For Earth Day: Reclaiming Our Suburban Deserts

Native dogwoods provide fruits beloved by many species of wildlife.

Native dogwoods provide fruits beloved by many species of wildlife.

Some days, I confess, I weep for our Earth. Perhaps I am a sentimental tree-hugger, but I know that my sentiment is based on science; I mourn for what mankind is losing. Among the degrees I’ve earned (I have three), is a master’s in environmental management from Duke University. My study focus was southeastern ecology and environmental resource management.

Why am I telling you this? Because I want you to take my words seriously on this day when we celebrate our home planet.

Humanity’s time on the Earth has often been marked by turmoil and destruction. And throughout history, mankind has taken whatever it could from our planet – minerals, oil, diamonds, and now, more than ever, trees.

People who do not understand ecology, who do not know the difference between an oak and a maple, a loblolly and a red cedar, think vegetation is infinite and completely replaceable. Here in the southeastern US where I live, until the last couple of decades, when you cut down a forest, it grew back pretty much the same. This is no longer true.

Let me repeat that: Today in the southeastern US when you cut down a forest, what grows back will only superficially resemble what you removed. This new reality is primarily the result of an alarming increase in invasive exotic species – insects, diseases, animals, and plants that are not native to the southeast and therefore have no natural enemies here. The invaders now have the edge over natives largely because deforestation due to urbanization has reduced remaining woodlands to small, scattered, highly fragmented tracts – easy pickings for non-native invaders.

Small woodlots that once were havens for the Southeast’s abundant native species of plants and animals are now overrun by invaders the natives are not evolved to fight. The species diversity in our dwindling native forests is declining faster every year. For hard data backing me up, try here or here or here.

Why should you care? Because an absence of species diversity creates a biological desert – a place where almost no creature can thrive, a place where our songbirds, our pollinators, our frogs and toads, our dogwoods and ash trees cannot survive.

Squash flowers need visits from pollinators like these if you want squash for your table.

Squash flowers need visits from pollinators like these if you want squash for your table.

Parking lots, shopping malls, and city centers full of skyscrapers are obvious biological deserts in my region. They don’t have to be. If you try an Internet search on sustainable urban landscapes, you’ll find exciting developments going on all over the world, even in a few places in the United States. Not so much in the Southeast. Green roofs on buildings — even green walls on sides of buildings – are successfully providing food for people and animals, ameliorating the heat island effect known to afflict urban areas, and elevating the moods of the people who live in such areas. Humans crave green; we evolved with it; on a deeply visceral level, it makes us happy.

Native Lonicera sempervirens 'Major Wheeler' obediently remains where you plant it, providing beauty for people and food for wildlife.

Native Lonicera sempervirens ‘Major Wheeler’ obediently remains where you plant it, providing beauty for people and food for wildlife.

Suburban deserts are less obvious to the average person, but they are entirely real. Start with the archetypical symbol of suburban life: the grass lawn. Somewhere back in time – probably about the time fertilizer companies commercialized chemical fertilizers – someone in the real estate industry decreed that “curb appeal” depends on how startlingly green your grass lawn is. Only certain species of grass – all non-native to the Southeast – are allowed, the height of the lawn must not exceed a few inches, and it must be kept artificially green at any cost. Chemical fertilizers and weed suppressors must be religiously applied, and hundreds of thousands of gallons of water must be poured onto the sacred green plot to preserve its holy color. (Imagine what better uses for their money suburbanites could find if they weren’t squandering it on maintaining their lawn deserts.)

The consequences of failure to conform in suburbia are dire. Your Home Owners Association (HOA) will first try to shame you into complying with the rules regarding Sacred Lawn Maintenance, and if that doesn’t work, they will fine you. Some HOA rules might even allow the HOA to foreclose on your home for noncompliance.

Anyone who lives in a typical suburb with an HOA has heard stories about unfortunate neighbors who fell victim to the wrath of HOA despots. My neighbor recently told me that her daughter, who lives in a nearby town of rigidly regulated suburban deserts, was recently castigated by her HOA for the crime of allowing clover to grow in her lawn. It might interest the despots to know that before the commercialization of chemical fertilizers, grass lawns were deliberately interplanted with Dutch white clover, because the clover’s nitrogen-fixing roots added this nutrient to the soil, thereby helping to keep the grass green.

Children can play in forests too; I grew up playing in forests.

Children can play in forests too; I grew up playing in forests.

Does any real estate expert really think that clover in a lawn will bring down the value of the entire neighborhood? Really? My neighbor’s daughter also got in trouble last year when her child grew sunflowers for a school science project. The sunflowers were deemed to be unsightly by the HOA despots. Apparently, any attempt to increase species diversity in a suburban desert is against the rules of most HOAs.

Unsightly? Really?

Unsightly? Really?

The population of my part of North Carolina has grown immensely in the last twenty years. Former large tracts of forest that once separated towns are almost all gone now, replaced by suburban sprawl – thousands upon thousands of housing developments, many full of nearly identical houses surrounded by manicured lawns perhaps punctuated by a lone tree struggling to survive outside the context in which it evolved. Southeastern trees don’t naturally occur in the middle of chemically altered non-native mowed lawns, folks. And what you do to maintain that green desert is slowly killing any tree you insert into that unnatural environment.

Our native trees, such as this Halesia diptera,  will thrive in your yard, if you site it correctly.

Our native trees, such as this Halesia diptera, will thrive in your yard, if you site it correctly.

This situation could so easily be fixed. Europe is way ahead of the US in this area, but even in the US, if you search on “sustainable communities,” you’ll find some exciting examples of entire suburbs being constructed according to sustainable concepts.

Sustainability is more than energy-efficient building methods, green materials, and even adding food plants to your landscape. Your food plants won’t thrive if the native pollinators are gone, if the songbirds and frogs that eat insect pests are gone. These animals need the environments they evolved with. In my region, that means healthy, diverse native southeastern forests. This can be accomplished easily if suburbanites will throw off the shackles of archaic HOA rules based, not on ecology, but on some real estate expert’s notion of what looks good.

Our native redbuds not only look spectacular in the spring; their seed pods are essential food for many wildlife species, including cardinals.

Our native redbuds not only look spectacular in the spring; their seed pods provide essential food for many wildlife species, including cardinals.

Lawns should be reserved for parks, soccer fields, and other large spaces where people like to play and run on short green surfaces. These lawns can remain healthy without regularly dumping chemicals on them. They should not contain one species of non-native grass. Clover should be welcomed. Occasional applications of animal manure or other organic nutrients is likely all they’ll need, especially if they are mowed less frequently and maintained at a slightly higher height.

Instead of deserts full of green lawns bereft of all other forms of life, homeowners should consider working together to rebuild a patchwork of native forest in their neighborhoods. In developments full of tiny lots, this might mean one homeowner plants one large canopy tree – an oak, a maple, a tulip poplar. As it grows, native understory trees and shrubs can be added for color and species diversity – dogwoods, red buds, sourwoods, persimmons, viburnums, blueberries, deciduous azaleas – all of these species provide food for native wildlife while contributing to the beautification of the area they occupy.

Native viburnums offer abundant spring blossoms attractive to pollinators and humans, abundant berries beloved by much wildlife, and gorgeous fall leaf color that enhances any landscape.

Native viburnums offer abundant spring blossoms attractive to pollinators and humans, abundant berries beloved by much wildlife, and gorgeous fall leaf color that enhances any landscape.

The traditional suburban aesthetic is killing our land by creating biological deserts where our songbirds, pollinators, and other wildlife cannot perpetuate themselves successfully much longer. This catastrophe can be avoided if homeowners in these deserts will stand up and defend our planet – and their homes – by working to change the HOA rules that prohibit the nurturing of native species diversity in their home landscapes.

This newly emerged Copes Gray Tree Frog needs clean water and a diverse plant-filled landscape to survive long enough to eat overabundant insect pests.

This newly emerged Copes Gray Tree Frog needs clean water and a diverse plant-filled landscape to survive long enough to eat overabundant insect pests.

Do it for your children and grandchildren who will suffer the consequences of current HOA scorched-earth policies. Do it for the migratory warblers seeking safe nesting sites, the insect-and-slug-eating toads who need non-poisoned waters to reproduce in.

Do it for the Earth.

Do it today.

Rescue the natives; save your children.

Rescue the natives; save your children.

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  1. #1 by theabstractdetail on April 22, 2014 - 8:24 am

    Reblogged this on The Abstract Detail.

  2. #2 by Sam Hardman on April 22, 2014 - 12:11 pm

    Great post, and I completely agree about lawns, they have no biological value whatsoever and in my opinion are quite bland and boring. I’d much rather have a house with a variety of different plants and their associated insects than a patch of unchanging grass.

    • #3 by piedmontgardener on April 22, 2014 - 1:21 pm

      Thanks, Sam. Perhaps if more of us explain the negative impacts of lawn deserts, we can persuade suburbanites to embrace sustainable native landscapes. Here’s hoping!

      Thanks for stopping by.

  3. #4 by Sheri Bisbee on April 22, 2014 - 2:30 pm

    Love this article…. Thank you!!!

  4. #6 by fiercebeagle on April 30, 2014 - 3:21 pm

    This makes me sound stupid, but now I feel great about leaving the clover (which I’ve always done because it’s just so dang pretty). I’m loving following your blog, and I’m learning so much. Inspiring post!

    • #7 by piedmontgardener on April 30, 2014 - 3:30 pm

      Hi, Erin!

      I don’t think you sound stupid at all. I’m a big believer in following your gardening instincts as much as possible. If I like it — and it’s not invasive — I add it to the green chaos of my landscape.

      I have a soft spot for clover too. As a child, I spent happy hours lying on lawns constructing necklaces of linked clover flowers with my sister. We wore them proudly. 🙂

      Thanks for stopping by!

  5. #8 by Norman Smith on August 3, 2014 - 7:55 pm

    I am doing all I can to stamp out the invasives on our 1 acre lot. We have some pretty huge trees in the front yard near the street where we created a “natural area” years ago by simply not mowing and the back third of the property is full of more huge tulip poplars sweetgums, oaks and maples. This is where I am creating my Botanical Reserve..lol. Planting NC natives that do well in moist woodlands. Groundcovers, ferns, …putting out some cool looking homemade plant labels. Started a Pawpaw grove. Put up a birdhouse..built a water feature.that the Hyla chyrsocelis are losing their minds over. The place is overrun with em! Today I saw 5 green frogs, a skink, and two dragonflies there…lol. So…I am trying..Norm

    • #9 by piedmontgardener on August 4, 2014 - 4:54 am

      Welcome, Norman! From your description, I think you’ve moved from trying to succeeding — and your local wildlife population agrees. You’ve created a beautiful, diverse native landscape that is becoming home to myriad native animals, so many of which are increasingly threatened by destruction of their habitats. Bravo!

      Thanks for stopping by.

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