There is a revolution taking place in the way homeowners and professionals are thinking about backyard gardens and community open spaces. It’s being led by a coalition of groups representing horticulture industry professionals, landscapers, environmentalists, government agencies, nature lovers and home gardeners.
More and more of us want to attract bees, butterflies and other pollinators into our yards, but to welcome them, we have to let go of our old way of thinking about our garden spaces. We can no longer treat our backyards as sterile, bug-free zones that are mere extensions of our living area. Conventional thinking dictates that our gardens should be neat and clean, like the inside of our home—dirt should be swept up, leaves should be removed and shrubs pruned into neat, regular shapes. We believe bugs are bad; even beneficial insects like spiders are something to be eradicated. Our quest to kill everything that moves in the garden has had devastating effects on our own well-being, from exposure to cancer-causing chemicals to endangering the pollinators we need to grow our food.
For the sake of our own survival, we need to change our approach and embrace a new philosophy, the “backyard biosphere”, based on set of sustainable, organic landscape management practices. The simplest definition is one that is in balance with the local climate, and requires minimal resource inputs such as fertilizers, pesticides, water, gasoline for lawn mowers and maintenance efforts. The most important characteristic is that it must use only organic pesticides or herbicides should be used, and only when natural methods won’t suffice.
Texas pollinators include fruit bats, beetles, hummingbirds, moths and even flies. If we really want to save our pollinators, we not only must stop spraying them with pesticides, but we also must find ways to replace at least of portion of habitat lost to development. Our backyards are the primary avenue available for us to accomplish that. They are obvious substitutes for natural spaces because they can offer all the essentials of native habitat: homes, food, water and protection. Together, these elements constitute a backyard biosphere. The more diversity the biosphere offers, the greater the range of wildlife it can support and mitigate the damage.
In nature, a new layer of compost is laid each year as leaves, animal waste and other debris that falls to the ground turn into rich, fertile soil. When we rake up the leaves and bag them for collection, we are removing the Earth’s natural fertilizer source, the very thing that makes a garden sustainable. Where possible, backyard biospheres leave the leaves alone to take advantage of this natural supplement. Instead of pruning away valuable nesting materials and shrubby cover, backyard biospheres allow plants to grow in natural shapes that help birds and other small animals hide from predators and find shelter from the weather.
Backyard biospheres also rely on native plants. Studies have shown conclusively that native wildlife prefer foods produced by native plants over non-natives. In fact, many native plants can only be pollinated by native pollinators. Native plants also require less maintenance because they are better adapted to our native soils and climate, so they need less fertilization and are more drought tolerant.
The Million Pollinator Garden Challenge attempts to create a string a pollinator-friendly gardens from Texas to the Canadian border to provide habitat for Monarch butterflies, and the National Wildlife Federation offers certification that a garden is wildlife-friendly.
Fragmentation separates animals from each other and their sources of food, water and shelter. Much of the Earth’s land area has been cut up into pieces by roads and development. Dams and water diversions have isolated aquatic species. These disjointed chunks may not be large enough or close enough together to support animals that need large territories. Fragmentation also makes it difficult for migratory species to find places to rest and feed along their migration routes.
Backyard Biospheres help connect the pieces. By working cooperatively with our neighbors, homeowner’s associations and local governments, we can knit together larger, more sustainable chunks of habitat that allow animals to move through and around the local environment to get to needed resources such as lakes and rivers.
Unless we can eliminate toxic pesticides and herbicides from our gardening repertoire, our gardens will continue to be graveyards for our pollinators and eventually, ourselves. As millions of acres of native habitat are destroyed every day, building backyard biospheres may be the only way to preserve many of our native plant and animal species.
Joyce Connelly is co-owner of Marshall Grains Organic Gardening and Nature Store. For more information contact 817-416-6600 or MGC@marshallgrain.com
For more stories like this read Natural Awakenings Dallas-Ft Worth magazine at NADallas.com