Healing Earth, Garden by Garden

The new Habitat Hero logo, designed by Lauren Guisti

The new Habitat Hero logo, designed by Lauren Guisti

In my other life, I’m the spokesperson for Be a Habitat Hero, which aims to inspire gardeners to devote space to restoring habitat for songbirds and pollinators, hard-working species facing increasing loses from development, pesticide use, climate change and other factors.

Research shows landscaping that relies on native and regionally adapted plants, mimics the structure of natural habitat (meaning it has a prairie-like character if the natural habitat is prairie, desert-like character if it’s desert, woodland if the natural habitat is woodland, and so on), and uses no or little pesticides can make a positive difference in preserving diversity of songbirds and pollinators.

How could anyone not love landscaping that sustains cuties like this immature Rufous Hummingbird?

How could anyone not love landscaping that sustains cuties like this immature Rufous Hummingbird?

Songbirds are not only beautiful and fun to watch, they are critical to controlling spring and summer insect populations.

Pollinators–the thousands of species of native pollinating insects, birds, and bats–are critical to our food supply. If they don’t have enough habitat to sustain their populations, we won’t have enough food.

(Want to know more about pollinators? Watch this informative and funny short video from The Nature Conservancy. Full disclosure: it features me. Not as a pollinator.)

Habitat gardens, also called “wildscapes” (landscaping for wildlife, not landscaping gone wild!) can actually increase songbird and pollinator diversity.

They also save water, a crucial resource in the arid West where the Habitat Hero project is based. Some 60 percent of domestic water use in the West goes to landscaping, largely to lawns, which are biological moonscapes–unfriendly to most wildlife–and often unhealthy to humans and pets as well because of the high amount of pesticides used to maintain them.

Bumblebee wings in to a Rocky Mountain Penstemon flower, providing pollination for the flower, which in turn feeds the bee pollen and nectar--a sweet trade!

Bumblebee wings in to a Rocky Mountain Penstemon flower, providing pollination for the flower, which in turn feeds the bee pollen and nectar–a sweet trade!

I don’t usually talk about Habitat Hero in this space because, well, I work for the project, a partnership between Audubon Rockies, Terra Foundation, Plant Select® and High Country Gardens. So talking about it feels a little like a commercial.

Except that the mission of Habitat Hero is very much my personal mission:

Replace lawns with gardens that nurture birds, pollinators and people too. Save water for our region’s rivers and re-discover the joy of connecting with nature. Heal the earth, one landscape at a time.

My own landscaping, both at my former home, Terraphilia, and my new one (still mostly dirt yard complete with steep slopes and continuing construction) is very much aimed at restoring habitat for “the little guys who run the Earth,” as biologist E.O. Wilson put it.

I live in the high desert of the Southern Rocky Mountains, where growing lawns requires a ridiculous amount of irrigation and maintenance (our average annual precipitation is about 10 inches, less than a third of what’s needed to maintain a lawn).

Roadbase Mix meadow at Terraphilia in summer

Roadbase Mix meadow at Terraphilia in summer

So I’m seeding in native bunchgrass meadow with wildflowers (using a custom “Roadbase Mix” from Western Native Seed) where I want grassy swards, and planting a variety of gardens based on native shrubs, wildflowers and grasses where I want a more formal look.

Growing a habitat garden, native meadow or wildscape isn’t as easy as ordering sod and laying it down like so much outdoor carpet. But unlike lawns, wildscapes and habitat gardens are actually good for the earth and its inhabitants, including people. And the joy of watching hummingbirds and butterflies return to stay, or seeing goldfinches clamber over sunflowers pulling out seeds is worth the effort.

Male American Goldfinch picking seeds out of a sunflower head--far more entertaining than simply filling a feeder!

Male American Goldfinch picking seeds out of a sunflower head–far more entertaining than simply filling a feeder!

It’s a way to heal our own plot of earth, one garden at a time. So join us: Be a Habitat Hero.

(If you live in Colorado or Wyoming and you want to learn more about habitat gardening, we’re offering a series of workshops this spring featuring renowned plantswoman and author Lauren Springer Ogden, and yours truly. You can also hear me speak on the topic at Pro-Green Expo in Denver and the Western Landscape Symposium in Pueblo, Colorado.)

15 thoughts on “Healing Earth, Garden by Garden

    • Blanche, Please tell her thanks! That was an outgrowth of our residency at Carpenter Ranch. In fact, R is just off-camera in the garden sequences, so the video is especially sweet for me. Hugs to you.

  1. I just (a few minutes ago) saw a diagram of drought in the west. Sever drought covering most of CA and OR, all of NV, a finger into northwestern AZ, and about 1/3 of ID. Rather than designing Earth friendly toilet systems and no longer allowing grass lawns and swimming pools the west is asking for water from the Great Lakes. There are so many ways we can save water and yet we aren’t doing it. Perhaps I’m being pessimistic but until people have to make the choice between flushing their toilets or having water to drink and/or until strict laws are passed and fully enforced nothing much is going to change. Then there is the problem of fracking. I could go on for a long time over this unconscionable act. In the meantime, we in the Great Lakes region will fight “to the death” over sharing our water so people out west can fill their swimming pools, water their lawns and continue to flush their toilets with perfectly good drinking water. We all, the world over – wherever people use flush toilets – should be using gray water to flush. A simple and inexpensive change to plumbing could make that happen. Off my soapbox.

    • I agree with you re water rationing in the SoWest. I am in SoCal and can’t stand to see some of the misuse of water. Besides pools, I see commercial landscaping being a big culprit; it seems still to easy to just put in a big lawn when there are so many other options.

      • Kathy, you’re right on about commercial landscaping. Lawns are the “easy” way to landscape large spaces, but they’re incredibly costly in the longer term, especially environmentally. We’re working with commercial designers and landscapers in the Habitat Hero program just for that reason.

    • Lindy, You’re right that there are simple and reasonably cheap ways to save water inside that we should be pursuing. Here in the West though, almost 2/3 of the treated water we use goes to keep lawns alive. That’s huge. And species of songbirds and pollinators are declining rapidly because of habitat loss and pesticide use. So if we change our landscaping, we’ll not only save an enormous amount of water, we’ll do something positive for these “companion” species and ourselves. A win-win for all.

  2. BTW, Susan. This post is beautiful, timely, and not at all “commercial”. Your video is great. You are setting a wonderful and much needed example of what we all can do (should do) if we just stop thinking in terms of grass lawns.

    • Kathy, Thank you for the compliment! We’re on the same team at many levels, and I strongly believe that it’s critical to offer hopeful and positive solutions or people become paralyzed and hopeless….

  3. I grew up in the country with a small family well that served us, my parents’ motel and three other families. I learned to conserve as a child and I cannot abide water waste. We now have water catchment devices that can catch about 1000 gallons on our inner city lot to indulge my vegetable, fruit and flower growing habit. That’s if it ever rains again. But sometimes I think I’m an idiot for saving every little drop when I pick up the paper to learn a casino has put in another big golf course. Yes, I know the Indians have certain water rights, but really. We are all part of this valley and just because they CAN put in acres of grass and cute little lakes, doesn’t mean they SHOULD.

    • Carolyn, I share your conservation ethic and your dismay at our heedless development, especially wasting water. I don’t know the particulars of the new casino golf course development you’re referring to, but if they really are using Rio Grande water (and not recycled water as many new golf courses do) and their ponds aren’t part of a groundwater recharge scheme, I’d encourage you to wire about it for the Albq Journal as a guest editorial. Your childhood education in water conservation would make a great opener for a piece like that.

  4. You know my yard – and this year we had lots of hummingbirds! Years ago we were told there are NO hummers in our area….

    I hope someday my elderly neighbors will give up their labor intensive lawns and come my way.

    • Cathy, Your little yard is a great example of plant it and they will come! Hummers didn’t used to migrate out onto the Plains, but if you give them habitat, they’ll eventually find it and use it, especially in years when fires and drought disrupt habitat in the Foothills and Mountains. Your neighbors may decide to change, or not. But either way, your yard is a wonderful example of what can be done in a small space!

  5. Pingback: Susan J. Tweit - Writer & Plant Biologist... Choose Happiness. Love All Life - Easter/Earth Day Dirt Work

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