Don's Jersey Birding: Less Lawn Means a Healthier Backyard

Anthropologists have many theories on why we have a love affair with our lawns
Photo courtesy of AOL

By Don Torino

Spring is just around the corner and many New Jersey home owners are beginning to dream of lavish green lawns expanding as far as the eye can see. Well, at least as far as their neighbor’s fence. Somewhere along the line we have come to view a lush green lawn with how successful we see ourselves and even tie it to the fulfillment of the American dream. A large unrestrained lawn means we have made it , we have arrived . But as our emerald fields of grandeur begin to turn brown from lack of water it is a good time to rethink what a good healthy backyard should be.

Anthropologists have many theories on why we have a love affair with our lawns.  Some like to believe because our species evolved on the plains of Africa we are somehow drawn back to our primeval instincts and desire to be in open grassy areas. Others believe we like to think we are some kind of medieval Lords that have a vast open land around our castle and our lawns make it easier for us to see our enemies coming from far off.  I tend believe it has to do more with  our original settlers. By the time the first Europeans arrived in America most of the forests in their homeland had vanished due to over logging, farmland and the creation of giant estates. The first settlers brought many things with them, among them their own superstitions, like werewolves, witches and evil spirits - all of which just happen to live in the woods. Their new beautiful homeland was now in deeper and darker woods than they could have ever imagined chock full of what they must have believed to be real scary stuff. So when they began to take down the trees for farmland I think they just kept going to feel safe, no trees no spooky stuff, and we just kept the tradition going right up to the present. And if you think that’s not true just watch TV and see how many UFO and Bigfoot shows there are? None of which take place in any cities.

Next to paving over a natural landscape lawns are one of the worst things for our environment. Runoff from chemical lawn fertilizers and weed killers can pollute our lakes and rivers and may expose our families and pets to many strong pesticides. And when it comes to  wildlife, lawns are nothing but a wasteland; lacking in any beneficial food sources, biodiversity, and, unless done organically, exposing our birds, butterflies and pollinators to possible harmful chemicals. Not what a healthy backyard yard should be. 

Replacing lawn with native plants will help wildlife, such as this American Goldfinch feeding on Giant Yellow Hyssop.
Photo by Denise Farrell

Lawns are the largest single crop in the U.S. We have at last count 20 million acres of lawn about the size of New England. About 30% of urban water used on the east coast is for lawn irrigation and the Environmental Protection Agency estimates 70 million pounds of biocides are applied to our lawns each year. This is not a healthy environment for our families or wildlife. So what can we do to break our lawn addiction?

For starters we can cut down on the amount of lawn we have by creating beds of native shrubs and flowers. Native plants for the most part need less water, little or no pesticides or fertilizers, after all no one is running around the woods of New Jersey spreading artificial fertilizers in our forests and yet our native plants do wonderful . Besides our native plants having many benefits and looking beautiful as any exotic plants our wildlife recognizes them, they have evolved for eons with them. Native plants get their flowers, berries and seeds exactly when our wildlife need them , they depend on each other. Native plants are the foundation of a true wildlife habitat. In fact Scientist such as Douglas Tallamy , author of “Bringing Nature Home”, believes the only way to save many migratory bird species is to grow native plants in our backyards.

Introducing milkweed to the backyard instead of the lawn will help the Monarch Butterfly continue their life cycle.
Photo by Denise Farrell

To get over your lawn addiction start small so not to cause withdrawals. Begin a new garden bed around the lawns edge or create a nice focal point using some of our beautiful native plants. Use your lawn as a frame to show off your new native perennial or shrub garden.

Here is a list of some natives that can be found at many local nurseries:

Native Perennials for the home garden
Bee Balm (Monarda didyma)
Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis)
Swamp Milkweed( Asclepias Incarnata)
Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum )

Native Shrubs
Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)
Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)
Summersweet ( Clethra Alnifolia)
Silky Dogwood (Cornus amomum )
Arrowwood viburnum ( Viburnum Dentatum)

Replacing lawns with wildflowers, such as Bee Balm, will help the Hummingbirds
Photo by Alice Leurck

By cutting back on the size of your lawn you can attract butterflies, Hummingbirds and many beautiful migratory birds and create a stunning backyard that is a healthy environment for you and your family.

If I can help you get started or answer any questions you can e-mail me at

Don Torino is the President of Bergen County Audubon Society.

Don's Previous Birding Exclusives:


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