restorative, rather than stressful. There is very little that needs to be done once your habitat is established. If you have problems with invasive plants, you can take two approaches. One; spend an afternoon or two every month cutting them back. Or two; spend a whole day or two every year pulling them out by the root.

lawn gardening tools in pot near gloves
Manage small things with small tools. Photo by Gary Barnes on Pexels.com

Many native plants can be found for fairly cheap from native plant nurseries. Or sometimes for free from native gardening groups. Plus, because they are well suited to grow here (since they’re from here), many will naturally seed the area and spread out quickly without any need to water or fertilize.

The key to an eco friendly lawn

There are a lot of ways to increase the ecological benefits of your lawn, but there’s only one key to all of them. You have to make space for nature in your life. The space your lawn takes up used to be wildlife habitat. Now that we are entering the Earth’s 6th mass extinction, wildlife need that space more than ever. Inviting nature to come into your lawn and your life a few square feet at a time is a way to personally coexist with nature and take part in healing the Earth. Every square foot counts, so start small and keep an open mind.

Habitat Creation

How people can give nature a fighting chance

Why do we need to create habitat?

If you watch the news, it shouldn’t be a surprise to hear that the Earth is not looking so healthy. It seems constant to hear about a major storm in this city, or a tornado in that one. We continue to witness the extinction of up to 150 species every day. Many of these are in faraway and exotic “biodiversity hotspots,” like the Amazon or Yellowstone.

upper falls of the yellowstone river. highly important habitat exists at yellowstone
Photo by Jane Mir on Pexels.com

But many more are in your State, or even your city. Several may be within a mile of your house. You might even have one in your yard.

These extinctions can be caused by many things, but the primary cause is habitat loss. And most of the other causes are related to “human activities.” In other words, we are killing these species. So, the ethical and obvious first step is to stop and reverse habitat loss. This means we need to create habitat where it used to be, but no longer exists.

Is anybody creating habitat?

It’s easy to answer whether or not we have stopped habitat loss; no. The best we have been able to do is protect specific places from certain uses. The most stringent of these protections is a “wilderness area” which applies to a very small portion of total protected land. Others are protected only from subdivision and further development, with few or no restrictions on how the land is managed. The community that favors this approach to conservation is currently working toward protecting 30% of the U.S. by 2030. This goal is backed by President Biden through executive order. These protections are helpful to protect biodiversity in many cases, but they usually don’t include habitat creation.

As far as the creation of new habitat, there are local projects supported by state initiatives. As always, the obvious approach seems “impossible” at the national scale. And so, countless local volunteer projects compete for small grants and sometimes receive free trees to plant along streams. On public conservation lands, some government entities perform restoration or management work. Usually with the stated goal of creating specific habitat types. Efforts by both of these groups are admirable, and helpful, and always lead to new and better techniques for creating habitat. Unfortunately, these efforts have not been enough to stop species loss. More is needed. Much more.

habitat creation efforts to restore ecosystems in california
Source: https://www.ppic.org/blog/a-faster-track-for-ecosystem-restoration/

How can we get more people to create habitat?

A lot of folks are trying to figure this question out. Strategies range from tax breaks, increased access to official resources and information, and voluntary legal agreements to political rallies, grassroots non-profits, and thousands of would-be entrepreneurs with a big idea,.

But very few people will take care of the land they are in charge of. And even fewer will help their neighbor to better care of nature on her land. They will actually do the opposite, and try to keep nature away from their lawns with pesticides and lawnmowers. People want to believe that nature, ailing as it is, is far away from their neighborhood, in a park or forest. Nature is under your feet as you walk on your grass. It’s time to stop ignoring it. So, if you want to get people to create habitat, you should create one. It’s easier than you think. Check out our page How does Unlawning work?

Habitat creation in a suburban neighborhood

Habitat creation is more important than ever

We are past warnings now, as scientists now believe that we have already entered the Earth’s 6th mass extinction event. Tragedy cannot be prevented at this point. But we can still try to lessen the blow to Earth’s ecology. Carbon emissions are only one piece of the puzzle. We need healthy ecosystems in every city to serve as habitat for the plants and animals we share our home with and depend on. Your lawn can be part of it! You can be part of it. Why unlawn?

5 Eco-friendly high traffic lawn replacement options

As the unlawning movement grows, homeowners are looking for an alternative to grass that can handle some foot traffic. Finding an eco-friendly high traffic lawn replacement can be a challenge. And it takes some creativity to reinvent your lawn. We’ll walk you through 5 unlawning options that work for different conditions so you can find what’s right for your lawn.

Best eco-friendly lawn replacements for high traffic areas

These ground cover options are eco-friendly replacements for grass in lawns that experience high traffic. As you look through the list, keep in mind that you will want to choose one that works for your zone, conditions, and daily needs.

1. Clover

Source: https://www.wakemanswhitebirchnursery.com/summer-horticulture/installing-a-100-organic-clover-lawn

A clover lawn looks and behaves very similar to a grass lawn. But clover is more eco-friendly than grass. The blooms will attract pollinators, especially bees. And clover is edible for wildlife! Humans can also eat small amounts of clover and it is even considered medicinal. Clover can be mixed with a grass lawn to support high traffic. But a pure clover lawn can handle low and medium traffic. For lower traffic areas, mixing clover with wild strawberries will maximize the benefit to wildlife and pollinators.

2. Buffalo grass

buffalo grass is an eco-friendly grass lawn alternative
Source: https://hoffmannursery.com/blog/article/try-a-different-lawn-with-buffalo-grass

If you really love the look and feel of grass, consider switching to native Buffalo Grass. In a high traffic area, wildflowers and other “weeds” will struggle to compete with this native grass. And buffalo grass can withstand frequent trampling, like most grasses. Buffalo grass is eco-friendly in that it doesn’t require much water, fertilizer, or mowing (just a few times a year). And if you let it to grow tall, it will flower and attract native pollinators and caterpillars.

3. Moss

moss is an eco-friendly grass alternative
Photo by Nejc Košir on Pexels.com

For those shady areas where grass doesn’t thrive, moss may be the best option. Mosses come in many varieties which are suited to different parts of the county. But generally they like moisture and shade, though they can adapt sometimes to sunlight. Many mosses can handle moderate traffic once established. And moss is great for controlling erosion on shady hills and near streams. Plus, it never needs to be mowed and doesn’t require much maintenance, except watering during droughts. Moss can restore damaged soil, too.

4. Dichondra

Source: Christian Curtis via YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KkgyHrNJPSw

If you live near the coast, eco-friendly dichondra lawns were probably popular in the 70’s and 80’s in your neighborhood. But they’ve fallen out of favor along with creativity in landscaping. Still, dichondra makes for a lush carpet requiring much less maintenance and water than grass. Dichondra can handle moderate traffic, especially when combined with other ground covers. Some dichondra species are native to the U.S. This makes them much better for local insects and pollinators than the Australian or Asian species.

5. Hard pathways

cute siblings walking on pathway in garden
Photo by Allan Mas on Pexels.com

If you’re going for an intentional and clean look somewhere that gets extremely high foot traffic, it may be worthwhile to harden up a pathway. Mulch, gravel, pavers, or stones make an attractive and sustainable surface for a designated walkway. If your lawn gets high traffic and you’re hoping for an eco-friendly alternative, the best strategy is to concentrate that traffic on a pathway. Then, plants can grow around it without being trampled. Your plants will have the biggest ecological impact if they can grow to their natural shape. You can have a truly eco-friendly high traffic lawn replacement by following our unlawning guide and incorporating pathways in your design.

Eco-friendly high traffic lawn replacements: a simple solution for a low maintenance lawn

For every-season appeal and a highly resilient landscape, combine these strategies. These lawn alternatives may thrive in different parts of your lawn or at different times of year. Diversity is key to a healthy ecosystem, and your lawn is part of ours!

Rewilding Myths

Rewilding can seem counterintuitive for many homeowners. But it’s a straightforward land management practice with countless benefits. Unfortunately, myths about rewilding have prevented homeowners from considering it for their lawn. Let’s clear up some of these myths.

Myth #1: Lawns are better for kids

It’s the iconic American summer: kids in the front lawn run through the sprinkler while the ice-cream man drives past. A soccer ball that’s been kicked around all morning sits against the picket fence. Who wouldn’t want their kids to experience this?

Unfortunately, this scene is a fantasy. Most kids prefer to play video games inside the house, even in summer, rather than play outside. Nearly every house in the country has a lawn that kids could use, but they don’t. Kids need to play outside. So, where’s the disconnect?

The reality about kids and nature

girl wearing eyeglasses smelling flowers. Rewilding gives kids more opportunities to enjoy natural spaces.
Photo by Michael Morse on Pexels.com

Children love to explore, above all else. They don’t want to stand in the same grassy lawn they’ve stood in a thousand times and kick the same ball against a fence. They want to find out what’s under that rock. Or try to climb the big oak tree. They crave new experiences as they get to know the world more deeply. Rewilding isn’t just a source for educational opportunities, it’s also a chance for kids to feel free. They can explore secret places and make up stories about the things they find.

But what about outdoor safety?

Parents are hesitant to let their kids play in wilder places. There are seemingly higher risks, outside of the lawn. The outdoors is home to snakes, ticks, poison ivy, and other dangers. Isn’t it a parent’s duty to protect their child from these hazards?

Kids are going to become adults one day, and will need to fend for themselves. Learning to recognize risks like poison ivy will be important. As far as snakes and other animals, most encounters come from people harassing the animal. If kids are taught to leave wildlife alone, the risk drops to nearly zero. But what about bug bites and ticks? It’s true that being outside comes with the unfortunate reality of bug bites. But your kid will be OK, just itchy. Learning how to treat bug bites is another good skill for kids to have, and thorough tick-checks after play sessions will prevent tick-borne illnesses like Lyme Disease.

Myth #2: Rewilding is just letting weeds grow

Lawns across America are plagued by dandelions, clover, and crabgrass. Rewilding just encourages these weeds to spread out even more, doesn’t it?

Rewilding is definitely not a movement to grow more dandelions. In fact, the common dandelion, T. officinale, is not a native plant in the U.S. and so most successful rewilding efforts would not include it. It also happens to be edible and medicinal.

But dandelions aren’t a major factor for rewilding efforts. Instead, rewilding focuses on reintroducing native plants as much as possible. Homeowners may consider some native plants to be weeds, but most are beautiful, interesting, and unique.

native asters are related to dandelions and sometimes considered as weeds. Rewilding encourages homeowners to recognize the beauty of native wildflowers.
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The truth about weeds

The USDA keeps a list of the worst weeds in the U.S. It’s called the noxious weed list. This is a list of introduced plant species that are actively destroying the ecosystems of our country. Invasive noxious weeds displace native plants and provide limited or no benefit to native wildlife. Rewilding efforts fight hard to prevent the spread of these weeds by encouraging growth of native plants. These native plants are necessary for slowing the extinction of our native wildlife, especially birds.

When a landowner starts a rewilding project, they usually begin by removing all of the noxious weeds. Since these weeds are persistent, they usually need to be cut back or pulled several more times. Where are all these weeds coming from?

The source of all weeds

Want to know a secret? Every single invasive noxious weed in the United States was intentionally brought here. Every one. Homeowners who thought their house would look beautiful with a hedge brought privet from Europe that’s now found in every woodlot near a city. Sinophiles adorned their lots with the Asian ailanthus altissima or “Tree of Heaven” which immediately invaded our forests. Engineers planted kudzu across the southeast to control erosion. It quickly blanketed roadsides, choking out native plants across thousands of acres.

We can’t get rid of invasive plants now. Pandora’s box has been opened, and our environment has been damaged as a result. But we can help the environment heal by removing these noxious weeds and letting native plants grow in as many places as possible. Still think those dandelions are spoiling your neighborhood? Well, Bermuda Grass is on the noxious weed list, too.

Myth #3: Wild animals should be kept away from neighborhoods

Rewilding leads to healthier populations of wildlife. First the smallest things, insects, will move in to pollinate flowers and chomp on native plant leaves. Next, the birds, spiders, and other predators appear to snack on those tasty bugs. Eventually, larger members of the food web may appear to take their place in the natural ecology. But doesn’t that mean that bugs, spiders, and potentially dangerous animals will be right outside your door if you rewild?

Where are they now?

If you’re worried about wildlife getting too close to home, consider where they can survive today. Humans have destroyed or degraded nearly three quarters of the world’s land. Three quarters! With wildlife confined to only a quarter of the planet, can we really be surprised that we are entering the world’s sixth mass extinction event? Local wildlife needs as much space as we can provide.

Rewilding for habitat

close up photo of blue bird perched on branch. Rewilding provides food and habitat for local bird populations.
Photo by Andrew Mckie on Pexels.com

Rewilding creates a habitat for native wildlife, and so homeowners will definitely catch sight of more bugs, birds, and small mammals. But those critters don’t want to come into your house. Mostly, they want to eat, mate, and shelter from predators and weather.

One of my neighbors relentlessly sprays pesticides in her lawn because she hates bugs. And guess what? She still has bugs. Bugs live outside. And they are the first link in the food chain. Bugs provide the invaluable service of converting plant matter into digestible food for other animals. Most insects are totally harmless to people, and even wasps and bees only sting when circumstances force them to do so.

Measuring rewilding success

Rewilding efforts immediately have a positive effect on local insect and bird populations. The sign of success is spotting some natural predators. If snakes and birds of prey appear in your neighborhood, it’s a success story, not a problem! If rewilding is widespread and successful, you may even get to see a fox or mink.

Starting to think about rewilding?

Rewilding is a huge decision for many landowners, but there’s no need to rush into it. Unlawning gives you the opportunity to rewild a small portion of your lawn while keeping the aesthetics and usability of your grass lawn. Check out our unlawning guide to learn everything you need to know to rewild thoughtfully.