Do it for the kids (Shrink your yard)

Everyone dreams about their children’s futures. We hope that they will be healthy and smart, surrounded by friends, and one day find true love. We take steps to ensure their success in life, scheduling regular doctors visits to keep them healthy, and starting college savings plans before they can even walk. The concept of sustainability is rooted in this universal hope we all share that our children and grandchildren will lead lives as good or better than our own. 

The Brundtland Commission of the United Nations, held March 20, 1987, defined sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Sustainability on a global scale starts with individual actions at the local level, some of which take place right in our own front yards. How we care for out lawns and gardens, what we choose to plant and where, can have profound impacts on soil and nutrients, our community surface and drinking water resources, and even living things like butterflies, birds and bees.

You might not think that your yard makes that much of a difference, but the National Wildlife Federation estimates that if everyone in the United States converted half of their lawns into native plantings, it would create 20 million new acres of habitat, which would be larger than 14 of the biggest National Parks combined. Consider too, the immense impact that lawn watering can have on our groundwater drinking resources.  During the drought of July 2006, for example, Woodbury pumped more than 23 million gallons of groundwater per day, coming close to their maximum pumping capacity of 25 million gallons a day. By comparison, the city typically averages only 4.1 million gallons of water a day during the winter. Groundwater from aquifers provides 100 percent of the water for drinking, irrigation and industrial uses in Washington County, and by using too much water ourselves, we run the risk that one day there will not be enough left for our children to use. Already, projections from the Metropolitan Council show a dangerous decline in aquifer levels around Woodbury, Cottage Grove, and other locations around the county by 2030.

Rick Vanzwol, Browns Creek Watershed District manager, with Ellie Kill

Happily, changes in our lawn and garden practices that benefit water, soil and living things can also bring new beauty to our yards, as well as the opportunity to connect with our natural world. Your first step might be to begin gradually shrinking the size of your lawn. Consider how much of the lawn you actually need and use for activities such as grilling out or playing ball. If there are parts of your lawn that you only ever visit when you mow, those are ideal areas to convert to perennial gardens or native plantings. The same is true for difficult areas where grass is hard to grow. If you’re fighting an uphill battle trying to grow turf in a place that is too wet, too shady, or too steep, try an alternative approach instead. Native plantings and perennial gardens thrive without watering, fertilizers or pesticides, making them lower maintenance and more sustainable than lawn.

By shrinking our lawns, we help to protect the soil and nutrients on our own land, as well as the surface and groundwater resources in our communities. By bringing native plants back into our landscape, we also help to provide food and shelter for countless species of insects, reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals. As more and more land is developed worldwide, these pockets of natural habitat in yards small and large will become increasingly important in preventing some species from going extinct. There is a simple and pure joy in watching a monarch caterpillar feed and grow, spin a chrysalis and emerge as a butterfly. There is equal joy in planting a patch of swamp milkweed in the backyard, watching the monarchs land on the delicate pink flowers and knowing that your children will one day be able to share this joy with their children.

Get started with ideas for native plantings in your yard at