Unlawning fundamentals

You’ve heard about the benefits of natural landscaping, and you’re ready to turn your lawn into garden or habitat. While unlawning is a straightforward process, it can be intimidating to get started. Learn the fundamentals of unlawning to make natural landscaping easy, cheap, and effective!

Work with nature

Unlawning is all about transforming your traditional landscaping into a low maintenance landscape that benefits the environment. The easiest way to create this kind of landscape is to work with the natural characteristics of your land. What does this mean?

1. Choose native plants

Plants that are native to your area are the most likely to survive dry summers, long winters, or other climate conditions that your area may experience. Native plants also attract beneficial insects and local birds. Source your plants from local nurseries that specialize in native plants. To find native plants, check with local garden groups and organizations like wild ones.

native plants adorn a stairway
Landscaping with native plants saves water and mowing time, and benefits pollinators more than ornamental grasses and flowers

2. Pay attention to soil

Your soil pH and particle size (clay, sand, or loam) will have a large impact on which native plants will thrive in your lawn habitat. You can perform soil tests at home to find out more about your soil and how it may affect your plant choices. A healthy natural landscape begins with healthy soil! Some plants are able to improve your overall soil health. And reducing mowing will prevent soil compaction that impairs plant growth.

3. Natural aesthetic

Your natural landscape design should reflect the character of your land. For example, if your property is near a floodplain or stream, water features and wetland species make a lot of sense! Conversely, on a hilltop with lots of natural stone, native grasses mixed with a few shrubs will work better than tall trees with deep growing root systems. Your natural surroundings are often the best indicator of what kinds of landscape will work in your lawn.

A rain garden in Virginia planted with native wetland species
A rain garden can help with stormwater runoff and is a good example of natural landscaping

Start Small

While you may have grand ambitions of a pristine wildlife habitat in your backyard, it can take some time for your native perennials to get established. While it can be exciting to create as much habitat as possible in your lawn, keep in mind that the first year of your native species life they will require more water. Once they are established, your natural plant communities should be able to thrive in your yard without much help from you.

A beautiful landscape over time

When you start small by unlawning one or two areas of your yard at a time, you reduce the amount of time you’ll spend installing native plants. Frequently, these native species will spread on their own after a year or two.

One of the best ways to start unlawning is to plant a pollinator garden in your yard. Over time you can expand this garden. This will help you cut back on mowing without totally eliminating your grasses, and lets you introduce species native to the area a few at a time. By slowly converting your yard into a natural landscape, you can learn about gardening at your own pace while native wildlife starts to enjoy the benefits right away.

Consider water in the natural landscape

In the wild, plants survive on rainwater and groundwater. Rainwater is seasonal in most places, and many lawns do not have enough access to groundwater to stay green during a drought. Lawns also tend to flood during heavy rain. With careful plant selection and placement, you can alleviate both of these extreme water situations.

Landscaping for seasonal rainwater

In dry or steep areas of your lawn, stormwater runoff is likely to cause erosion, but not flooding. To preserve your soil and prevent water pollution, those areas need drought tolerant ground cover. Native grasses can be a good alternative to turf, and pair well with flowering perennials. A meadow like this can be maintained with minimal mowing – once or twice a year.

pocket prairie in Champagne, Illinois
Meadows are easy to establish and attract amazing wildlife! Truly the epitome of natural landscaping. Photo by Jeff Bryant on Flikr https://flickr.com/photos/jeff-m-bryant/

Landscaping for more water

Where your lawn tends to get muddy and is flatter, flooding is more of a concern than erosion, but drought can still strike. Trees and native shrubs with deep growing root systems tend to be the most resilient to these extremes. Because they provide shade, they can slow down evaporation during the hottest and driest times of year. And with their deep roots, they can help stormwater to infiltrate the ground. Once water is under the soil, the likelihood of both water pollution and surface flooding is greatly decreased.

Plan for native species of all kinds

While plant selection is the primary aspect of your natural landscaping under your control, you should spare some thought for the insects and wildlife that may take advantage of those plants. Flowers are good for attracting butterflies and bees, but the best pollinator habitats also include trees, shrubs, and water sources. Pollinator larvae (e.g. caterpillars) get their food from leaves. Oak and cherry trees can support hundreds of native species of pollinators, as well as the birds that eat them.

Animals in the garden

While it may seem counterintuitive to encourage predators and pollinators at the same time, the complex interactions of these communities are critical for a healthy natural landscape. If the butterflies in your garden had no natural predators, their larvae would decimate your plants!

So, encourage the birds in addition to bees. You can tailor your habitat to encourage or discourage all kinds of wildlife, including woodpeckers, raptors and ground dwelling animals. If you allow nature to take full advantage of your native landscaping, you will be rewarded with incredible photo opportunities, unique experiences, and plenty of other benefits.

close up photo of blue bird perched on branch
This gentleman may chow down on some of your caterpillars, but isn’t he cute? Photo by Andrew Mckie on Pexels.com

Incorporate layers

When you start installing native plants, you’ll be thinking in terms of square footage and placement. But your trees and shrubs will quickly reach much higher than your herbaceous plants. And if you have vines, they will happily spread horizontally and vertically. Traditional landscaping incorporates vertical elements to highlight or disguise certain areas. With natural landscaping, the same can be done – but those layers of vegetation can also serve a higher purpose.

Natural layers

The natural landscape contains an overstory, mid-story, understory, ground level, and a subterranean layer. By selecting a wide variety of local plants that includes trees, shrubs, and vines in addition to flowers, you’ll create an opportunity for a natural habitat to emerge in your yard. This is one area where unlawning differs from gardening. By mimicking nature, unlawning supports native wildlife including bees, butterflies, and birds.

Share your unlawning success with neighbors

One of the most overlooked aspects of natural landscaping is the way it benefits your entire neighborhood. Your neighbors may notice the increase in local birds, but they may not know all the ways that native habitats and natural landscaping can improve their lives.

Be sure to fill your neighbors in on how your native plants helps promote clean air and water. Stormwater runoff impacts everyone, and natural landscapes are one of the cheapest ways to mitigate floods.

A native landscape is a beautiful landscape

An easy way to promote your natural landscaping to your neighbors is to incorporate a small share garden. Everyone loves food! And by supplying free organic produce like tomatoes, peppers, and herbs, you can help your neighbors to associate your natural landscaping less with wild animals and more with food. Maybe they’ll come around and establish a native plant garden of their own!

a butterfly and bee check for nectar on a native flowering plant
Colorful native plants easily match and surpass the beauty of exotic species.

Choosing colorful native plants helps promote the beauty of nature and wild places. As you find out which native plants work for your landscape, you can share your knowledge and wisdom with neighbors and friends. You can teach others how to find native plants and how to design their natural landscaping to look intentional and beautiful.

Ask for help

Unlawning can be intimidating, no matter how much research you do. Luckily, the number of native gardening experts is on the rise. Unlawn.org offers planning services for natural landscapes. We can help you to select colorful native plants, map out your native landscaping plans, and provide technical advice on installing native plants.

an unlawning plan prepared by unlawn.org showing soil types and the forested wetland surrounding a property
An unlawning plan showing soil types on a property

Other groups around the country like wild ones, the national wildlife federation, and homegrown national park also offer technical advice, certifications, and signage.

Natural landscaping brings nature home

a monarch butterfly enjoys nectar while a dog watches from the porch
Natural landscaping gives you unique opportunities to see species like the monarch butterfly in your front or back yard.

One of the biggest benefits of natural landscaping is the connection to nature that it fosters. You will suddenly find yourself swapping knowledge with neighbors, paying extra attention to the seasons and weather, and thinking about your land’s role in the ecosystem.

As your native plants mature, you’ll find yourself with extras you can give away to friends. It’s an incredible feeling to help others connect to nature!

Naturally fix your lawn

Are you wondering, how can I naturally fix my lawn without using chemicals like pesticides and herbicides? Did the previous owner leave you with dead grass or a lawn full of weeds? Is your existing lawn giving you anxiety? This guide will teach you how to fix your lawn naturally so you can enjoy an attractive lawn without using harmful chemicals.

storage room near the tree
Not the look you were going for. Photo by Dids on Pexels.com

Planning for your lawn’s future

Ultimately, you want your healthier lawn to exist in a low-maintenance state that looks nice. If you’re planning to hire a lawn service that offers organic lawn care or a similar specialty, you should watch out for greenwashing.

Greenwashing lawn care

Greenwashing is the practice of overemphasizing the “green” aspect of a business or product to mislead consumers. In the lawn care industry, there are companies that will try to greenwash their natural lawn care offerings. You may end up with a beautiful lawn, but that does not guarantee a healthy lawn or one that is good for the environment. Look for reputable companies that understand organic science.

Reduce the overall size of your lawn

If your lawn takes up most of your property, consider shrinking the size of it to areas that you will use. Even organic lawns are not as ecologically beneficial as native garden beds. Unlawn can help you plan what kind of replacement for your lawn is best for you. Grass is helpful to have in high foot traffic areas, but residential lawns tend to be much larger than they need to be.

a man standing on the grass
There’s still plenty of room for activities! Photo by Mikhail Nilov on Pexels.com

Natural lawn care techniques

For the areas of grass that you want to keep, use techniques that can improve the health of your existing lawn, or remove it and start with grass seed if needed. You can purchase grass seed mixes that will give you a diverse and healthy lawn containing both warm season grass and cool season grasses.

Your lawn’s natural conditions

When planning for the future of your green lawn, you should consider the natural conditions. Natural lawn care is only possible by working with nature. So, pay attention to things like whether you have sandy soils or clay soils. The soil texture can be a very important factor in determining what kinds of grass will thrive.

the soil texture triangle
The soil texture triangle. Start with one component and work your way counterclockwise.

Other important factors you should investigate include soil pH and other indicators of soil health. You can get a simple soil test kit online, and your local university extension office may offer soil testing.

You should make sure you know as many of the following items about your lawn as possible.

  • USDA Hardiness Zone
  • Region/ecoregion (especially if adding native plants)
  • Soil texture including soil compaction
  • Soil pH
  • Nutrient levels
  • Shade levels
  • Water levels
  • Soil depth and rockiness

Choose the right kind of grass

There are several alternatives when it comes to the actual species of grass that will make up your lawn. From Bermuda grass to Kikuyu grass, the correct choice of species will depend on your geographic location and your lawn’s conditions. In many parts of the country, Bermuda grass and Kikuyu grass are considered invasive, and you should not put them in your lawn. St. Augustine grass will not grow in most zones. Achieving a turf grass look in an organic lawn can be tricky.

Your lawn can also contain non-grass plants like clover. In fact, adding clover to your lawn is one of the best ways to improve soil health and support pollinators while keeping a traditional lawn appearance.

high angle view of lying down on grass
A diverse lawn has the added benefit of attracting some pollinators, like this homo sapiens sapiens. Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The best approach is to have a mix of grasses, or a grass seed blend, when establishing your lawn. Blends that contain both warm season grass and cool season grasses are best for year-round appeal in your lawn. Garden centers don’t always have mixes like this, but there are specialty providers online.

Best practices for a natural healthy lawn

Most lawns are managed with synthetic lawn fertilizers, lawn pesticides, and frequent mowing and watering. A natural lawn can be achieved through:

Organic fertilizers

Organic fertilizers are preferable to synthetic fertilizers, since they are less concentrated and break down slowly. This means there is a lower chance of runoff when they are properly applied, and they supply a more steady flow of nutrients to the grass roots.

Healthy soil

Focusing on developing healthy soil will pay off with green grass. Soil compaction is a major problem in most lawns and can create conditions favorable to weeds. Lawn soil naturally becomes compacted over time as people walk or drive on it, especially during home construction and maintenance. Aeration is one way to ameliorate compacted soil.

Mow at the right height

Many homeowners and lawn care companies set the mower blade close to the ground each week. This keeps grass clippings manageable and creates a very neat and tidy appearance. However, a healthy grass blade should be left at least three inches high after mowing. Grass blades are the leaves of the plant, and they produce the food that sustains your lawn.

Water responsibly

Watering lawns is a sore subject among environmentalists, especially in areas where water conservation rules have been put into effect during droughts. The fact is that your lawn should only need a moderate amount of water, applied in the morning and infrequently.

Ditch the pesticides and herbicides

If you have issues with weeds, it is probably due to soil issues or bad mowing practices. That said, weed seeds are aggressive, so you might find them even if you do everything right. Some organic lawn care experts suggest using corn gluten meal to prevent weed seeds from establishing a root system. But beware, corn gluten meal application needs to be timed correctly in early spring, or it will only help the weed infestations!

When the entire lawn needs to go

In some cases, a lawn is in such terrible condition that the area needs to be completely reevaluated. Maybe the problem is constantly wet grass. Or maybe it’s difficult to establish turf grass because of a shallow root system. In any case, you should be willing to adapt to the natural conditions.

If you need to kill your grass

Killing grass can be more challenging than you think. In those cases when it is already struggling to survive, it can be easier. Your lawn might be telling you that it can’t survive in the place where it’s been asked to grow.

sheet mulching naturally kills grass
sheet-mulching a lawn border

Whether it’s to re-seed the area or to replace the lawn with something else, if you need to kill your grass, you can do so naturally. There are three proven methods for killing grass naturally that work even if it has deep roots.

  1. Solarizing
  2. Sheet-mulching
  3. Natural chemical pesticide
Solarizing – bake it

Solarizing takes advantage of the Sun’s energy to basically bake the grass roots and blades. It usually takes a few weeks for this process to work, and it only works at certain times of year. Plus, it is limited in size to as much area as you can cover with a tarp or plastic.

Sheet mulching – smother it

Sheet mulching is a little more labor intensive than solarizing, but it works immediately. There are numerous ways to sheet mulch, but all of them smother grass to death.

Chemicals – poison it

Natural chemicals do not need to be synthesized. For example, lemon juice or vinegar. Organic agricultural and environmental sciences are largely focused on the various effects of natural chemicals. Some natural chemicals can be mixed together to form potent herbicides.

The flip side of natural chemical pesticides and herbicides

Organic science has also given us alternatives to synthetic fertilizers. Many are made at home, like compost tea. This technique can take advantage of yard waste that would otherwise need to be tidied up for a beautiful lawn.

Organic lawn care beyond chemical inputs

Establishing an organic lawn frequently requires alternatives to lawn chemicals. But the ultimate goal of a low-maintenance organic lawn has to be reached through the soil. Soil structure is important, as discussed above. And you should get a soil test. But soil particles are only part of the picture.

Your soil also contains microorganisms that play an important role in an organic lawn. Fungi and bacteria are essential to the movement of nutrients from plants, to soil, and back to plants. Without this living soil, your land will consistently lose nutrients. This is why composting is so widely considered an essential practice for organic lawn care and gardening.

crop woman with organic banana in hands standing in kitchen
Do they have the proper paperwork to call that waste organic? Photo by SHVETS production on Pexels.com

When you have a good soil biome, you improve the conditions for your grass seed to succeed. And continuing to add compost tea to established lawns can help to keep nutrient levels high. It’s a good idea to perform a soil test for nutrients before and after treatments, as well.

Organic lawn care can seem like a lot

If you feel overwhelmed at the idea of organic lawn care, don’t worry. It can seem like a lot! But it’s much easier than it seems. It all starts with your idea of what a lawn should look like. You can work hard and do the research required to maintain your lawn’s current appearance (or something close to it). Or, you can see how having a natural lawn feels.

Your lawn might end up looking a little messier, or more diverse – it’s true. If it’s important to you to have the best lawn on the street, I’m not able to offer you much advice. But your lawn could stand out for another reason – the amount of nature in it. That doesn’t mean it will look wild!

Having a eco-friendly lawn can be more than just organic lawn care practices. Your lawn doesn’t necessarily need to be a lawn. Part of it could just as easily be a prairie or meadow. Unlawning is even easier than going organic. You’ll be glad that you invited nature into your space when you enjoy your pollinator garden or pocket-prairie.

Native plants – ethical and sustainable gardening

For a garden that supports birds, wildlife, and the food web, choose plants that are native to your area. Science has shown us that these can support more life than ornamental species from other regions.

What are native plants?

Native plants are those which naturally occur in a region. The opposite of a native plant is one from a different part of the world. Many people garden with species that are ornamental, rather than using natives.

Why are native plants important?

Many people wonder why native plants are better for the environment. All kinds of plants can produce oxygen. And many are attractive to pollinators. So what makes natives so important?

native plant gardening in Tennessee
This native plants garden supports pollinators in middle Tennessee

The answer has to do with ecology. Native birds, wildlife, butterflies, and bees rely on your garden. And preserving these native animals requires gardening with plants that match their needs. Gardening with ornamental plants from other parts of the world can provide some food for local wildlife. But natives can support the most forms of life.

What plants are native to my area?

To find out what plants are native to your area, you can check these resources. Search the National Wildlife Federation’s native plant finder using your Zip Code in the U.S. While you’re there, you can join the Certified Wildlife Habitat program and get a sign to put in your yard. In Canada, search CanPlant to find natives.

native plants in a forest understory
Check out local forests for an idea of what plants are native to your area

You can also check with your state or local university extension office to connect with other gardeners. Join local garden groups and explore opportunities for education related to sustainable gardening.

Where can I get native plants?

If you’re ready to add natives to your garden, shop at a nursery that specializes in native plants. You can also shop online nurseries that serve your area. Choose natives has a list of nurseries that do mail-order as well.

Other sources

Your soil probably contains seeds from many native species. If you’re adventurous and can learn to identify seedlings, try letting a section of your lawn grow out. Chances are, many of the naturally occurring sprouts will be natives.

Another way to acquire natives is to grow them from seeds. You can collect seeds in the spring and fall from areas around your home. And your local library or university extension office may host a seed-exchange program.

Choosing the right plants for the right place

You’ll need to consider factors like light levels, wet and dry areas, and the pH of your soil when choosing what species of plants to buy. If you need help, unlawn experts can create a plan for you.

How to create a native plant garden

If you want photo opportunities and videos of nature in your own back yard, unlawn can help you turn your grass lawn into a habitat. Whether you want to support pollinators or grow a forest, we can help you plan your unlawn project from start to finish.

If you’re more of a do-it-yourselfer, read The Unlawning Guide to learn everything you need to know about native plant gardening.

Local biodiversity

Biodiversity supports our food systems, clean air, and clean water. Local biodiversity is key to protecting these resources in your community. Communities with plentiful and diverse natural areas enjoy a higher quality of life and a healthier environment.

What is local biodiversity

Local biodiversity is a measure of different types of life in an area. Ecosystems like rainforests are known for having very high levels of biodiversity. And deserts tend to have fewer species overall. However, within a desert ecosystem, biodiversity is higher in areas that are undisturbed or contain additional resources. And in the rainforest, areas closer to towns and roads will be less biologically diverse than average.

Species richness

Measuring biodiversity is difficult, because it includes plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, and all the kingdoms of life. To measure biodiversity, scientists use species richness. Species richness is the number of species that are found in an area. Scientists make a list of all the species that have been observed in the study area and count them.

Comparing species richness across ecosystem types doesn’t account for differences in resources. So, scientists will sometimes use a biodiversity index that can be applied across ecosystems.

Examples of local biodiversity

In different parts of the globe, biodiversity looks different. In the deep south, longleaf pine savannas are home to species that can only live in the sandy, sunny forests, like the gopher tortoise.

The Appalachian Mountains have numerous cold mountain streams that provide habitat for trout and hellbenders.

the eastern hellbender exemplifies local biodiversity
An eastern hellbender. Photo by: Ryan Wolfe/Flickr

Along the West Coast, redwood forests contain rare birds like the marbled murrelet.

What are the benefits of local and global biodiversity

Global biodiversity is important because many species play a role in natural processes that benefit humans. From clean air and water to the productivity of soil for agriculture, we rely on biological systems to support life on our planet – life that includes us!

waterfalls during day
Water is filtered by vegetation in forests. Photo by Kavindu Kaushalya on Pexels.com

When a species goes extinct, its role in the ecosystem is sometimes left empty. In some cases, another species can step in to do the same role, but not in the same way.

As the number of species on Earth drops each year, how much longer can the globe support life? Ecological systems and processes are threatened by every extinction.

Why is biodiversity important?

Biological diversity allows species to work together to increase the productivity of an area. In nature, competition and cooperation are the defining forces. Greater biological diversity increases the opportunities for both competition among similar species and cooperation between species that play different roles.

wolves on the grassland
Apex predators, like wolves, play an invaluable role in ecosystem health. Photo by Natalia García Prieto on Pexels.com

Greater cultural diversity can make a city more lively and productive. Similarly, greater biological diversity helps to maximize the productivity in an area. This productivity is measured in the form of ecosystem services.

Ecosystem services include things like food, clean water, clean air, flood prevention, recreation opportunities, and resistance to extreme weather events. One of the clearest examples of ecosystem services is the pollination of farm crops by native bees, butterflies, and other pollinators.

How to protect biodiversity

Unfortunately, Earth has now entered it’s 6th mass extinction event. Meaning we are losing species faster than at any other time in recorded history. Global biodiversity outlook analyses show a major decline. So, how can we protect biodiversity? Conservation groups and events like the convention on biological diversity are working to do just that.

University research findings on the subject show us that traditional knowledge and local communities can inform a multinational strategic plan. As we search for ways to improve the global biodiversity outlook, science and data are the key to a sustainable future.

Why does biodiversity need to be protected?

Species extinctions are happening at an unprecedented rate due to human activity. In many places, local biodiversity trends are not great. And in some of the most biologically diverse ecosystems, like the Amazon Rainforest, human activity is destroying the remaining habitat that species depend on. Species have fewer places to live because land is developed or converted to agricultural uses, like pasture.

farm fields reduce the amount of land available for native plants and animals
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Pexels.com

In many countries, indigenous peoples are fighting to protect both biological diversity and their way of life. Colonialist attitudes and markets change the use and extraction of biological resources. Competing interests, especially in the Global South, have led to a decrease in cultural diversity and biodiversity change. In addition to species loss, globalization has also introduced non native species. Many local communities are losing traditional knowledge while the sudden biodiversity change makes sustainability more difficult than ever.

According to time series data, the implications of biodiversity change are frightening. The global biodiversity outlook is not good. And the research indicates that as the abundance of species declines, so will the productivity of nature.

What does local biodiversity depend on?

The path forward is clear. To protect global biodiversity, ambitious conservation efforts are needed. Renowned conservationist E.O. Wilson proposed protecting at least half of the planet in his groundbreaking book, Half Earth. And the Aichi targets propose a similar, though less ambitious effort along with economic and political contributions into the future.

What is a protected area?

The definition of a protected areas varies by location. Protection can mean the designation of parks and forests, or the use of specific tools like conservation easements. Ultimately, the right kind of protection is up to local communities. Spatial comparisons show that the local biodiversity outlooks improve in protected areas.

parks are well known for protecting natural areas
Biological diversity is high in most protected areas. Photo by Lukas Kloeppel on Pexels.com

How to boost biological diversity

Protection is not always a viable strategy, because biodiversity may already be degraded on a site, especially in the Global North. Many areas need restoration efforts. University and NGO research has shown a positive response in species richness following restoration efforts.

Creating natural habitat at home

Native ecology is the key to making progress in protecting local biodiversity. Many government agencies and NGOs hope to meet goals like the aichi targets creating a strategic plan. But individual landowners are able to treat their property like protected areas today. Local communities and indigenous peoples are connected to the land. And these groups have a vested interest in protecting nature. Ethical stewardship of the land can provide contributions that go beyond political and economic forces.

Rewilding can have a greater impact on local biodiversity depending on the existing level of development. Rewilding is a way to bring nature into local communities and cities where it has been removed. Establishment of small pockets of nature is simple and cheap. Landowners should plant native plants on their land. Native plants evolved to be perfectly adapted to support the existing local biological diversity.

native plants in a garden contribute to local biodiversity
Native plants supporting biodiversity as home landscaping

Parks and protected areas

Much of the history of conservation in North America has been reactionary. The science surrounding species loss is mostly reactionary as well. In the United States, parks account for most public interest in conservation. Every state has a department of parks that provide protection for these recreation areas. Many states also have forestry, wildlife, and environmental agencies.

There seems to be a mismatch between the local demand for natural areas and their abundance. Most recreational natural spaces are in remote, rugged terrain. The accessibility of nature for the average American seems to be far below what is needed.

And any public recreation site that is easy to access for a large populated area tends to be overcrowded. As development increases in the future, access to additional recreational areas is desperately needed. Governments will struggle to acquire and manage additional land. Private landowners need access to resources that help them to protect and manage their land. And not just for recreational opportunities, but also to protect the ecological resources on private land.

Local biodiversity progress

Efforts by conservation groups and government agencies have sometimes been successful at saving individual species from extinction. But the implications of climate change on biological systems have not been tested. And we’ve been unable to slow down the Anthropocene extinction event.

We can’t predict the future. Additional time series data and summary analysis will help science to understand the potential futures of our environment. It has been difficult to predict the effects of climate change, but so far they have been very concerning.

Save local biodiversity now

We cannot wait for definitive science before we act to save our planet. Nor can we hope for a technological answer. Conservation of our remaining biological resources is critical, and restoration can boost depleted local biodiversity. Protected areas need additional funding and support, and every lawn is a potential restoration site.

The average homeowner has opportunities to boost their lawn’s biological value. And individuals can contribute to citizen science efforts to improve landscape-scale analyses by their state or local university. But the cultural pressure for development is immense.

We need to change

Housing, shopping, roads, farms, and warehouses are all in high demand in many places. Our priorities need to change. Market forces cannot continue to control how our land is used. Business as usual is no longer leading us toward progress, but rather toward a global ecological collapse. Nature must be front and center in our communities.

Indigenous peoples have largely been ignored in the conservation and restoration communities. And while many efforts are starting to seek contributions from local communities, both local conservation groups and the global community should look to indigenous peoples in their search for ways to live sustainably.

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!

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.

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.

5 surprising reasons you should unlawn

More and more homeowners are recognizing the impact their land can have on the planet’s health when they unlawn. But some of the benefits of unlawning aren’t obvious. Here are 5 surprising reasons to unlawn. You can start to enjoy benefits right away by inviting nature onto part of your property.

1. Protection from Floods

The science is clear: the more vegetation on a piece of land, the less likely it is to flood. There are a few reasons why unlawning protects you from flooding:

  • Roots create channels through soil, allowing better infiltration of groundwater and increasing soil’s capacity to hold water
  • Plants drink excess water to perform photosynthesis
  • Plants disrupt falling water before it reaches the soil, slowing the rushing flow
  • Plant roots hold soil in place, preventing erosion that would otherwise worsen future floods

So, the more plants that exist on a piece of land, the more protected it (and all the land downstream) is from flooding. But doesn’t your lawn count as vegetation that covers your land? Yes, your grass is definitely better than bare soil. But adding layers of plants on top of the grass lawn amplifies the benefits.

While having grass is better than having no plants, it’s still pretty pathetic compared to other types of vegetation for preventing floods. Grass forms a root mat just under the soil surface. And this does more to prevent water infiltration than to encourage it. Trees and shrubs that reach deep into the soil with their roots are significantly more effective at controlling floodwater. And even herbaceous plants will tend to grow roots deeper into the soil than grass lawns.

Unlawn by adding native plants to suck up more rainwater and increase your soil’s capacity to hold excess water. You’ll also be protecting your soil and slowing down the rush of floodwaters.

2. Protection from Droughts

It may seem counterintuitive that unlawning can solve opposite problems, but it’s true! Remember how vegetation increases the soil’s ability to store water? It turns out that storing more water becomes really important when water is scarce. Adding native plants can have several other effects that may lessen the impact of floods:

  • Shade from trees and shrubs cools the air, slowing water loss below the canopy
  • Plants performing photosynthesis put water into the air (transpiration) steadily during the day, rather than all at once. And this helps stabilize local humidity
  • Leaves and stalks that are damaged or killed by droughts drop onto the soil surface. This protects it from the drying effects of direct sunlight even more (but in a smaller area) than the shade of a living plant would

When it comes to drought, we’re talking about an unlawning benefit that a grass lawn doesn’t mimic at all. Grass provides virtually no shade and performs very little transpiration compared to larger plants. During a drought, many homeowners choose to water their grass lawn to keep it green. But this makes the drought worse for everyone. Those who don’t water are left with short brown blades that do nothing to protect the soil from intense sunlight.

If you unlawn by adding trees and shrubs; or even just let your grass and wildflowers grow into a meadow, you’ll be better protected from droughts. Shade and transpiration slowly release water from the soil into the air, resulting in a more stable local atmosphere. Plus, your soil will store more water prior to the flood. That could keep their roots alive so plants that succumb can resprout when it rains again.

3. Pollinator-palooza

We have all heard of the many benefits native pollinators have on our ecosystem health. And pollinators enhance our ability to grow food and medicine. They are indispensable! But they continue to face threats like habitat loss and poisoning by pesticides.

While some places benefit from beekeepers with nearby hives, every ecosystem has native pollinators. But native pollinators are specifically adapted to the local plants. When you unlawn with native plants, you can reverse the loss of a resource that native pollinator species depend on. For these species, the alternative to finding the right kind of plants is extinction.

Host plants

For some of these native pollinators, the native plant they need to survive might not even have a flower that they like to visit. Some species depend on hollow plant stalks to protect their offspring through the winter before they emerge in the spring. Others need small bits of exposed soil to burrow down to form an underground nest. There are no pollinator species that benefit from an all-grass lawn.

When you unlawn, you can provide specific plants that native pollinators depend on for survival. These few plant species will also draw in generalist pollinators that are happy to visit any kind of flower. Before you know it, your property will be home to hundreds of species of butterflies, moths, bees, and other pollinators. And once you have caterpillars chewing on leaves and shoots, birds are bound to come and snatch some of their favorite food off your plants.

4. Secret Pathways

Remember all those kids’ books about traveling to magical lands? The wardrobe that leads to Narnia, the Hogwarts Express on Platform 9 3/4, and the Bridge to Terabithia were all secret ways to enter another world. These fantastical versions of leaving everyday life aren’t as far from reality as you might think.

Instead of traveling away from your home into a magical land, you can bring some magic home when you unlawn. Or rather, you can invite some of the wonders of nature to inch closer toward your daily life.

It may not be obvious, but your lawn is connected to the natural world all around you. Even if you’re in the middle of the city, animals are always poking their noses in. They want to see if there’s a suitable place for them to live or eat before moving on. If you can provide even a few square yards of natural space by unlawning, those animals are much more likely to stop by to find food, water, or shelter. If you are mindful about how you unlawn, you can encourage pollinators, birds, small mammals, or even larger animals like foxes to visit your land or call it home for the winter without accidentally inviting skunks and ticks too close to home.

As more and more species face the challenge of habitat loss, connectivity is becoming critical. And when you unlawn a patch of habitat, you increase your yard’s connectivity. The connectivity of any nearby forests, parks, and streams is directly impacted by your lawn. With good connections to other wild places, your land can become a secret pathway. And you could become a wildlife photographer!

5. Be Happier

I know, I know. Every blog post promoting a new trend goes on and on about how it can “boost your mood!” or “cut down on stress.” But there are some serious mental health benefits you get to enjoy when you unlawn.

Did you know that patients heal faster in hospital rooms with a view of vegetation? It’s true, the healing power of nature is scientifically proven! And even if you’re not recovering from surgery, being around natural spaces can positively affect your mindset and overall health. You don’t even need to plan out a perfectly shaped garden to enjoy these benefits. Simply add a few native plants near the edge of your property. Or let part of your lawn grow into a meadow and you’ll start to enjoy the health benefits of being close to nature.

For most of us, nature is a far away place that we like to visit on weekends when the weather is nice. The rest of the time, we’re in the house, the office, or the car. Even people who work outside are mostly focused on maximizing the efficiency of our world, rather than observing the existing value of nature around us.

Nature, in reality, is everywhere. Even in our suburbs and cities, nature is ready to spring up between cracks in the sidewalk. Or on steep lots that don’t get mowed regularly. We can get more people to recognize that we aren’t separate from nature. And that we’re lucky to have nature nearby. We can invite nature to heal right in our backyards (and front yards). And we will start to heal too as a result.

Your reason to unlawn

All of these benefits of unlawning are immediate as soon as you start. But the larger you unlawn, the bigger the impact. And over time, these benefits grow with your plants! There is so much to learn and discover, but The Unlawning Guide has everything you need to know to begin. If you’re on the fence, read about Rewilding Myths to make sure you aren’t needlessly worried.