Second Nature

Before The Omnivore’s Dilemma, The Botany of Desire, and In Defense of Food, there was Second Nature, Michael Pollan’s love letters to gardening written in 1991. In it, Pollan posits something revolutionary: that gardens can be places where nature/wildness and culture/history/people have equal power. And that by gardening mindfully and following nature’s lead (such as, in the flow of water and insect control), we can make safe places for birds and pollinators, create mounds of rich new soil, and turn land into beautiful places that please the eye and the palate.

SecNatureFamiliar now, but in 1991, these were new ideas. There was nature, over there preserved in sanctuaries, and there were our separate gardens and yards. Over time, many of us have tried to merge the two worlds, bringing some wildness to our own yards. Decades after Second Nature came out, University of Delaware professor Douglas Tallamy wrote his popular Bringing Nature Home, which celebrates the benefits of gardening for wildlife. Hundreds of books and articles have followed.

Not surprisingly, Pollan doesn’t much care for American lawns. In his own yard, he ended up letting his grass go to seed. I take no offense. Huge tracts of grass are boring and wasteful. Our suburban Maryland lawns often are small circles, rectangles, or squares in landscapes that emphasize trees, shrubs, and garden beds. Maintaining these relatively small grassy areas without polluting the air and water is the least we can do.

Not only can gardeners protect and improve the environment,
they can spread genetic diversity by planting heirloom or old seed varieties.
Check out J.L. Hudson, a public access seed bank.

A section on lawn history was new to me. According to Pollan, Frederick Law Olmsted is credited with its invention. In 1868, Olmsted received a commission to design Riverside, outside Chicago. His design “stipulated that each house be set back thirty feet from the road, and it prohibited walls. … In Riverside, each owner would maintain one or two trees and a lawn that would flow seamlessly into his neighbors’, creating the impression that all lived together in a single park.”

Sounds more like a golf community to me. I prefer less grass and more trees and shrubs (and a watercourse, if possible) in my parks. 

Pollan’s writing is effortless, and Second Nature swept away the tedium I can feel toward gardening and “yard work” and replaced it with an eagerness to experiment, play, and grow, grow, grow.

Our Yards as Wildlife Oases

You won’t find me arguing for no-mow yards. I was born in the suburbs and learned to crawl, walk, and run on the grassy places around me. I love the openness of cut grass, especially when surrounded by trees, shrubs, and a cozy house. Grass is the meadow in our everyday landscapes. It’s where we set our blankets in summer and make snow angels in winter.

That said, suburban yards have all too often become sterile environments where a few ornamental plants and loads of dreaded invasive plants surround a large monoculture – grass. The result is bland, if not unsightly, and for wildlife, deadly.

bringing-nature-homeBees, butterflies, beetles are all in serious decline — and scientists blame the loss of native vegetation along with toxics (pesticides) in the environment. If insects are in trouble, so are birds, which rely heavily on insects for food and so are people, who depend on insect pollinators for food.

“It is increasingly clear … that much of our wildlife will not be able to survive unless food, shelter, and nest sites can be found in suburban habitats,” writes Dr. Douglas Tallamy in Bringing Nature Home.

Improve your yard, my yard, his yard, her yard. Pretty soon, we’re collectively changing the plant base and nurturing insects and other wildlife, argues Tallamy.

To make our yards wildlife-friendly, we just have to do two things: Avoid pesticides and plant natives.

chesapeakenativesCOVERHow to get started? An appendix in the back of Tallamy’s book lists dozens of native and wildlife-friendly trees shrubs, vines, and ground covers for the Mid-Atlantic. You can also find local options in this U.S. Fish & Wildlife Guide. And bonus! Native plants have developed natural defenses to threats in our area, so unlike many exotics, they don’t need chemicals to keep them free of pests and disease.

“The costs of increasing the percentage and biomass of natives in our suburban landscapes are small, and the benefits are immense,” Tallamy continues. “As gardeners and stewards of our land, we have never been so empowered – and the ecological stakes have never been so high.”

So, keep your grassy area (and let Solar Mowing cut it with emission-free, quiet machines) but frame it in beautiful and beneficial native trees and shrubs.