Rewilding Your Lawn Can Attract Pollinators and Benefit the Environment—Here's How to Do It
You may think of nature conservation as something that happens "out there" in national parks and preserves, not in your own backyard. But collectively, our lawns comprise more acreage than all of the national parks in the continental U.S., and much of it is an ecological dead zone, according to Doug Tallamy, Ph.D., an entomologist at the University of Delaware and author of Nature's Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard. He says the lack of native flora and heavy use of herbicides may be contributing to the declines in bird and insect populations, which could have a devastating impact on ecosystems and the food web. To reverse the damage, Tallamy wants us to turn our lawns into more hospitable habitats for wildlife, a process commonly referred to as rewilding. Here are his top tips for getting started.
1. Shrink the lawn.
The first step to making your yard a better habitat for wildlife is to tear up some of that manicured grass. The fastest way is to physically remove the sod or till it up and let it compost in place. Many parts of the country are already encouraging lawn removal, so you may find more information with your local water district or agricultural extension. Or hire an ecological gardener in your region. "There's an entire industry developing around this," says Tallamy. Instead of a lawn, a lush yard that boasts native grasses and wildflowers requires little maintenance.
2. Add native plants.
They're essential for supporting native wildlife. Plant and animal relationships are often incredibly specialized— for example, most birds feed their young certain caterpillars that only eat certain plants. "You take the plant away, and you lose the animal," explains Tallamy. Trees in particular provide a lot of habitat. For instance, one native oak on Tallamy's property in southeastern Pennsylvania supports 557 species of caterpillar. To find a list of plants native to your area, visit the Native Plant Finder and enter your ZIP code.
3. Leave the leaves.
Fallen leaves are part of the natural ecosystem— they're next year's fertilizer, says Tallamy, and an important habitat for many insects. He adds that the best thing to do is rake them up and put them on your flowerbeds as a natural mulch. Also, when safe, consider leaving dead branches on living trees, or even a dead standing or fallen tree in place. This can provide shelter for many birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians.
4. Get rid of intruders.
It's also important to remove any invasive plants, which tend to spread rampantly, support less wildlife and outcompete native flora. Tallamy's preferred approach for invasive removal is to hack the plant back to a stump and carefully paint the remaining base with herbicide. This way you target just one small area rather than applying the chemical more broadly.
5. Turn off the lights.
Tallamy encourages shutting off exterior lights at night or adding a motion sensor so they only turn on when needed; they can be deadly to insects and blinding to many nocturnal animals. And replace regular white bulbs with yellow LEDs, which are far less attractive to insects (and more energy-efficient too).
This article first appeared in EatingWell magazine, April 2022.