Now is the time to think about increasing the biodiversity of your suburban lot to support the vitality of nature in your own corner of the world. Residential landscapes occupy almost one-fifth of the entire United States, so how we manage our yards has a large effect on the health of our planet.
What can you do this year to make your own plot friendlier to our small friends who want to thrive there? I’ve got a few ideas. Don’t feel overwhelmed; pick out three from my list below and make 2020 your year to make a difference in the health of the earth.
1. Have a Landscape
No kidding. No matter the size of your property or terrace, have some plants other than grass. Plants have many benefits. They absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen, they shade and cool our neighborhoods, and they reduce dust, filter water, and prevent erosion. If you have no yard, plant in pots.
2. Get a Compost Bin
Whether you build one or buy one, start composting your food waste. It’s great for your soil and conserves landfill space. Once it is ready, use it as mulch, soil amendment or organic fertilizer for your plants. Chop your scraps up for rapid composting. Match your food scraps one-for-one with dry brown stuff like leaves, sawdust or newspaper. When it’s done, it should smell earthy and sweet.
3. Conserve Water
Install a rain barrel or two. Use this water for potted plants or landscape beds. You can fill up watering cans, or run a soaker hose from its spout into your landscaped beds. Water is a resource to use carefully. For each inch of rain collected from a 500-square-foot roof area, you can collect 300 gallons of water! I’m adding a second one this year, the first one has been so successful. I am partial to wood whiskey barrels.
If you have an irrigation system, inspect it regularly to see that heads are irrigating the landscape and not the driveway. Install a rainfall sensor that will shut the system down if it rains.
4. Create a Habitat for Wildlife
Add plants to your yard to mimic wild areas. Layer shade trees, small trees, shrubs, perennials and ground covers that are attractive to pollinators. Here, birds can find food, shelter, and nesting sites. A birdbath helps too. I got a bird bath coil this winter to keep the water from freezing. It turns off when the temp is above freezing and costs just pennies a day.
5. Do Better Lawn Care
Switch to organic fertilizers for your lawn. Use a mulch mower and leave grass clippings on the lawn; they supply needed nutrients and help keep weeds at bay. Mow high and frequently, and never cut off more than one-third of the grass blade. Mowing high helps prevent weeds and crabgrass and encourages deep roots, which helps on hot summer days.
6. Hang a Bird Feeder
Two-thirds of North America’s birds are at risk of extinction due to climate change. Too many suburban landscapes are over-maintained; plants get cut back in fall and removed, along with all their seeds, and leaves are blown away, taking with them all the insects that might have overwintered there.
Planting the right plants to provide food for birds in spring, summer and fall, along with supplemental feeding in winter, helps a lot, especially now that our winters last longer. Make sure to clean feeders thoroughly a few times throughout the winter, so you don’t help spread viruses. I hang suet for woodpeckers, and feed only sunflower seeds to greatly reduce wasted seed. If you don’t like the seed hull mess, try the shelled seeds. They are more expensive, so I switch to them in late winter, when I am actively in my yard again and don’t want the mess.
7. Leave the Leaves
In fall, mow over fallen leaves and leave them on your lawn or rake them into your landscape beds as winter mulch. As they deteriorate, they will improve your soil and provide nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium without expensive chemical fertilizers. They also serve as winter insect habitat, helping declining bug populations survive. If you have extra leaves, add them to your compost bin.
8. Install a Bat House
Bat numbers are diminishing because of habitat loss and disease, but a bat house provides a safe place for these under-appreciated winged rodents to roost and raise their young. And you want them in your yard because they eat thousands of insects each night, so goodbye mosquitoes! And they are also pollinators on the night shift. My husband Max made me a bat house out of scrap lumber from pallets, which usually are available for free and the wood is untreated. Perfect.
9. Sign Up for a Community Garden Plot
Grow organic vegetables to feed your family, relieve stress, and rub shoulders with the diverse people that are your community. Add your name to the wait list for Grow It Green Morristown’s Early Street Community Garden and start planning your garden now.
10. Learn Weeds
I have been learning to identify weeds this year and still have a long way to go. But it has helped me to know which weeds or wildflowers are native, and which are not; and which ones I pull, and what I leave alone for the native insects to enjoy. A great site is Rutgers NJ Weed Gallery. My favorite phone app is PlantNet.
11. Rethink All That Lawn
Get rid of some of your lawn. Lawn uses a lot of resources, water and fertilizer. Do you use all of your lawn, or could some of it be put to better use as a vegetable or pollinator garden?
What will you do this year? Let me know!
Carolle Huber is a local landscape architect, and a founder of Grow It Green Morristown. See more of her blog posts at www.carollehuber.com