Few can deny the unique beauty of a manicured backyard, with a lush lawn and attractive plants from around the globe, closely controlled to create a pleasing site for the casual observer.
Such an area is believed to be relaxing to our psyche in part because of the history of our species – our ancestors settled in open spaces to more easily see incoming predators, and we probably still hold some of these preferences deep inside our subconscious.
While we can admire the charm of such heavily manicured designs, it is important to remember that the vast majority of our landscapes are designed for humans by humans, and in most cases they pale in comparison to natural ecosystems in regards to benefits to the world around them.
For example, studies have found that lawns tend to produce more greenhouse gases than they absorb due to the energy requirements needed in watering, mowing and fertilizing.
Most yards are also unlivable or even dangerous for local wildlife, especially if they are dominated by exotic plants. Research has highlighted that once a landscape is filled by more than 30 percent non-native plants, insect populations decline to the point that some insect eating birds are forced to move elsewhere.
Using native plants wherever and whenever possible can give the ecosystems around you a much needed helping hand, and native plantings can quickly turn your yard from a source of global warming into a powerful tool in the fight against climate change and species loss.
A properly functioning ecosystem is filled with a wide variety of residents, each interconnected in ways difficult to divine at first glance. Many of our native butterflies rely on specific plants from the area in order to raise their young, for example.
This species diversity is critical in a healthy environment, and is something that’s often missing from our own backyards. Studies have shown that as the diversity of organisms goes up in an area, incredible benefits can be seen.
Cornell scientists studying apple orchards discovered that apples in areas with greater bee diversity weighed more, had more seeds and were better shaped than apples from areas with less bee diversity. Unsurprisingly, the areas with the most bee diversity were those near healthy, natural areas.
Studies have also shown that as the diversity of native tree species in an area increases, so does that area’s ability to resist unwanted plant and animal invasions. Large aggregations of native plants attract all kinds of wildlife, which in turn attract predators looking for an easy meal.
There is a strong correlation between areas with high predator populations and low tick numbers. Keep your landscapes functional, and they will work to prevent unwanted pests from exploding out of control. Recent research has even been so blunt as to determine that as plant diversity increases in an ecosystem, the energy efficiency of the entire system increases accordingly.
A good deal of an ecosystem’s ability to break down inert material, store atmospheric carbon, and transform nutrients into usable forms happens unseen beneath the soil.
Much of this hard work is performed by various microbes that live underground. Scientists are discovering that many plants have specific microbes that they rely on, such as corn, which uses chemical signals from its favorite microscopic friends to increase growth rates and even change the physical structure of its roots.
Plants that have evolved together are likely to share similar microbes, and work more efficiently when the microscopic colonies of other native plants are nearby.
While it is certainly possible to have an exotic showpiece or two, I strongly encourage you to plant as many different native plants as you can manage this growing season.
Brannen Basham and his wife, Jill Jacobs, operate Spriggly’s Beescaping, a business dedicated to the preservation of pollinators. He can be reached at email@example.com.