As individuals, how do we really make a difference restoring the Earth to its natural balance? For anyone who cares about the environment, this thought can provoke anxiety and even a feeling of hopelessness. The issues that we have brought upon our land seem too large or possibly too far gone to remedy. Approximately 12% of all land in the United States is preserved by federal and state laws, and only about 5% of land is in pristine condition containing no invasive species.
So how can we do our part? Perhaps it can start in our own backyard. My brother-in-law, Craig, is an M.D., Ph.D. radiation oncologist, but his true passion lies in his Birmingham, Alabama garden. In Craig’s limited and precious free time, he has been combating years of invasive species growth, cutting down privet trees and pulling multiflora roses to plant native keystone species on less than half an acre of land. He has made it his personal goal to turn his property into a mecca for native plants, insects, and bird species. After seeing his vibrant garden, it’s easy to argue that this is a worthwhile endeavor.
Craig's Backyard Garden
Twenty years ago, after graduating from the University of Delaware, I was hired as an environmental consultant at a firm in Wilmington, DE. Before starting the job, I honestly thought that supporting natural conservation, upholding environmental laws, and holding property owners accountable would be my only directive. I found that the real world is never ideal and practicality leads to compromise. Money will always be a driving factor in environmental decision making.
Firms like ours were hired by land developers and corporations to guide them through the state and federal regulations so that they could accomplish what they wanted for the least amount of money. Each project came down to the bottom line figure. If I presented three potential solutions to the client: one that met minimum requirements, one that had some benefits to the local ecosystem, and one that completely restored the land, the client always chose the bare minimum.
About a year into my tenure as an environmental consultant, I had the opportunity to work on an interesting wetlands restoration project. The local electrical company wanted to sacrifice three acres of wetlands to build a new structure, so the compromise was to create/restore three acres of wetlands somewhere else on the same property. The wetlands had been overrun by non-native phragmites.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Phragmites, European Reed
Phragmites originated from Europe and as settlers clear cut land and developed the East Coast, saltwater tidal wetland species were outcompeted by this tall reed. It can grow up to 18 feet vertically and block out sunlight for smaller native marsh plants. It serves little to no benefit to local insects and animals, and is found all up and down the East Coast, mostly in areas of disturbed land.
We were hired by the electrical company on a tight budget, and had to work closely with the state to fulfill their requirements. I had to design a three acre brackish tidal ditch on the Delaware River with native species that could handle the flux in tide, and be resilient to the invasive phragmites all on a limited budget. No problem, right?
I knew I had to build a fortress around this wetland and there was a particular native species that would do the job, the broad-leaved cattail (Typha latifolia). I researched additional species, called the Delaware Native Species Commission, the University of Delaware, and local nurseries to find the necessary plants that would thrive in this tidal ditch. The design turned out beautifully and we were able to find the necessary plants to do it - on budget.
I left the environmental consulting industry to become an environmental science and physics teacher as this wetland was being built. I’d like to think that this little piece of land is thriving next to that electrical plant and serves as a resting stop for wildlife among vast fields of phragmites. This project however lit a spark within me that it is possible to make a difference to restore the natural balance, and in order to fight the good fight against invasive species, we must focus on the micro not the macro.
Aerial of the Campus Forest Adjacent to our High School
I went on to teach at a high school in NJ, and had the privilege to work with outstanding colleagues who became lifelong friends. Chris Kling and I formed Science Outside out of the bond we developed teaching together. Tom Lawrence, another friend and colleague, had made it his personal mission to educate students about invasive species and how to combat them in the community. Japanese knotweed, Japanese honeysuckle, and Japanese barberry were always at the top of his nemesis list, and he educated his students as if we were at war with these particular plants. Japanese knotweed originated from Asia and was used as packing materials for goods in the 1800s. It is so potent that it could survive a trip as a shipping material on a boat, and come back to life when discarded in the United States. It spreads so quickly under the soil using rhizomes (underground roots) that make it extremely hard to eliminate, since a new plant can sprout from a small fragment left in the soil.
Fortunately Tom Lawrence always put his students to work on the high school property, and within a few years, the campus was invasive species free and natives were thriving. Since I left teaching in 2016 to move to Florida, Tom recently let me know that the battle continues in surrounding areas. I know Japanese knotweed is a tough plant, but in my honest opinion, it has no chance against the mighty Tom Lawrence.
When my wife and I moved to Florida, we were fortunate enough to build a home next to a beautiful natural forest preserve filled with healthy biodiversity and interesting wildlife. We weren’t really able to choose our landscaping, but our builder was required to landscape with native plants. After moving in, I put in some ornamental palm trees, Chinese rose bushes, and a few other non-natives, but nothing potent. I honestly wasn’t examining landscaping based on native vs non-native. I was selecting everything based on beauty and heartiness for the Florida climate. Home Depot, Lowes, and local nurseries only offered popular flowering perennials, and most people don’t consider native vs. non-native species.
My Backyard Adjacent to the Forest Preserve
My brother-in-law’s passion for plants and his own yard has resonated with me over the last few months. His philosophy matched closely with my old friend, Tom Lawrence, about the importance of making a difference on a small scale. If enough people do so, then big changes happen overall.
My next door neighbor, Michelle, has been focused on the birds, butterflies, and bees since we moved in. She took the time to carefully research native species that would benefit local populations, and her yard is always hopping with wildlife. It occurred to me that this is where we can fight back to bring natural balance… our own yards.
Craig recently shared with me a YouTube video of one of the professors at our alma mater Dr. Doug Tallamy, who has dedicated his life’s work to this very idea - bring back the land one small parcel at a time. It’s a presentation he did about a year ago that followed the release of his most recent book, “Nature’s Best Hope” where he discusses a new approach to conservation that starts in your yard. It’s very interesting!
Dr. Tallamy speaks about ecosystems in the United States being fragmented by human development like a rug cut into pieces. In fragments, the rug is ineffective, but if the rug could be sewn back together, it becomes effective again. Yards and parks in cities filled with native keystone plant species are like the thread that makes the ecosystems of the United States whole again.
As teachers, we have a lot of influence. Sometimes we teach with an idealistic approach lacking practicality: we’re quick to say what should be done, but don’t provide individual steps to a path forward. Think about how our students feel when we share all of these environmental issues that seem hopeless for positive resolution. If we’re able to give our students hope by breaking the issues down to the scale of our own yards, then somehow the massive uphill battle we’re facing seems less insurmountable.
If you’d like to find a list of top native keystone species that promote birds, butterflies, and bees in your area, Dr. Doug Tallamy worked with the National Wildlife Federation to create a Native Plant Finder. https://www.nwf.org/NativePlantFinder