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  • Writer's pictureljmarkson

The Future Needs More Violets and Fewer Lawns

I stopped to chat with an elderly neighbor who had just finished weeding her hosta beds. She showed me healthy violet patches growing in the shady part of her lawn and asked me what they were and how to get rid of them. I suggested she let them grow because they were wild violets and on the top 10 list of beneficial native plants for butterflies and moths in Atlanta. She added that they never bloomed. I speculated that maybe it was because they were mowed in the spring, but that was okay because the 26 different butterfly and moth caterpillars who eat their leaves don’t need the flowers. (I didn’t mention my violet blog post which I thought might seem a little extra to her) I pointed out violets naturally belong in our yard and most turf grass is native to Europe and takes so much effort to grow because it wouldn’t normally grow in a Atlanta where it's so hot and humid. I also shared the new more sustainable concept of a living lawn and letting native wildflowers grow to help restore nature in our yards.

Native groundcovers once thought of as lawn weeds are a more eco-friendly alternative to unsustainable turf grass.

I encouraged her to keep the violets in her yard for insects and she said she knew honeybees were in trouble. I clarified that honeybees are actually not in decline but our native bees are, and in the last 50 years we’ve lost 30% of our insects as well as 30% of the birds who need insects to survive. She said maybe she’d move the violets to a shady area in her garden bed. I pushed it a bit and pointed out there was already a larger area of violets than grass in the shady area along the flower bed so it might be easier to extend the bed and just remove the grass. She thought the idea was amusing and insisted this wouldn’t happen because it would cut into the green area (grass) in her front yard.

Native violets naturally grow where lawns struggle - so it makes ecological sense to let them become the "lawn" along with other native plants that thrive in tough situations.

Changing the mind of someone who grew up when lawns were prized as a status symbol is hard to do. It’s a bit easier to impact homeowners who are worried about the insect situation and may even know about common and iconic insects like the American bumblebee losing 90% of their population in less than two decades. The future is now and they can appreciate why we don’t have the luxury of seeing habitat rich native violets as weeds to destroy so a yard crew can maintain an unsustainable lawn for an outdated idea of curb appeal.

The homeowners who are restoring habitat in their yard are not just being trendy, they are creating a healthier landscape where insects and birds can once again thrive. (This American bumblebee is visiting the New York ironweed/Vernonia noveboracensis growing in my rewilded yard.)

When I volunteered for an organization promoting native plants, most of the folks in it were over 50. Many were like me and focusing on the function of native plants as foundational for restoring biodiversity and ecological health. Still, I was surprised at people who talked about pest (insect) management on their native plants including what the “good” and “bad” bugs on milkweed were despite studies showing a diversity of insects munching away on milkweed helps monarchs; how to make “messy” native plants tidier to please neighbors (who are ironically the ones with the cliched landscape); adding pretty, interesting, or rare native plants to their garden in the spirit as collecting exotic ornamentals; or creating the same kind of garden bed aesthetic as my neighbor’s hosta bed, only using native plants.

Insects like these swamp milkweed beetles are part of the ecosystem and one of 457 known insects that use milkweed plants! The notion that we decide which insects are good and bad is an idea promoted by the industry exterminating insects.

Yet I noticed a growing number of young, new homeowners or renters who joined this organization because they wanted tools to make their landscape more ecologically healthy and learn what native plants to use as a groundcover for their shady front yard or to attract caterpillars once they killed their lawn. They were not necessarily niche gardeners interested in native plants.

When I spearheaded the first native plant swap for a local native plant society, we had a large turnout of younger homeowners interested in adding native plants to their yards to restore habitat where they live.

I don’t fault my neighbor for her ideas. She’s a lovely woman and an old school Southern gardener. When she deadheads her native coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) she now gives me the stalks so I can weave them in trellises for the finches. She leaves a layer of leaves in her flower beds because she knows they’re good for the soil. Yet many of the native plants growing in my yard are the weeds her daddy pulled up in her yard when she was a child - she’s pointed out a few to me! I would imagine her experiences growing up in a more biodiverse world included insects covering windshields when driving down the highway, the now rare rufous hummingbirds visiting the (non-native) petunias on her mother’s porch, fireflies so numerous she could catch them and put them in jars for fun, and an abundance of songbirds chirping when she played in her backyard or had dinner on the porch.

I'm sure my neighbor thinks I'm a bit nuts, but she still gives me her coneflower stalks when she does the kind of fall cleanup generations of gardeners learned to do. In a habitat yard this kind of seasonal cleanup is unnecessary because it destroys potential habitat.

Her experiences are not the world we’re in now - but all is not lost. Yet. There’s still a big chunk of hope for the folks who want to make sure they see fireflies, bumblebees and butterflies where they live. They know the life scraping lawn culture of yards crews and pesticide services are a destructive and anachronistic way to be stewards of our own property. They want more for the future and are changing the conversation around home landscapes. Thankfully, their numbers are growing.

This is what ecological suicide looks like. Recently, the three yards I can see from my home office all happened to have yard services working at the same time. This kind of ongoing ecosystem destruction is directly contributing to the insect and birds decline.

Shortly after chatting with with my neighbor I visited my friend Louis who moved to a new home last year. (I went to pick up tadpoles for my new wildlife container pond - but that's another story!) He had created a habitat yard in his previous home and is in the process of rewilding his new yard. He showed me how he is carefully cutting back or removing grass to let the violets already in his lawn grow. He plans to add other low growing native plants to create the kind of biodiverse living lawn I was trying to explain to my neighbor.

My friend Louis is part of the movement to restore the habitat where we live. The violets in the lawn he inherited when he moved into a new home are being nurtured and the lawn is slowly disappearing.

Note: There are no affiliate links in this blog. Please click the highlighted text throughout the post for links to references, details, explanations, worthy organizations or businesses, or examples that I think might be helpful.


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