Ah, the American dream: A lovely home in the suburbs near the nicest schools and shopping with a few bushes, a sturdy tree to put a tire swing in for the little ones, and a lush, green lawn. Since the 1940’s that was the ideal that we were all to aspire to, the ones we saw in magazines and television ads, one of those things the Joneses have that we need, too.
To that end, big box stores were erected in virtually every city in the nation, with garden centers catering to the consumers buying into the dream. Aisles filled with every conceivable type of pesticide, weed killer, and pallets stacked to the ceiling with smelly bags of chemical fertilizers in every store. Equipment in gas and electric, cordless, or even hand powered- tools of the landscaping trade like lawnmowers were cranked out of factories in droves- men spending their weekends mowing and blowing, and throwing a couple steaks on the grill along with some cold brews.
This American ideal- this glossy, polished image of smiling faces enjoying a neatly trimmed, verdant, perfect lawn- is inherently flawed. It is abhorrent to the very beauty standards of nature itself. The lawn everyone is trying to have is a desolate monoculture, devoid of all the functions of an ecosystem. Any other plant who volunteers to provide some diversity is quickly mowed down, or sprayed with chemical death. Trespassers. Invaders. How dare they invade my emerald paradise? The audacity!
Truth of the matter is: It is we who are the invaders. Before those homes, schools, and businesses were built, there existed in the same place a wholly interconnected web of life. A diverse biological community of flora, fauna, and fungi. A community without need for external input. Plants which grew without need of fertilizer. Pests having biological controls, a naturally occurring system of checks and balances which prevented any one species from dominating all the other lifeforms. Everything working in harmony.
Until we showed up, that is. It was medieval Europeans who invented lawns: Nobility having large manors, which commanded a large work force of serfs showed off their wealth and status by having large expanses of tightly cropped grasses flanked their often opulent palatial homes. Commoners did not have the time or energy to waste on such frivolous endeavors, lawns and gardens were the playgrounds of the rich. Those estates went on to become the blueprint of every subsequent generation’s desires. Fashion trends came and went, but having a neatly manicured lawn bordered by exotic flowering bushes remained in style.
These lofty ideals followed the Europeans as they went on conquests all over the world, including America. First Spaniards, then French and British settlers came here and displaced the native people and their harmonious ways. The food forests, chinampas, and other indigenous innovations were dismissed, and destroyed. Cleared and burned to make way for intensive old world style planting and harvesting techniques and technologies. Local herb lore was lost, medicinal and edible plants forgotten, called weeds, replaced with those that are always in need of some human input to sow, thrive, and harvest. A war of ideas, a clash of cultures playing out over an ever changing landscape dominated by the newcomers.
The industrial revolution which occurred in “developed” nations like England and France allowed them to dominate the colonies they lorded over, and introduce a new type of farming, one completely reliant on external inputs of fertilizer, one easily overwhelmed by insect pests and drought. America quickly followed suit, then overtook their European counterparts, perfecting mass production on assembly lines. Factories churned out thousands of machines and tools, textiles, and mountains of fertilizers.
The future seemed so great. As we entered the twentieth century, the miracles and horrors of a branch of science known as chemistry began to permeate every industry. Pesticides were developed which could easily kill most pests, DDT being the most notorious, causing birth defects in just about every other animal in the food web connected with the insects it was designed to poison. A couple of wars later, and a new atomic era found hardware store shelves brimming with bottles of brightly packaged chemical death agents. Gas powered mowing equipment soon rolled out of the factories and onto the neatly trimmed lawns of the lords of the new suburban manors popping up near every metropolis.
The masters of this new domain took great pride in their modest kingdoms, spending weekends outdoors mowing, trimming, and edging, before knocking back a few cold ones with their fellow neighborhood lords. Any problem became easy to solve by spraying the life out of it with chemical cocktails. Any plant, native or not, that wasn’t another blade of the desired grass species was seen as an enemy to be neutralized. Any six legged visitor a threat, to be dispatched with a noxious spray. Life in suburbia was good, at least for a while.
We find ourselves now at the dawn of the twenty first century now, and know that the good life for us has come with a terrible environmental toll: species extinction happening at a terrifying pace, the oceans are sick, the rivers choked with algae, and the land is becoming increasingly non arable. We, at an alarming rate, bulldoze entire forests or meadows, killing all the native plants, animals homes and fungal communities. We plunk in some cookie cutter homes, then replant these neighborhoods with exotic ornamental plants, and whichever grass makes the best looking lawn.
In central Florida, that means Saint Augustine grass, Stenotaphrum secundatum, a gulf coast, Caribbean and African native that has sterile seeds. It spreads through vigorously growing stolons, so that even small plugs of it quickly cover large areas. Sounds great! But like everything else that’s too good to be true, Saint Augustine is a voracious feeder and thirsty to match. When our regular afternoon rains come through, it gets enough water, but during the dry winter, irrigation is vital to keep this grass alive. It is also susceptible to chinch bugs and other insect predation. Even fungal infections can blight this attractive turf from time to time. Suffice to say, growing Saint Augustine lawns are completely dependent on the industries of modern man.
Thousands of acres have undergone this treatment here, the natural landscape stripped away and replaced with human development. Our homes and highways have replaced the nests, burrows, and game trails of the native fauna. We displace them with reckless abandon, and introduce invasive populations of hogs, cats, and exotic reptiles. Pristine streams are muddied, and native ecosystems are irreparably damaged by our activities. Meadows of wildflowers, sources of food for bees and butterflies paved over and replaced with barren expanses of green grass- food for nothing but hungry grasshoppers and other leaf eating species.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
We can start by identifying which native plant communities are right for our neighborhood, then replace some or all of the lawn and ornamental plants the developers dropped in as per their contract. There are plants to occupy every niche- groundcovers, bushy shrubs, small trees- there is something for everyone, that pollinators will be drawn to. There are flowers for every color palette, and something in bloom always, all year. The conquistadors didn’t name this the land of flowers for nothing!
Another perk of using native wildflowers instead of that thirsty lawn will be reduced water usage. Whether you have a private well or are piped into a municipal supply, you may have found that irrigating parched plants can get expensive. Many native species have adapted to our state’s unique rainfall patterns and as a result, often need little to no irrigation. Not only is it expensive, but also wasteful. Florida’s aquifers are seriously overburdened by the ever increasing population drawing from it, but millions of those gallons are being used to water the sterile Saint Augustine and other turf grasses. Using more natives will actually help ease your household’s burden on an already overtaxed system, flowing unseen beneath our feet.
You also won’t incur the cost of buying pesticides to keep your field of green from becoming some hungry bug’s personal salad bar if you grow natives. The plants that evolved along with their predators developed defenses against them- bad taste, milky sap, thorns- but the introduced ones lack any natural coping mechanisms, meaning pest infestations can quickly get out of hand without our intervention. If a plant can get along without regular doses of poison being applied to it, then that is definitely a win. Not only will you not be buying the insecticides, they wont be filtering back down through the sandy Florida soil, and leaching into our water supply as a result.
Let’s not forget the fertilizer you won’t need to use as much of. Most plants could use some plant food every now and again, since they can only derive so much nutrient value from our poor soils, but natives selected for your soil type and light conditions will need far less to produce the same growth as non natives. A great deal of the fertilizers sprayed on Florida’s innumerable lawns and golf courses gets washed into lakes, rivers, and eventually the ocean, feeding algal blooms such as red tide. Native plants are better suited to extracting what they need from our deficient earth and most do just fine, or even worse when fertilizer is applied.
So our benefits include:
- Natives use less water. This is a good thing.
- Natives are less prone to insect infestations requiring chemical controls. Also good.
- Natives need less fertilizer to be happy. More goodness.
- The more lawn you replace with flowers, the less lawn you have to mow. Good.
- Your yard will become a mecca for pollinators. A sanctuary filled with nectar and shelter.
- You will be a hero. Many types of bees and butterflies are threatened with extinction because of habitat loss. You can help restore some of that habitat and enjoy the sights of pollinators buzzing around your realm. Very good things, all.
Even sharing some of your space with the local wildlife can have profound effects on their numbers. Imagine having a kaleidoscope of migrating butterflies descend from the sky, flitting down to hang out at your house, because you have the only nectar for miles. Even just a couple beds can have a significant impact. Pollinators have small bodies, and even just a little nectar goes a long way. Milkweeds are a great consideration, as they are a host plant for monarch butterfly caterpillars. Birds, bees and other insects make use of most native plants not just for nectar, but also the pollen, fruits, and edible foliage. Birds use different types of twigs when constructing nests, and will visit many types of bushes looking for those that fit the bill, as it were, perfectly.
The days of a sterile, perfectly trimmed lawn must become a thing of the past. Future generations may look back at the men standing, staring in admiration at all their hard work, brows glistening with sweat, a cold beer in hand, with great wonder. That they invested so much time, money, and effort into growing and maintaining a tiny, green field with such little return on investment. The way towards the future is of one more in harmony with nature. Using what’s found locally as a resource, instead of fighting it. The way towards the future is one modeled on sustainability, and being a good neighbor to the wildlife that we so rudely evicted. Stay tuned for future articles in which we will explore these topics in greater detail, and be sure to like and follow us on the social media sites, and plant some natives. The pollinators will thank you for it.