The Little Things that Run the World

You may recall from Part I a little story about an even littler butterfly called the atala, which was unwittingly saved from extinction when landscapers began incorporating their host plant into private gardens.

It’s a sweet story and all, but you may have found yourself asking, “Why should I care about some butterfly in Florida?” It’s a fair question. I’ll pose one even more challenging: why should we care about any insects at all, particularly the ugly, bitey, or annoying ones?

Well, in the words of the great American biologist E.O. Wilson, “Insects are the little things that run the world.”

Surely those silly moths that can’t seem to figure out your porch light couldn’t possibly have an effect on the great, intelligent human race… right? You’d be surprised. The complexity and interconnectedness of the food web illustrates otherwise. We’re all connected, and every piece of nature has its place.

“Saving The Bees” has become a big catchphrase in recent years. The general public is slowly starting to understand the importance of pollinating bees to our food production. And it’s absolutely true - many bee populations are in danger, and we need to save them!

But what many don’t realize is that bees are not the only pollinators. Other flying insects like butterflies and beetles pollinate too, and larger animals like birds and bats play huge roles. (Some very important plants, like agave - ahem, tequila - and bananas are almost exclusively pollinated by bats).

small bird perched on a branch

But that doesn’t make non-pollinators any less important. The pollinating animals need to eat, too - and many of the bats’ and birds’ favorite foods are those pesky moths or their caterpillars, and even pain-in-the-butt mosquitos! A mama chickadee will collect 6,000-9,000 caterpillars to feed a single clutch of babies, and a bat can eat around 1,200 mosquitos in an hour.

And bird seed doesn’t feed baby birds. 96% of terrestrial birds raise their young solely on insects. No bugs, no birds.

When an ecosystem is functioning properly, it’s okay for these “pests” to exist, because nature has built in controls. And that means no need for harmful, poisonous spraying.

The problem is, when we take out beneficial native plants, the negative effects reverberate upward through the food web. And that eventually means us.

Here’s the state of our natural world right now: over 40% of insect species are currently threatened with extinction. Invertebrate abundance has declined 45% globally since 1974. In the last 50 years, we’ve lost 2.9 billion birdsThese statistics should scare you. The natural world as we know it - and as we need it - is in peril.

The good news is, you can make a big difference, and all it takes is a little bit of extra attention to your yard or garden! (City slicker? Even a little window garden box or sidewalk plot can help!)

The “Great” American Lawn

There is more lawn in the U.S. than there is land in our 29 largest national parks - combined. That’s around 45.6 million acres of lawn.

More than likely, when you look at a lawn, you think nothing of it. Lawn is so normal to our eyes that most of us think it’s natural. Think again! The concept of a lawn as we know it came about no more than a few hundred years ago, and existed as a status symbol for the elite.

Think about it: why would I go through the trouble to clear an area, plant something from across the world, and spend my precious time and money to continually re-seed, fertilize, water, aerate, trim, bag, and edge it - if not just to prove that I were wealthy enough to do so?

Of course, a lawn can provide a comfortable and visually appealing place to walk, sit, or play on. That being said, I think it’s safe to say that the vast majority of 45.6 million acres is hardly enjoyed at all. Lawn has become such a default landscape that much of it serves merely to fill space and look tidy. But tidy lawn doesn’t serve wildlife.

Usage aside, boy, is lawn hard work to maintain. Grasses guzzle water. They also need lots of fertilizer to continue growing full and vibrant. This is because they need all the energy they can get to continue their mission of growing upward; a mission which we, of course, are continually working to foil.

Consider the fact that we have created an entire industry just to keep grass short. Grass, when left to grow as it’s meant to, typically grows to several feet tall.

rusty fence in a field of tall grass

Why pour time and money into helping a plant grow tall so we can keep spending more time and money to cut it back again? Isn’t it starting to sound a little crazy?A naturally shorter plant, or ground cover, wouldn’t need constant attention.

Not only would eliminating grass lawns save time, money, and precious water; it would do a great deal to save the planet, as well. Our gas-guzzling lawn mowers pollute the air with CO2; our fertilizers wash into watersheds and disrupt ecosystems; our weed and pest killers harm our bodies, our pets, and our bees. And perhaps most importantly, our lawns replace vital habitat for wildlife.

Lawns are sterile. This means they do almost nothing to support insects, birds, amphibians, mammals - anything. Unless you’ve got cows, almost nothing eats your lawn (if it did, you might not have to mow it so much). With our careful trimming, nothing bigger than a cricket can hide in it (and even then, it runs the risk of getting chopped up by the lawnmower). When it’s cut, grass doesn’t ever get tall enough to flower or seed, meaning we mow away the only potential benefit it’s got. Basically, grass is as good as concrete when it comes to supporting nature.

Getting Down & Dirty: How Can I Make Change?

Consider Going Grassless

Replacing lawns with micro turfs and/or clovers may not help the bugs much more than regular grass, but at least provides similar utility to us without all the mowing and fertilizing.

For lawn that’s not often used for running or playing on, consider a beautiful moss lawnwildflower meadow, or, if you’re feeling really adventurous, just letting nature take over. Ask yourself the question, “what would this area look like if it had never been touched?” Perhaps that means planting more trees - which is always a good thing!  

a group of yellow wildflowers

Ditch the Round-Up

This common pesticide/herbicide has been linked to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Besides the potential harm to you, your children, and your pets, Round-Up and other chemical sprays severely damage insect and bird populations.

Be wary of chemicals marketed as "safe," "natural," or "organic." Plenty of compounds that occur naturally are still highly toxic to humans, and there is very little market regulation for what can be advertised as "safe."

This may be a hard pill to swallow, but sharing your plants with the bugs is good! Remember those natural controls I mentioned earlier? When nature is in balance, your plants are less likely to be ravaged. A few holes or missing leaves from hungry caterpillars will not be visible from a few steps back. And what a lovely reminder that your garden is contributing to the health of the natural environment!

Unfortunately, nature these days is not typically in balance. Invasive pests like the spotted lanternfly, emerald ash borer, and, yes, deer, can wreak havoc on your garden. But spraying is still not (usually) the answer! Try these easy, homegrown methods first. You can also install discreet bat houses on your own home for built-in pest control service. As for the deer, if a good fence is out of the question, I’ve had success using my dog’s fur! Even just the scent of a protective dog can help keep them off of your plants.

It’s also important to follow guidelines like these to prevent invasive pests in the first place. If natural methods aren’t working, seek advice from your local master gardeners before using harsh chemicals.

The same concept can be applied to weeds. Some plants that pop up in your garden may be a nuisance, or even invasive. I know weeding by hand isn’t the most fun, but if you make it a habit, it’s not so bad! Maybe you can spend that extra time or money that you’re not spending maintaining the lawn caring for your garden beds instead.

I challenge you to challenge your vision of the perfect garden! Wild is beautiful. Consider letting your native plants spread and flourish, rather than keeping them in neat, tidy, spaced out rows. Wouldn’t you rather see lots of colors than boring old mulch? Plus, with a more natural look, a weed here or there will hardly be noticeable.

Natives for your needs.

Okay, so hopefully I’ve convinced you to decrease your lawn space, remove your invasives, and replace (at least most of) your non-native plants. But how will you know what plants to use?

Here is a great resource for finding all sorts of native plants for your specific region. From there, take a look at your yard to determine how much sunlight you get, how quickly or slowly the soil drains, how big of a problem deer might be in your area, and what kind of soil you might have. All of these factors are important to consider when choosing native plants.

It’s also useful to consider bloom times for flowering plants so that pollinators can find food for as long as possible. Aim to plant at least a few different flowering plants that bloom at different times of year. 

Sound like too much work? There are plenty of native plant landscapers who would be happy to do it for you! 

Remember, native plant gardens generally require less work than non-natives do. While shifting habits and revamping your lawn and garden may be a challenge to begin with, it will pay off in time. Not only will you spend less time and money on maintenance and subject yourself and your family to fewer potential carcinogens, but you will be doing your part to help save our planet and all of the creatures on it - including us!

a monarch butterly

Within our own front yards lies the power to make change. Here’s the catch: it only requires a little work, but from a whole lot of us! If we work together, even the smallest of spaces can link together to make massive restored habitat.

Birds and pollinators migrate; we can think of our yards as stepping stones along their path. If enough of us commit to becoming conscious gardeners, we can create a beautiful network of suitable habitat to restore populations of these little creatures who play a big role in the health of our beautiful planet.

With love & warmth,

P.S. - We include free native wildflower seeds native to your region of the U.S. with every order! Time to grow!
James Lord