Kelly Cartwright, Ph.D., is a biology professor at the College of Lake County in Grayslake, Illinois where she teaches environmental biology, general biology, botany, and introduction to sustainability.
Her research centers on the concept of “people and nature” and she is an enthusiastic supporter of native and environmentally friendly landscaping. As I write this, the goldfinches are noisily bouncing around the cup plant, the yard is filled with butterflies feasting on the nectar of fall asters, and the female hummingbirds are putting on an acrobatic spectacle. I start the day drinking tea on my deck. I often finish it there, sitting and enjoying the last rays of light as the sun sets. My yard has become my community and sanctuary.
When I started researching native landscaping and eco-friendly yard care, my primary motivation was in its ecological and wildlife benefits. As I researched the topic further, I became interested in the connection to human well-being. Much of this was driven by personal experiences in my own yard. I never imagined the soul-supporting connection I would form with this space and the species with whom I interact.
This last summer I was house-bound due to an injury. For an avid gardener, hiker, and bird watcher, this was a crushing blow. My saving grace was my yard. Due to the work I had put into it over the last decade, my yard provided the interaction with nature I craved. Every day I would hobble outside and sit on the deck, sometimes for hours at a time. My quarter-acre yard became my world. In the course of my doctoral work, I researched the benefit of interacting with nature. Typically, these studies focus on large-scale natural or wilderness areas.
More studies are starting to focus on metro nature because of its accessibility. The take-home idea of all these studies is that time spent in nature is good for us—the more frequent, and the longer, the better. The benefits of interacting with nature range from improved physical fitness and cognitive function, decreased levels of stress, better coping skills, and an increase in altruistic tendencies (humans are nicer to each other when they interact with nature).
Recent studies have attempted to quantify how much time in nature people need to function well; recommendations have ranged from five hours a month to two hours a week. Sadly, the modern lifestyle does not allow for even these modest amounts of time. If people could find nature outside their door, these recommendations would be easily attainable and even surpassed.
After reviewing multiple publications, I set out to evaluate native landscaping and eco-friendly yard care from a wellness perspective. Depending on which model is used, there are between two to 12 dimensions of wellness. For my analysis, I selected Dr. Frank Ardito’s “Prevention through Wellness” framework which includes 10 dimensions of wellness.
Physical: Digging, weeding; hauling compost; crawling on hands and knees to lay out cardboard, soil, and mulch; contorting yourself to squeeze just one more plant into an existing bed. This addresses physical wellness in spades, literally. In addition, the eco-friendly gardening approaches tied to planting native species reduces a person’s long-term exposure to synthetic lawn and garden chemicals.
Spiritual: I find a sense of peace when I am in nature. I feel connected to other species and their natural cycles. Not just seasonal or daily changes, but the cycles of life and death. I get a sense of things changing. Sometimes when I rail against change, my yard reminds me that I am a piece of something larger, that there are many working pieces and that much of life is beyond my control.
I do not follow a specific religious doctrine, but I am spiritual, and I find a strong spiritual connection in nature. When I researched conservation gardeners and their motivations for planting native species and using eco-friendly approaches, a number of people wrote that it related to their connection with God. Multiple people stated it was their responsibility to take care of God’s creatures, or to create a piece of heaven and to connect to people and pets who had passed away. Whether it is a general spiritual belief or a specific religious doctrine, our yards can be an outlet for spiritual growth.
Emotional: I worry about the world. From environmental issues to social injustice, I worry about our future. My yard allows me a tangible outlet to know that I am making things better. Our problems often seem huge and unsolvable. Creating this personal haven has given me a sense of purpose and calm, and it shows me what I can do. New terms being used are eco-anxiety, eco-grief, and solastalgia. We have such an unsecure future that people are in a state of anxiety about pollution, loss of biodiversity, and the looming threats of global climate change. Providing people with an easy outlet to nature can work to alleviate ecoanxiety and related states because it empowers them. It is easy to feel isolated and overwhelmed by the issues we face. After all, what can a single person do? Every individual can have an impact; they can work to make things better, and they will meet others trying to do the same.
Nature also gives our brains a break. The mechanisms are debated, but the conclusion is that we humans have a higher emotional/mental capacity when we have access to nature. Being in nature allows the everpresent technological intrusions to fade away. Our minds clear; our blood pressure lowers. We gain a better perspective and can contemplate the big picture. My yard has become my sanctuary. I can decompress after a stressful day. I can take comfort in the routine behaviors of the species I watch. Sometimes I laugh at their antics, sometimes I sit and cry, and either way, my yard allows me the space to process emotions and deal with the outside world.
Environmental: This is the prevailing reason that draws people to create native residential habitat. By using eco-friendly options, a person can decrease their fossil fuel use, improve water quality, and reduce the use of synthetic chemicals. All of these changes make a tangible improvement in environmental quality for other species and for the humans who play and live in these areas. It is one of the most direct ways to have a beneficial impact on the environment.
Intellectual Stimulation: A great thing about native landscaping is that it spurs a thirst for knowledge. People want to find out what plants are the best and which species they should use in their yard. If a plant does not thrive, it is a mystery to solve. The goal of creating habitat inspires people to research new things. Winter nights are spent trolling through plant catalogs in anticipation of spring weather.
Once a person becomes hooked by the idea of planting natives, they will spend time researching plants and the species that use those plants. I have taken many biology/botany classes and still, I learn new things every day just from observing my yard. Some of the most plant-informed people I have met have no formal botanical training; they learned by trial and error and enthusiasm about native plants. Native landscaping and eco-friendly gardening provide an outlet for a curious mind that can be met through either a solitary or social approach.
Nutritional: Our residential areas can have a positive influence on our nutritional health. I grew up eating vegetables fresh from the garden. This was a way of life. We lived in a typical suburban development, but my parents created a fantastic garden. In the summer we had tomato season and squash season. My grandfather in Texas would send us boxes of okra every week. This was the norm. While the space I use for food production is less than my parents had, I do grow a few things. I grow lots of herbs and attempt tomatoes and tomatillos in pots. The chipmunks often eat more than I do. This spring, my asparagus was finally old enough for me to harvest. I never cooked it. I ate it raw while I was outside; it was the sweetest, juiciest asparagus I have ever had. I started kale when I moved into my house and just let it reseed itself—this is the first year it didn’t come back.
For those who don’t have easy access to farmers markets, at-home production can be a source of fresh produce. We are seeing a growth in urban agriculture, and I applaud the individuals who are turning our food deserts and abandoned lots into swaths of community gardens. Growing food has the potential to improve everyone’s well-being, and not just because of the nutritional benefit.
Protectorate: From a landscape perspective, protection can apply to different concepts. I feel secure in my home and in my yard. Some people don’t like fences, but I like the feeling of security that a fence provides, and it allows me to have my dog or a foster dog (who might not like other dogs) in the yard without worrying that another dog could come onto the property. Plant selection can help create privacy through screening and creating enclosures within your yard. My cup plant, which lines the fence, is over 10 feet tall and provides a visual shield of neighboring houses. In addition, I have several spruces (planted by the former owners) that do a nice job of providing privacy year-round.
Social: There were days this past summer when I became a part of my backyard community. My pagoda dogwoods were fruiting; the yard was filled with activity. The birds and mammals had become acclimated to me, and they went about their business with little care to my presence. I became a part of their community. I could tell individual birds and chipmunks by their coloring or behavior. Each individual had a unique approach to gathering (and hiding) the berries, and I was amazed by the constant whirlwind of activity. Those were some of my favorite moments of the summer.
Ecological landscaping also facilitates a human-based social community. There are many organizations focused on native landscaping and eco-friendly yard care as well as talks, conferences, local plant sales, and an active online community. The people who attend these programs are passionate about creating habitat in their yard and improving environmental quality. They are eager to bring new people into the fold.
Occupational: My interest in residential habitat is related to my profession, but that is not the case for most. Becoming interested in environmentally friendly landscaping techniques and native plants might lead some to a new career path. It might also offer enjoyment of a hobby that is removed from one’s daily job.
Financial Security: Native and eco-friendly yard options are often touted as being cheaper and may be true once the plants are established. I am not there yet. I spend more money on plants than I do on clothes, and the clothes I bought this year were for working in the yard. Maybe one day, when I literally run out of room, my costs will decrease. For now, I am happy spending my money on plants and accessories to create habitat for other species. As with any hobby, passion, interest, or obsession (if we are honest), becoming proficient takes time and often money. I may spend more than required, but I am trying to bring in an abundance of diverse species, and those costs add up. The money I have spent has yielded great rewards that serve my peace of mind, so I look at it as money well spent.
Imagine a world where more people interact with nature daily, people become acquainted with the other species who share their space, and people are nicer to one another. We can leverage the space around our homes to improve the health of people and ecological communities.
When examined from a wellness perspective, environmentally friendly landscaping supports a holistic view of wellness. The ways we use and manage our residential landscapes can support our physical health, our emotional resilience, and our intellectual pursuits. By recognizing the benefits of incorporating native plants and alternate landscaping options, we will allow this movement to reach new audiences.