How To Save the Planet, Starting With Your Yard
Judy Hamlin: I never do New Year’s resolutions, but I pick a word for the year and my word for this year is balance. And what can we do to balance out and create more spaces in our yard to promote birds and bees and the native plants?
Amanda Ripley: Welcome to how to I’m Amanda Ripley. So back when I was growing up in the eighties in suburban New Jersey, a freshly mowed yard was a sign of the good life. Never mind that my brother and I spent hours inhaling fumes, sweating, arguing, cursing at the mower every week in the summer to make it look that way. It was pristine, and for some reason that was all that mattered.
Amanda Ripley: Well, luckily, things are starting to change. Thank God. Perfect lawn may not be quite so desirable anymore. Take Las Vegas, for example, which recently outlawed what they call non-functional grass in medians and office parks to help combat drought. That’s a third of their grass gone. Southern California restricted certain households to only watering their lawns once a week to conserve water, meaning they’re not going to be so pristine anymore. And maybe most interestingly, more and more people are starting to look at grass differently and wonder if there might be a better way.
Judy Hamlin: My name is Judy Hamlin, and I am a pediatric speech language pathologist and a spouse of a retired Army veteran.
Amanda Ripley: Judy and her husband settled into their home near Annapolis, Maryland, after two decades of bouncing around from base to base.
Judy Hamlin: I think we moved 16 times in those 24 years. So yeah, there were times where we were someplace just for less than a year. Other times we, you know, we stayed longer, but lots of rental properties and on base housing. My husband just retired in January and we’re kind of settling down and this is the longest we have ever been anywhere.
Amanda Ripley: Now, it’s not like Judy knows nothing about plants. She grew up in an environmentally focused home. Her mother’s a master gardener. But in the past, she’d had no motivation to really invest in her outdoor spaces, especially when she was moving so frequently. So now, for the first time, she feels a real sense of agency and excitement about making her yard her own.
Judy Hamlin: When we bought the home, I wanted to update the yard to make it look better, aesthetically pleasing, you know, I wanted to put in some different shrubs and I wanted to move things around. I wasn’t really thinking about what the plants were. I just knew what they looked like and how they were going to grow. I have a friend, Maggie, who was part of the Bayside Bloomers Garden Club here in Severna Park.
Amanda Ripley: That named Bayside.
Judy Hamlin: Juniors. But she said, Hey, our next meeting we’re going to watch Biggest Little Farm. And she said, You have to watch this documentary. It’s amazing. And I thought, Whoa, this is a different kind of gardening club. They are really promoting something different and wanting to, of course, garden, but in a way that’s environmentally responsible. And then the third meeting was Doug.
Amanda Ripley: Doug is Doug Tallamy. He’s an accomplished ecologist and entomologist at the University of Delaware. And after seeing him talk, Judy had like 40 more questions. And so she reached out to us thinking that all of us could probably benefit from a longer conversation about this. Turns out the Doug is the perfect expert. He’s pretty much written the book on why we need to rethink our lawns and gardens. He’s also the co-founder of the Homegrown National Park Project, which is trying to pick up where traditional conservation stops. So today on the show, Doug is going to try to sell us on why we two should go native. So grab a cold drink and your gardening gloves and join us in the backyard. We’ll be right back.
Amanda Ripley: Doug, you’ve already sold Judy on this concept of transforming your your green space. But, look, let’s make sure our other listeners are up to speed. Why is this so important?
Speaker 3: That’s such a big question. You know, we’re in the middle of the sixth great extinction event. So the conservation approach of the past has to have parks and preserves and protect them. And outside the parks and preserves, anything goes and anything goes these days means we destroy everything we’re doing away with our life support. So it’s not optional. We’ve got to protect the natural systems that keeps us and everything else on the planet alive. So we’ve designed landscapes that are pretty, but we have not thought about the ecological value of those landscapes.
Amanda Ripley: Well-kept yards, particularly that perfect manicured grass, has been a status symbol in the United States, dating back practically to the beginning. In fact, the species of grass that you see in most neighborhoods was originally brought over by colonists to feed their animals, and it was prized for its European aesthetic.
Speaker 4: And from Levittown to Los Angeles, from Minneapolis to Miami. The quiet revolution continues as a great industry provides better homes for modern American living.
Amanda Ripley: Fast forward to the suburban sprawl after World War Two and soon. Lawn Care was a sign that you were a good neighbor, really good person. Today, landscaping is $105 billion industry. And while there have been some baby steps away from lawns, green grass still dominates in many neighborhoods, including Judy’s.
Judy Hamlin: So we live in a suburban neighborhood. Our lots are about a quarter of an acre each, and our front yard is mostly lawn. And with some side areas that have azaleas and zinc and hostas, we have a maple in our front yard. And then the backyard is very sloped.
Amanda Ripley: I mean, I have to say, looking at the picture of your house, Judy reminded me a lot of the house where I grew up in New Jersey. I live in a row house now in the city, but I grew up in a house that looked a lot like that, and we had a pretty big yard. And one of the most salient memories from my childhood is mowing that lawn. And as a kid, you’re asking your in this case, my dad, the question, why are we doing this? You know, lawns provide no benefit for wildlife. It’s a total wasteland from an ecological perspective. Grass is the most irrigated plant in the country and it’s very validating. I have to say the 12 year old to me is like, yes, I knew it.
Judy Hamlin: My son’s to.
Amanda Ripley: Do. They know your lawn right now.
Judy Hamlin: Yes, they do. That is their job. And it’s brutal because we’re on a hill. So. Yes, yeah.
Amanda Ripley: Yes. And I love Doug. You’ve written that we need to develop a new non-adversarial relationship with nature. I love this idea because I feel like right now, even in my tiny yard, at our in our row house, it’s adversarial. Like it’s me against the weeds. It’s a war. And the weeds always win.
Speaker 3: Yeah. You know, nature is the hand that feeds us, and we’re biting it. If the only goal of your landscape is to be picture perfect, beautiful, without a blade of grass out of place, not a hole in any leaf anywhere. That’s. That’s not part of a functioning ecosystem. That’s. That’s a postcard view of your land that is not real.
Amanda Ripley: So how can we get real? Maybe the goal shouldn’t be aesthetic perfection. What if it were to create a healthy, tiny ecosystem for you and the plant and animal life around you, which probably means accepting that your plants are going to get nibbled on and that you might want to have different plants plants that are food sources, plants that can sequester carbon, plants that help manage the watershed and support pollinators.
Speaker 3: So if we lost pollinators, we’d lose 80 to 90% of the plants in the planet. And that simply is not an option. And we need pollinators everywhere. We need plants not just next to a farm. And that’s everywhere. We’ve got 4000 species of native bees in this country. Almost all or almost all of them are in decline because we’ve taken away the plants that that they need. You know, this is the challenge for horticulture is for landscape designers and landscape architects today. It’s how do we achieve the beauty that we all love in an ecologically productive way? So is it easy? Not particularly. I’m not promoting this as the easiest alternative. I am promoting it as the only alternative, though.
Judy Hamlin: I think it’s interesting because I think in our culture, a healthy lawn equals a cared for property. You know, if you see someone with a beautiful green lawn and and well-groomed plants, you think, wow, they really take care of their property. And I think we we have to slowly shift like a yard that’s alive, a yard that’s buzzing with bees and birds. That’s a cared for property. And I think that one of my questions is. How do we make that shift gradually? I think of my own neighborhood. How can I start to to tell people that when my grass isn’t perfect and I don’t have the lawn company, it doesn’t mean that I’m not taking care of my property.
Speaker 3: Well, you know what I suggest? Notice I don’t say get rid of your lawn. I say reduce it. A manicured lawn is a cue for care. It says to the general public, I get the culture, I’m part of it. I’m not rebelling against it. I’m just reducing its negative impacts.
Amanda Ripley: So I think right now for most homeowners, something like 90% of their yard is lawn and 10% is plants. Are you suggesting flipping it or what’s the ratio that you would? You would like to see.
Speaker 3: I always say cut your lawn in half. That’s a starting point. The easiest way to reduce your lawn is to start planting it more. Adding a tree is the easiest thing to do. Adding two or three trees. Now Judy’s got a small lot. She didn’t really have the option of adding a whole bunch of trees, but people with acres of land do. You can create little tree groves. You can put beds around those trees. You can pick at it one tree a year and everything you do that you reduce the area of of lawn. And you’ve also increased, if you choose the right trees, you’ve increased the biological value of your of your landscape. And it’s not aesthetically displeasing.
Amanda Ripley: And are there specific trees that you would suggest?
Speaker 3: Yes, there are. That depends on where you live. But certainly in Judy’s case, and in 84% of the counties in which they occur, oaks are the most biologically productive tree that that you can add. Those four things I talked about supporting the food web, the pollinators, the managing the watershed and sequestering carbon oaks are great at all of those.
Amanda Ripley: Here’s our next insight. You don’t need to kill all your grass and plant a native meadow overnight. Maybe just start by keeping the grass in the front yard and then changing up the backyard like a lawn mullet, so to speak. Start with adding a tree or two, especially oak trees. They’ll provide some nice shade for you while helping out the local wildlife. Or maybe swap out grass for another ground cover like clover, which is actually just as durable but doesn’t require as frequent mowing and supports pollinators.
Amanda Ripley: I think for me at least, the main goal in dealing with our yard is to not embarrass my neighbors. That’s all. That’s all I really want to do is not because I feel like they spend more time on their yard. And when I walk out there and it’s just a disaster, I’m like, Oh, God. And that’s my number one motivator. I’m not proud of it, but that’s where I’m at. So I guess I wonder, you know, Judy, you mentioned trying to do this in such a way that doesn’t alarm anyone. I mean, is there a homeowners association? What are the what are the constraints?
Judy Hamlin: So I am on the board of our voluntary association. And so we do not have a lot of regulations, but I know some others that might not be so easy and would be more of a challenge because they do have very specific rules about how long your grass can be and the appearance. But I do wonder if, if having like a yard sign that says creating a biodiverse habitat here, you know, and, and putting those in in people’s yards as they’re creating these spaces to kind of, you know, when people go for a walk, they see a sign that says this and makes them wonder, well, what does that mean? And yeah, maybe I should be doing that. I love that.
Amanda Ripley: Idea. Make it explicit. So be like I’m not lazy. I’m actually just.
Judy Hamlin: Yeah, I’m.
Amanda Ripley: Trying to do the right thing.
Speaker 3: Marilyn last year passed a real saying I was cannot tell you you are not allowed to use native pa rin renew rule. They put the clamp on them.
Amanda Ripley: Wow. That is pretty cool. I did not know that either. I’m just looking it up and it looks like. Yeah. In April, the Maryland Senate unanimously passed a bill that compels homeowners associations to allow low impact landscaping, such as rain gardens, native plant gardens, pollinator gardens. That’s pretty cool.
Speaker 3: And I think it’s the first state in the in the union to do this.
Amanda Ripley: So you’re a pioneer state. Did you even know, Judy?
Judy Hamlin: No, I had no idea.
Amanda Ripley: This is not a coincidence, is destiny.
Judy Hamlin: I love it. I love it. Well, I have noticed there are some new developments and I have noticed some of those homes with these beautiful perennial gardens in the front yard. And it’s the first time I’ve seen new developments do that instead of grass. So I do think the word is spreading in this area.
Amanda Ripley: So we’re going to take a quick break while you talk to your A.J.. Good luck with that, by the way. And when we come back, we’re going to tell you how to manage those pesky weeds and even how to build an ingenious environmentally friendly trap for mosquitoes. Stay right there.
Amanda Ripley: We’re back with ecologist Doug Tallamy, author of Nature’s Best Hope A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard. And our listener, Judy, who’s trying to convert her yard into something a little more environmentally friendly. And if you’re curious as to what plants are native to your area, there are a bunch of great resources out there now, like Audubon’s Native Plants database, which we’ll link to in the show notes. The key thing is to start to figure out what belongs and what really doesn’t. Doug, I’m curious, when you talk about creating an ecological, you know, sustainable, healthy system in your yard, how do you deal with weeds? I mean, weeds are like, that’s a tricky word, right? It’s in the eye of the beholder.
Speaker 3: Well, the definition of a weed is a plant out of place. And it’s interesting how many of our native plants got labeled as weeds. It happened when European settlers came over and brought European agriculture with them, which was monocultures. If you’re going to grow corn, you don’t want anything else in that field. And if a plant grew up like a New York iron weed or a milkweed, it was called a weed. That’s how they got their their names, because they did not belong in that ag field.
Speaker 3: Well, those names persist and words are important. You know, if we called milkweeds monarchs delight, people would not see it so, so effectively. But when you label all the native plants as weeds, it gives you permission to just kill them all. There used to be, quote, weeds, which were asters in milkweeds and all the native plants that supported the pollinators on the roadsides all throughout our agriculture. You know that dozens of miles of these these really diverse roadsides, they’re all gone now, replaced with with lawn, because that’s deemed to be a you’re a higher status farmer if you do that. And that’s what’s caused the steep decline in monarchs and our native bees. And everything is getting rid of that giant resource. We can put that back if we just stop calling them weeds.
Speaker 3: Now we do have weeds, and that’s a plant out of place of all of our invasive plants that we’ve brought in, mostly as decorations and now have escaped autumn olive and burning bush and you know, multi flora rose and miss canvas and porcelain berry all these things that are just taking over our natural areas, escapees from our garden. They’re weeds. So it all depends on how you use the words.
Judy Hamlin: So how can we take care of the English ivy that’s creeping through some of our beds without using chemicals? Just pull it up. Or what do you have in mind?
Speaker 3: English, Ivy and a few others are just terribly difficult to get rid of, even if you do use herbicide because they root as they go along. What you want to do is exhaust the root system. If you don’t kill the roots, it will come back forever. So people take the easy route and that is to just spray it. But if you remove the green part of the plant, the roots will eventually starve to death. They’ll keep trying, and you have to do it over and over again. But you can do it without herbicide.
Amanda Ripley: Judy, what have you tried with the Ivy so far.
Judy Hamlin: Yanking it up by hand? Yeah. And it you know, it’s a lot of work. We have a lot less of it, but we still have it. And it’s creeping, you know, under the fence from our neighbor’s yard.
Speaker 3: You can never really get rid of it.
Amanda Ripley: Yeah, yeah. No, we have a bunch of these non-native invasive species here in D.C., and it’s just like they’re. They’re crafty bastards. I mean, you can try and you can you just but there will they will win most of the time.
Amanda Ripley: So here’s our next takeaway. Weeding is probably inevitable. Sad to say, but make sure you’re targeting invasive non-native plants. Maybe using an app like Seek by iNaturalist, which we’ll link to in the show notes. But what about all those other miserable outdoor chores we need to do? Can we get rid of any of them? Doug, how do you feel about mulch?
Speaker 3: Fairground is a no no. Bear ground destroys the soil community, which is vital to keeping all those plants going. So having something on top of your soil is important. So it depends on what you mean by mulch. The very best mulch is leaf litter. The leaves that were growing above ground. And then they fall and they cover it. And your ground is always covered with a layer of leaf litter. You can plant right through that. That will all be great. But most of us require leaves and then we have bare ground. Then we go out and we buy shredded bark or woodchips. All these substitutes, none of which are as good as leaf litter. So the ideal thing is to is to keep them in your in your flowerbeds.
Speaker 3: My son bought a house a couple of years ago in DC and he called me up. The first of all, he said, Dad, I got too many leaves. I said, Put them in your flowerbeds. He said, I don’t have enough flowerbeds. I said, Exactly. That’s the best way to create a flower, by the way, is to rake all the leaves to cover the line. The next year you can plant right through that, huh?
Amanda Ripley: I love this idea because we do this dreaded trip to Home Depot every year and get mulch. And I just hate it. I just go there.
Speaker 3: And, you know, you’ve got a lot of neighbours that do put their their leaves in a bag out for the street. I used to go along and collect all those bag and bring them home that we do stored our soil here because it was just some soil when we moved in.
Amanda Ripley: Did anyone ever ask you like, what are you doing, Doug?
Speaker 3: But I guess they all know I’m just crazy.
Judy Hamlin: They’re like, Oh, that’s just Doug.
Amanda Ripley: He’s taking.
Judy Hamlin: This here.
Amanda Ripley: I think people will be delighted to hear they don’t have to dispose of all their leaves. Judy, what do you think about this? Could you do this maybe in the backyard so that it doesn’t look unsightly?
Judy Hamlin: Exactly. I think the backyard is a great place for us to start. Leaving the leaves and not doing the trip to Home Depot for a.
Amanda Ripley: Nice wordplay to this is the the Bayside Bloomers. We love you for the leaving the leaves.
Amanda Ripley: Can we talk about mosquitoes for a second?
Judy Hamlin: I mean.
Amanda Ripley: Let’s just talk about the elephant in the room, like in D.C. and I’m sure where you are, too. Judy, the mosquitoes are like they’re like pterodactyls, like they’re they’re really flying monsters and they’re constant. And it makes it really hard to be outside, at least where I am. You’ve studied insects for 41 years, right? Doug So you probably look at mosquitoes differently than I do.
Speaker 3: Well, you know, no, I don’t like the mosquitoes that give us the most trouble are introduce species themselves. Aedes aegypti, Asian tiger, mosquitoes. These are invasive species that are here without their natural enemies and because of the same problems in the case of mosquitoes, you know, serious disease transmission, not so much here. We don’t have any dengue. We don’t have any Zika virus. You know, we don’t have any malaria, but they’re a big nuisance for sure. So what do we do? We hire mosquito gel. He comes and fogs our yard and he kills all of the insects.
Amanda Ripley: Right.
Speaker 3: I didn’t email yesterday where the butterflies. I don’t see any butterflies. You know, so many people have mosquito, Jo, just fog in the world and it kills everything.
Amanda Ripley: So what would be better?
Speaker 3: Well, you can use, I suggest trying mosquito dunks where you get a bucket and you fill it with water and you put in a handful of dried grass or straw or hay and let it ferment for a couple of days. And that becomes an irresistible brew to female mosquitoes that want to lay their eggs.
Amanda Ripley: Right. I thought, this is exactly. You’re not supposed to do Doug.
Speaker 3: No.
Amanda Ripley: Going to let your outstanding water off your bucket.
Speaker 3: That’s right. You’re creating the ideal habitat for them. Then you go to the hardware store and you buy a sheet of mosquito dunks. It’s bacillus thuringiensis. It’s a natural bacterium that only kills aquatic debera. And the only aquatic dip in in your bucket is a mosquito larvae. So you put that in the eat it and it all those eggs that were laid, hatched and you’ve just killed all those those. And the ideal thing about that is it only kills mosquitoes. It’s targeted, you know, in the D.C. or do you have sewers? Do you have drains in the street?
Judy Hamlin: Mm hmm.
Speaker 3: My guess is that’s your mosquito problem right there. There’s always an inch of water left in there, and there are mosquitoes that breed down there and you never see it. So you say, well, I don’t have any buckets, anything, but you do have a source of mosquitoes. You know, if you’re going to have a party and you’re sitting outside and what are you gonna do it? The mosquitoes get a fan.
Amanda Ripley: I know this has been my biggest improvement. It does help a lot because the mosquitoes can’t handle any any.
Speaker 3: Amount into it. Exactly.
Amanda Ripley: It’s their weakness. That’s their kryptonite.
Judy Hamlin: Well, I have another question for you, Doug. We have added some things to our yard, like a bluebird house and bird feeders and a bat box and a rain barrel. And I. Compost pile, and we’ve done all of those things hoping that we’re moving in the right direction. Do you feel that those are as important as the plants or are the plants the most important thing?
Speaker 3: By far, the plants are the most important. Okay. You know, bluebirds are doing well and the bluebird boxes have helped. But you need. You need the right habitat for Bluebird and a well treed residential neighborhood is not the right right habitat. They want a lot more open areas. So you’ve got your Bluebird house. It’s probably got a house, friends, or maybe even has sparrows in it, which is a non-native species.
Judy Hamlin: We have chickadees. That’s great. That’s great.
Speaker 3: Perfect. But your chickadees won’t be there if there’s not enough to eat, you know? You know, my chicken is very. It takes 6000 to 9000 caterpillars to get one clutch. A chicken is to the point where they leave the nest. And I’m looking at your yard here, and except for that tree over in the corner, it’s 100% non-native and not making any caterpillars. So the chickens have to be foraging in somebody else’s yard. You’re giving them a place to nest, but you also want to give them enough food so that they can nest successfully. So it always gets back to the plants, in my view.
Amanda Ripley: Here’s the bottom line for today’s episode. You don’t need to overhaul everything overnight, but when opportunities come up, try to prioritize native life supporting plants. And if you don’t have a yard, you can do what you can with the space you have, even if it’s one pot on your balcony.
Speaker 3: The message here is that we’ve got a serious biodiversity problem, but there’s something you can do about it. The solution is a grass root solution. You don’t have to just give up. And people are interested in that. They’re excited about that. They want to be part of that.
Amanda Ripley: I’m so glad you said that, Doug, because I think there is this sense of fatalism, right, when it comes to so many problems we have, but especially around conservation and climate change. You know, I just got a message today from someone who was like, yeah, the problem is there’s nothing we can do individually to have any impact on these problems. So we’re screwed, basically, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. But it sounds like.
Judy Hamlin: Yeah.
Amanda Ripley: It sounds like you’re saying there is there is something we can do. And obviously we also have to act collectively. Right. But I don’t know that they’re mutually exclusive.
Speaker 3: You know, I look at my own property. It was mowed for hey, when we when we built a house here. So there was very, very little here. Well, I’ve been taking pictures of every species of moss that is now making a living at our property. And I am up to 1162 species that was not butterflies that are that are part of the food web here because we put the plants back. So the message is this works. It doesn’t take that long. All you have to do is put the plants back. And if everybody did it, it would work even, even better. So we’re not just we’re not just blowing smoke here. You really can make a difference.
Judy Hamlin: I love it.
Amanda Ripley: Judy, what’s sticking with you here? What do you think? Was this helpful to you?
Judy Hamlin: Of course, this was very helpful. And I. I feel like there are definitely some steps that we can take pretty immediately. And that’s exciting. And rather than feeling overwhelmed and oh, where do I start? It feels like I can actually do something about it.
Amanda Ripley: That’s awesome.
Speaker 3: Yeah, it is awesome.
Amanda Ripley: Thanks to Judy for inviting us into her garden and to Doug for making the world a little greener one backyard at a time. Make sure to check out his books, which we’ll link to in the show notes. And by the way, we got an update from Judy.
Judy Hamlin: Through this podcast, I’ve discovered a lot of resources in my area. It has led me to discover a local expert. She recommended things like Asters and ferns and sedge, which is like a grass. And we’re even going to plant a tree, a sweet bay magnolia that doesn’t grow too big for the space and will help with holding in that soil, retaining water, and also give us a nice fragrance near our deck. And she also recommended trumpet honeysuckle to encourage some hummingbirds. No pictures to share yet, but I’m definitely making some progress. So thank you so much.
Amanda Ripley: Judy, you’re an inspiration to all of us. I’m so glad you’re on your way. There’s actually a lot to say about this topic. It’s one that gives us hope and a sense of agency right when we need it most. So next week, we’re going on a how to field trip. I’ll be talking with the Swiss ambassador here in the United States who’s actually doing all the things Doug recommends. He’s transformed the ambassador’s residence into a native oasis right in the heart of D.C.. It’s one small victory for subversive, sustainable gardening right here in America.
Amanda Ripley: What about you? Do you have a planet that needs saving? Or maybe just a yard that needs some love? Send us a note at how to at Slate.com or leave us a voicemail at 6464954001. And we might have you on the show how tos executive producer is Derrick John Rosemary Belson and Katie Shepherd produced the show. Our theme music is by Hannah Brown, remixed by Merritt Jacob, our technical director. Charles Duhigg created the show. I’m Amanda Ripley. Thanks for listening.