As with most things in life, we attempt to curate perfection, most times at the risk of sacrificing function. An example of this perfectionism can be seen in the relationship we have with our very own lawns and backyards. In true 'keeping up with the Joneses' fashion, we make sure our grass is trimmed and free of weeds, we plant showy flowers with the most curb appeal, and wage war indiscriminatingly against any insects that we think may threaten the picturesque landscape we've fashioned. Reflecting on the actions we take, it is not out of disregard for the nature around us, but more so our lack of knowledge and understanding of how our own yards have the potential to be an absolute playground for a variety of pollinators and wildlife. Something that would not only satiate our love of a beautiful lawn, but also benefit and contribute to a thriving ecosystem. How do we achieve this serviceable backyard? Well let's start by looking at our general view on weeds- we hate them. We will spend back-breaking hours pulling them by hand, use an array of chemicals and smelly pesticides just to keep these “eyesores” away. However, with the exception of toxic or aggressively invasive species, weeds have a plethora of benefits to our ecosystem that even the most exquisite flower can't bat a petal at.
Which brings us to our next folly, the flowers and plants we choose to grow solely based off aesthetics rather than choosing native species that could bring the most butterflies or hungry bees to our yards. Lastly, our complete disgust and intolerance for the unsuspecting insects that, unbeknownst to us, aren't just pests, but rather the fundamental workers that know better than us when it comes to protecting our gardens from harm.
So what exactly are the benefits of weeds, native plants and insects in our yards? Well without them we would absolutely see our ecosystem collapse. Our negligence in choosing invasive species for our gardens instead of native plants and weeds is the primary reason we have seen a devastating decline in butterflies- particularly monarch, as well as thousands of species of native bees and other helpful pollinators. “A weed is defined as a plant out of place. The problem with that definition, though, is that it is entirely subjective... Our subjective perception of where plants belong is how so many of our native plants came to be called weeds” (Douglas W. Tallamy, Nature's Best Hope). We are crippling our local ecosystem simply because we've placed an unfair label on our own native plants.
These native plants though are the backbone of supporting a greater diversity of bees, butterflies, and birds, versus non native plants. The native plants support these native pollinators and wildlife because of the evolution of them coexisting for generations. Pollinators and birds alike have fed off these weeds and now intrinsically know what benefits them and also what to stay away from. While non native plants are useful for nesting, shelter and some food, our wildlife aren't as attuned to them and rely on them far less and therefore they attract fewer of the native birds and insects we need. It's a longterm committed relationship between native plants, native climate, native soil and bacteria, native fungi and native wildlife. It's not to say we still can't plant our favourite ornamental bushes and flowers, but perhaps adding a humble corner of native plants such as goldenrod. Goldenrod is undoubtedly our native bees best friend because of it's long blooming period which can sustain the needs of generations of bees that have specialized on it's pollen. Also, it doesn't make you sneeze, thats ragweed! Milkweed is another example of a native weed powerhouse we can protect and plant, since it is absolutely crucial to the lifespan of the beloved monarch butterfly. This is because the monarch lays its eggs exclusively on milkweed leaves, then when those larvae hatch, they feed on the leaves, all the while the adult monarchs sip energy rich nectar from the flowers.
As for insects, well, E. O. Wilson said it best, “If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.” Luckily, the best thing we can do for these insects is to plant more of the right plants! Furthermore, recognizing the difference between the harmful aphids in your garden from the beneficial ground beetle. Native grasses are the perfect shelter for ground beetles, and ground beetles will protect our yards and gardens from detrimental pests like gypsy moth larvae. Consider a herb garden full of chamomile, oregano and mountain mint to attract parasitic wasps that will also prey on gypsy moth caterpillars and tent caterpillars.
So let us reinvent the idea of what a residential lawn can be. Welcoming native plants and weeds and insects into our four corner plots doesn't mean our grass needs to be waist high, or we can no longer plant an attractive garden for the neighbours to enviously admire. It's really more simple than we think, as long as we have the right formula! Plant the right species, attract the right species, and watch the ecosystem do the rest. Let's not let our yards become wasted space while the butterflies and bees desperately seek a haven among us.
We all have a part to play, what role will you choose?