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The Dirt | Small Yard? Big Impact!

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Fill your yard with plants to help the environment

“How can I make my yard low-impact?”  This question sometimes comes up when I’m called upon to give landscaping advice.  It’s fascinating to me how being “low-impact” is the first thing we think about when we want to make something eco-friendly.  Is this really the best we can do?

For decades, talk about the environment has been about “doing less bad.”  How can we cut our emissions?  How can we use less energy?  Of course these actions are important, but if all we talk about is “doing less bad,” we’re missing something really important.

This is where the Regenerative movement comes in.  One of the most important things about this new idea is a mindset shift. We humans tend to think of ourselves as the bad guys, always wrecking everything.  The regenerative mindset is different:  instead of low-impact, let’s be high-impact – positive impact!

Ecological restoration expert Neal Spackman talks about humans as a “keystone species.”  This means we have more impact on the ecosystem than other animals – for good or bad.  We are not separate from the ecosystem; we actually play a crucial role to help or harm all life, including ourselves.

Our lives are filled with bad news.  To be sure, we can’t ignore the bad, but I think it’s equally wrong to ignore all the good!  Unfortunately, it seems we have to look harder to find the good.  To save you the trouble, here are just a few examples of large-scale regenerative efforts around the world:

I wonder why stories like this are not at the top of everyone’s news feed.   I choose to focus on regenerative landscaping because it connects me to this amazing world of positive impact.

Our little yards might be a lot smaller than these projects, but they can still make a difference. Try these at home!

  • Increase your soil organic matter levels by 1% (in the top 12 inches of soil). This will keep more than a ton of CO2 out of the atmosphere (in a normal small city yard).
  • Change a gravel landscape to one filled with plants and trees. This will reduce the local temperature by as much as 50 degrees on a hot afternoon!
  • Plant an oak tree. This single tree may help hundreds of species of caterpillars. These caterpillars will in turn feed many birds, keeping alive an important link in the ecosystem. [Doug Tallamy, The Nature of Oaks]
  • Plant a pollinator garden. This will help maintain and build important links in the web of life. Even a small garden can be part of a patchwork of tiny healthy ecosystems that can keep important insects alive.
  • Build a rain garden. This will help refill groundwater supplies that keep our water cycle going. Rivers and soil depend on water absorbing into the soil instead of running off.

To put it simply, there are a few basic things that we need to survive on earth: clean air, clean water, and food.  These are constantly provided for us by a healthy, functioning ecosystem.  Our yards are a vital piece of this ecosystem; we can use them to make a big impact!