A novel approach to lawns on Martha’s Vineyard

A sachem butterfly on a stiff aster: a critter and a plant that would never be found on a lawn. — Photo by Matt Pelikan

As a naturalist, whenever I’m outdoors, I tend to view my surroundings mainly in terms of what they offer for wildlife habitat. Partly this is a professional habit: in my job with The Nature Conservancy, I spend a lot of time planning land management intended to improve ecological conditions. But partly, it just reflects a personal preference for areas rich in wildlife.

This is why I’m not a friend of the American lawn. Sure, there are places where a lawn looks right. But in general? An ecological desert, I’ve termed it, a monoculture of imported plants that supports almost nothing by way of desirable wildlife. And given the Vineyard’s sandy, acidic soils, you either have a crummy lawn here, or you subsidize it with water, fertilizer, lime, and pesticides. I just don’t see the point of devoting so much land, effort, and resources to growing such useless plants.

Inheriting a meager, young, but already weedy yard when I moved here in 1997, I tried — I really did — to have a nice lawn. I’d have preferred meadow, or woods, but lawn is the ground cover you get around newish houses in my part of the Island. But this lawn, which seemed to have been Hydro-seeded onto packed subsoil, clearly didn’t want to be there. And as the grasses languished, cat’s-ear thrust down its taproots and crowded out nearly everything else. Given the limited time and money I was willing to put in fostering a habitat that I didn’t really want, a decent lawn was clearly not in my future.

What to do instead posed a quandary, though. To do nothing was simply to encourage the weeds that already had the upper hand. And any kind of major reconstruction was out of the question, too much to do myself or pay for. So gradually, I’ve come to view the work I do around our little property not as “yard work” or “gardening,” but rather as something more like “ecological management,” aimed at steering the mix of vegetation steadily in a direction that promotes diversity without requiring too much work or added resources. Instead of lawn, I’m growing wildlife.

I’m mowing less, to produce more food and cover for insects and to give plants a chance to flower and go to seed. Weeder in hand, I wage a war of attrition against the cat’s ear (I must pull hundreds every year, freeing space for other species). I seed in native grasses and wildflowers that I think can take care of themselves. In all, I’ve introduced about 20 native plants plus a few “near-native” flowers, like coreopsis. And of course, I watch the results: what grows, what insects eat it, and what eats those insects. I judge my success not by how closely the lawn approximates a putting green, but by how much wildlife it attracts.

One morning this past summer, I overheard one housekeeper arriving at the rental next door, no doubt gesturing toward my yard, say to her colleague, “What’s with all the weeds?” “Dunno,” said the other, I imagine with hands on hips and a pitying shake of the head. She had a point; my yard is at an awkward adolescent stage, no longer lawn but not yet meadow. Still, this year produced some satisfying proof that my anti-lawn approach is yielding benefits for wildlife, and moments of delight for me as a watcher of nature.

I was able to trace a particular grasshopper species through its entire annual cycle in the uncut portions of my front yard. The first northern green-striped grasshopper nymphs sprang into action in early March (and were the subject of my March 31 column). By early June, these youngsters (at least the ones who avoided getting eaten) were adults, leaping into flight when disturbed and gliding to the ground on yellowish, transparent wings. I found females laying eggs in the soil, and by late August, another set of nymphs, even tinier than the older ones I found last March, were industriously storing up energy for their winter dormancy.

About a dozen species of crickets or katydids used the yard this year. Goldfinches feasted on coreopsis and coneflower seeds. The milkweeds, asters, and goldenrod hummed with flies, bees, and wasps, while more than 30 butterfly species showed up; at least two, American copper and least skipper, bred in the yard’s un-mown portions.

With the increase in insects, eaters of insects also flourished this season. Robins, grackles, chickadees, and Carolina wrens all fed bumper crops of nestlings on insects from my yard. And the other day I spotted a shrew, scuttling through the uncut grass.

Perhaps this tiny mammal lives regularly in the area, but this year was the first time my yard offered enough food and cover to attract the insectivore. It’s welcome here, and I hope it sticks around.