Does One Yard Make a Difference?

—By Kelly Cartwright, Ph.D.

This year, I have been journaling once a week on the birds in my yard. I sit for a few minutes, see who is visiting that morning, what unique or interesting behaviors they may be exhibiting, and start to write. As winter changed to spring, I noticed how much life my yard supports. Today I struggled to select the species I wanted to write about because there were so many options. A flock of grackles was flinging around the fallen leaves from last year searching for something to eat. The bunny (who appears to be residing near a compost bin) was munching on grass amid the grackle activity while the squirrels scampered about. The robins were gathering nesting materials for their home within the spruce next to the patio. The doves were lying around in sunny spots dozing, preening, and stretching, while the black-capped chickadees checked last year’s forbs for insect larvae or seeds.

Instead of fall clean up, where standing vegetation and fallen leaves are removed, we need to encourage homeowners to mimic nature and leave plants over the winter. These habitats may look similar, but a pair of cardinals spend time in the little prairie patch on the right side of the path, whereas the robins prefer to forage in the wetter raingarden area on the left.

In addition to the birds using the natural habitat in the yard, many other species came in to get a drink from the bird bath, or to gather seeds that I scattered in the flowerpots. It is a continual flurry of activity. As I glanced in my neighbors’ yards, many of whom have bird feeders, I saw not a single bird. Their yards were full of emerging green grass and the beds had been cleared as part of last fall’s clean up, but nothing was using their space.

The question of ‘does one yard make a difference’ comes up frequently when discussing native plants and ecofriendly landscaping. From observing my yard over the years, I say it does (empirical research says so too). As I increased the number and variety of native plant species in my yard, I observed an increase in the insect and bird populations. The species diversity of dragonflies, native bees, butterflies and moths, and many other invertebrates increased. The sheer volume of pollinators increased dramatically. Videos that I take of the plants sometimes look blurry because of the movement of the pollinators. And the sound, oh my, it is a daily chorus of insect life. The birds have increased as well. The buzzing, clicks, ticks, and chirps are a veritable orchestra. When I walk by other yards: silence. Maybe a few crickets.

At the start of spring, the vegetation from the previous growing season remains, but much has been flattened due to snow and storms. This area supports diversity throughout the growing season, ending with a profusion of fall asters.

The number of resident species and wintering visitors has increased as have the species stopping through on their migration journeys.
They recognize my yard as habitat. My yard supports life.

June, 2021.

Does one yard make a difference? Yes! Would more yards increase that impact? Absolutely! The view of residential landscapes is changing. The number of programs designed to assist homeowners with certifying their landscapes as ecofriendly, or some related aspect such as pollinator or monarch friendly is increasing. The laws governing yard maintenance are evolving; homeowner’s associations are starting to recognize that they can save money and increase property values by changing the landscaping style and regulations. When people learn that many of the issues we face could be mitigated by altering our residential landscapes, we grow the momentum of the ecofriendly landscaping movement. It is not an easy shift. There are strong cultural and economic forces supporting the biological desert that is the chemical intensive, manicured, green lawn.

And, in September, 2021.

Culture is hard to change, but the more we can demonstrate how different approaches to landscaping can support life and provide beautiful settings, the greater the opportunity to dismantle the prevailing culture of conventional landscapes. As the culture shifts, the landscaping industry will respond; savvy companies are already offering low chemical or wildlife-friendly options, and more growers are starting to sell native species.

When we modify what people value, and empower them to make adjustments, we transform the culture. Emphasizing the worth of native plants and the species and ecological processes they support provides people a purpose for their landscaping choices. Imagine a world where more people see the value and joy in a yard that is full of life.


About the Author: Kelly Cartwright, Ph.D., is a biology professor at the College of Lake County in Illinois and an adjunct faculty member in the graduate program at Prescott College in Arizona. She teaches Environmental and General Biology, Botany, Sustainability, and Advanced Research Methods, and serves as a thesis/dissertation plan advisor. She holds degrees in Wildlife Science, Biology, and Sustainability Education. Her research focuses on people’s relationship with nature, and she enjoys wildlife gardening, hiking, and birding, and is an advocate for holistic sustainably.