The Washington Post
You — yes, you! — can help the planet this fall. Start in your backyard.
Today is the first day of the fall. So, here’s a piece of science-backed good news for you: Perhaps the simplest, most tangible and effective action you can take to help the planet is to restore whatever part of the environment you control with native plants. Even a window planter helps.
This is not woo-woo science. “Don’t worry about the whole Earth,” said Douglas W. Tallamy, an entomology professor at the University of Delaware and author of several books on conservation. “Worry about the piece of the Earth that you can influence.”
Why native plants are so good
Native plants are generally easier to grow, and they can require little or no fertilization or watering. They also provide food sources and breeding habitat for North American insects and birds far better than plants from other continents do.
Insects such as bees, moths, ladybugs, ants and butterflies pollinate flowers and a lot of the food that we eat. And they are at the bottom of the food chain, so helping insects helps everyone else.
Native plants are also important because many insects evolved to rely on one particular kind of plant. Take, for example, the monarch butterfly: Monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed plants. The eggs become caterpillars, and milkweed is all they eat. Without milkweed, monarchs would go extinct.
If all you can do is to put a flower box in your window, great. But if you have a yard, transforming a piece of your lawn is usually the lowest hanging fruit, so to speak, for helping the Earth.
Grass has its uses, but we can do with less of it. Lawns are the largest irrigated crop in the United States — greater than corn. Aside from water, they need fertilizer and pesticides, which pollute beyond your fence line.
If you want to keep some grassy spaces, let go of the American ideal of perfection. Flowering weeds such as dandelions and clover help to create a bee-friendly lawn. “Think of your lawn as being like a low flowering meadow that has a variety of plants that attract pollinators, like clover,” said Julie Moir Messervy, author of several books on landscape design.
How to find the right plants
Feeling emboldened? The next step is to find plants that are native to where you live and that can do well in the conditions that you have, such as full sun, part shade (three to six hours of direct sun) or full shade.
The nonprofit National Wildlife Federation has a tool you can use to find plants native to your Zip code and a store that sells them — often cheaper than big box stores. The Audubon Society has a tool to find local plants and nurseries. Several apps can also help you to identify plants — a recent assessment by Michigan State University found that Picturethis and Plantnet were the most accurate.
Finally, fall and spring are the best times of the year to plant.
It’s not up to any one of us, individually, to solve the devastation that we have all caused, collectively. But restoring your small piece of the Earth is within reach.