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.
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.
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.
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!