By Lisa Wade, Plant Based Advocates
Are you tired of spending your weekends mowing your water-thirsty grass and blowing leaves? Are you ready to make peace with wildlife foraging for food on your labor-intensive lawn?
Thankfully, there is an elegant way to save time and water, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, noise pollution, and pesticide use while co-existing with wildlife and nature.
According to the California Rural Water Association, more than half the water used in California households is for lawns. A native landscape saves money and eases the stress of water restrictions in drought-prone California. Indigenous plants have deeper roots than grass and anchor the soil, reducing runoff and erosion while also storing more carbon in the soil.
A native landscape reduces pollution from noise, water, and air. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), lawn maintenance equipment like lawn mowers and leaf blowers generate 5 percent of our country’s greenhouse gas emissions. Instead of constant mowing and blowing, you can simply sweep extra leaves onto your native landscape to provide rich mulch for your beneficial plants, helping to keep your neighborhood quiet and clean.
Native plants do not typically require fertilizers and pesticides that are regularly applied to lawns. Toxins from these treatments enter our environment, threatening the health of humans and animals alike. In addition, fertilizers are fossil fuel-based and run off into waterways where they eventually cause algal blooms, wreaking havoc on marine life.
Instead of battling to maintain an unnatural emerald lawn, we can work with nature, relying on the wisdom of indigenous plants that are pest-resistant and designed by nature to tolerate the weather and soil of the region. In addition, native plants provide important food and habitat for beneficial insects, birds, and mammals.
We are currently in the sixth mass extinction of species, with bugs being particularly vulnerable. This is mainly due to intensive agriculture, mostly growing and spraying crops to feed the animals we eat. However, urban lawns also play a role due to the use of fertilizers and pesticides as well as leaf blowers that blow insects right out of their leafy homes. Insects serve as pollinators for our crops and food for other creatures, and they are master recyclers of nutrients. The web of life is fragile, and we cannot afford to lose vast populations of our insects. Our once-rich diversity of songbird species is also declining. Native plants have evolved to provide the perfect food and shelter for our threatened native wildlife.
Although artificial turf does save water, this petroleum-based product is barren and does not support beneficial birds and insects. It cannot store carbon and can leach chemicals into our environment.
So how can we create an environmentally-friendly landscape that supports life?
Some opt for a manicured look by creating a pleasing and ordered native landscape with wood chips as mulch.
Or, some follow the advice of Nancy Lawson in her book, The Humane Gardener, and “imitate natural growth patterns by adding sedges, grasses, and native groundcovers as green mulch among taller plants… The low leaf canopy will provide food and shelter for many species, giving rabbits a place to nest….”
A native landscape allows you to truly live in harmony with nature. You can even welcome gophers and moles who play an important role in keeping the soil aerated and balancing insect populations. Gopher mounds blend into the natural-looking environment and are barely visible under shrubs.
If you are not yet ready to take the plunge, you can start slowly, perhaps replacing some exotic plants with natives. You could also reduce the size of your lawn by replacing part of it with native groundcover.
A few beautiful native plants you may have heard of are coast live oak trees, California fuchsia, golden currant, and purple needlegrass.
Saratoga resident and past chapter president of the California Native Plant Society Madeline Morrow says, “ I love California’s landscapes, plants, and animals, and I want the piece of California I am responsible for to nurture our unique flora and fauna.”
To get started, Madeline recommends www.calscape.org.
“Their Planting Guide is a great introduction to native plant gardening,” Morrow said. “They have useful information for almost any native plant, and places to buy it.”
Madeline’s yard will be part of the Growing Natives Garden tour on April 2-3, put on by the California Native Plant Society Santa Clara Valley chapter in collaboration with Santa Clara County Master Gardeners. Visit www.gngt.org for more information.
“We’re back in person this year,” Morrow said. “Fingers crossed!”
“Biodiversity worldwide is collapsing,” says Los Gatos resident Kevin Arroyo, who organized a project to create a critical pollinator habitat by planting natives on a neglected strip along Los Gatos Almaden Road. To find out more or to volunteer, contact Kevin Arroyo at firstname.lastname@example.org
Lisa Wade grew up in South Africa where she developed a deep respect for wildlife. She enjoys native gardening and serves as president of Plant-Based Advocates, a Los Gatos-based nonprofit encouraging a shift toward sustainable, plant-based eating.