The many benefits of a less-manicured yard

Jennifer Seamans, Watershed Center Manager, watershed@swni.org or 503-823-2862

Photo of wren perched on mossy branch by Jennifer Seamans
Pacific wren

 

As memories of Snowpocalypse 2016-17 fade and spring seems more imminent, are you mentally resigning your weekends to yard work?  There is another option: let nature do some of the work for you!  

Many of us feel compelled to maintain a manicured aesthetic, whether our own sensibility, desire for organization, or social pressure to fit in with neighbors.  Yet we often simultaneously begrudge the time required to keep our yards up, or the money spent on fertilizers, pesticides or other amendments.

You may be surprised to hear that keeping an overly manicured yard may  make the problem worse.  When yards are overmaintained for long periods of time, they become less biologically active, and prone to more problems.  When there isn't a well-balanced ecosystem to keep things in check, plant and insect pests are more likely to take up residence. 

Whether you do the work yourself, or hire a landscaper to care for your yard, here are some ideas you can adopt that allow nature to do some of the work for free!  

  • Avoid using fertilizers and pesticides, especially before plants emerge in the spring.  Weed n' feed products may seem like a time saving measure, but often make the problem worse in your yard, AND get carried by stormwater from your home down to creeks where they have serious negative impacts on water quality and aquatic insects.  
  • Instead, wait until plants emerge, and then use Metro's GrowSmartGrowSafe.org website to find the most effective, least toxic practices and retail products.  Only apply what you need, in response to what you see.
  • Learn to love the brown things in your yard!  Fallen leaves and other dead plant debris are an important source of food and habitat for the microbes that create healthy soil, keep pests at bay, and provide nutrients for trees.  As long as it is free of disease, consider keeping debris on site for mulch or composting in place. Avoid leaf blowing, which excerbates the issue.  
  • Larger woody plants of varying height provide habitat for birds, as well as the beneficial insects they depend on for food.  A brush pile of woody debris in the corner of your yard can also provide cover for birds (Pacific wren, above). 
  • Similarly, many ground-dwelling bees and other beneficial insects need patches of bare soil to complete their life cycle.  If you also grow fruits or vegetables, these pollinators can support up to a 50% increase in your garden yield.  Next time you find a spot like this in your lawn, leave it bare for the bees! Xerces.org provides more info on how to support native pollinators.
  • Perhaps the most important part of building a healthy ecosystem in your yard and neighborhood is to find native plants that will support insects and birds, especially species that bloom at different times throughout the growing season. Need some low-cost help with this task?  Check out the Backyard Habitat Certification Program and register for a site visit at BackyardHabitats.org
  • Have you seen honey bees feverishly collecting pollen from dandelions?  In addition to native plants, annual garden weeds (common species, NOT those that are invasive in natural areas) that are allowed to flower can also be a great food source for bees.  Don't feel bad if you miss a few!  To avoid making the infestation worse, hand remove weeds after the bees have had access to the pollen, but before they go to seed.

When you first adjust your yard maintenance practices, expect to encounter some pests initially as  you start the work of rebuilding a healthier ecosystem.  Over time, as your yard comes into balance, pests should decrease.  The OSU Master Gardeners (http://extension.oregonstate.edu/mg/metro/questions or 503-445-4608) are a great resource for resolving these temporary issues.  Focus on the long term goal of building healthier soil and a diverse native canopy, one step at a time. 

Over time, a less manicured yard will save you time and money, be less toxic for children and pets, support a healthier neighborhood ecosystem and wildlife, as well as improve water quality.  What's not to love about that?