6 reasons to downsize your lawn

It’s time to imagine a future where lawns aren’t the norm – and homegrown habitats are.

6 reasons to downsize your lawn
"A wider view of the back garden, the 'No Mow lawn', wildflower patch, only a small area but in flower for weeks so far." Photo: alh1 / Flickr
Text: Created in partnership with David Suzuki Foundation

While many people are still attached to their lawns (despite the chemicals, labour and water required to maintain them) it’s more important than ever that we move away from this controlled aesthetic, says Alana Pindar, a professor at Cape Breton University who specializes in ecosystem health.

It’s always been true that we need nature, connection and food more than we need our own separate squares of manicured lawn. It’s just become more obvious of late thanks to climate change, biodiversity loss and extreme weather events. 

Replacing some or all of your lawn with native plants and food is one way to support each other and the environment – but it truly does so much more than that. Here are some significant research-backed and expert-approved benefits you’ll experience when you make the switch. 

Promote your own mental health and well-being

There is no denying the health benefits of time spent in nature. Many doctors have even started to “prescribe” nature time to help people experience better health outcomes. 

Dr. Melissa Lem is one of them. As a Vancouver family physician and the Director of PaRx, Canada’s national nature prescription program, she’s committed to helping people be at their healthiest – and that means nature time. “People start to experience the health benefits of nature when they feel like they’ve had a meaningful nature experience,” she says. “If a backyard is filled with more biodiversity instead of a monoculture lawn, it becomes easier to have that kind of experience.”

"This guy shows up regularly in my backyard. My defense crows will harass him as soon as he shows up." Photo: Tjflex2 / Flickr.

Lem explains that part of this is due to the creatures, birds and pollinators that are drawn to biodiverse spaces. This can make being in your backyard feel more like “a real nature experience, with all the positive health effects that go along with it.” And the best part? “You may notice yourself feeling calmer, happier and more focused, with lower blood pressure and heart rate.”

Many studies support this, like one that found green spaces with high natural diversity have more mental health benefits than those with low natural diversity. Another showed that people who live in areas with more bird species experience significantly better life satisfaction.

And that’s not even accounting for the health benefits of soil. Studies have shown that soil microbes help regulate our emotions and immune response. If you’re digging in the soil and planting native plants, you are getting a two-for-one deal on the health-boosting benefits of nature. 

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Support biodiversity

In a yard with only lawn, you’re missing one essential piece of nature connection: visitors. As soon as you add native plants, you’ll get them. Birds will come to eat seeds, insects and berries or to build a nest. You might notice a flower being pollinated by a native bee, or get a visit from a grasshopper or garden toad. When you have visitors, you have an ecosystem.

In a small space, it may not seem important that you do provide an ecosystem, but it’s incredibly beneficial. “Pollinators are not flying kilometres. They’re flying very small distances. They like to be close to where they’re living,” says Pindar. In suburban and urban areas, even the smallest habitat helps. “Everyone has some sort of habitat that is protecting and also benefiting insects.”

"Echinacea purpurea at a small prairie restoration / wildflower garden at the north end of Lakeshore State Park in downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin."Photo: Aaron Volkening / Flickr

Just as there are things we need to prioritize in our yards (like native plants and shrubs) there are also things we don’t – heavy layers of mulch, for one. “When you put in mulch, it's aesthetic,” says Pindar. “Just leave the ground open because insects can see the ground better and they can actually nest in the ground without trying to move these heavy pieces of mulch.”

Many people who are interested in ornamental gardening will go to great lengths (pesticides and pest deterrents) to make sure no creatures are eating their plants. But native plant gardeners know that visitors are kind of the whole point. If your plants aren’t being eaten or enjoyed, your yard isn’t supporting biodiversity. 

Cool urban spaces

Even small gardens can make a big impact when it comes to keeping our towns and cities cool. One recent study in Australia found that suburban yards and gardens can decrease local surface temperatures up to 5°C. Another study found that green spaces with a high diversity of tree species have a greater cooling effect than spaces that are less diverse.

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Boost food security

Many native plants don’t just provide food for insects and birds – they also provide an abundant, healthy food source for humans. In many areas of North America, examples include serviceberry (saskatoon berry), wild strawberry and native species of elderberry. 

Adding native food plants to your garden can be a way to develop a relationship with traditional local ecologies, too. In Canada, for example, “Planting culturally important plants can help us be food secure and get back to what was essential in all Indigenous communities,” says Pindar. “We have to start identifying those important cultural plants that Indigenous communities have picked for years and have been fostering the growth of. You go into a ditch and you see a blueberry plant. To have that in your yard is a good thing.”

A robin in flight with a serviceberry in its beak. Photo: Deb Nystrom / Flickr

Pindar points out that many human food crops provide food for pollinators, too. “Apples, for instance. Those flowers are attracting pollinators,” she says. “And then when you move throughout the season, our tomato plants are attracting pollinators and producing fruit.” It’s a win-win situation. 

Reduce water use

Lawns require a lot of water to keep them green. Replacing them with plants that are drought-tolerant can reduce maintenance and water costs, and is especially important in regions facing drought or inconsistent rainfall, where watering lawns might even be prohibited.

Newly planted perennials need watering to help them get established. But if you pick the right species for your bioregion and your space, they’ll survive pretty well on their own after that. And what they give back is a diverse ecosystem, a healthy habitat and a secure food source.

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Use your yard as a tool for education and change

If we hope to shift back to a world with healthy biodiversity, we need many people that can make small changes, not one person making one big change. And everyone with even a small piece of land can make a difference, starting with how they steward that space. “I think we have to really look at what we are providing in terms of ecosystem services,” says Pindar.

Our yards, which many people may pass by each day, are a wonderful opportunity to inspire others to create their own native plant and food gardens and slowly build their own little ecosystems. Individually and together, this will create a wider net of support. 

Pindar recommends not being shy about putting your plants and vegetables in the front yard. “We have this culture that we keep our fruits and vegetables in the back,” she says. “But just imagine how good it would feel to see a child walking home from school and sitting down for a minute in a yard that has a bounty of tomatoes and taking one. It’s shifting our culture in terms of how we value and see our yards. We can use our yards as an educational tool – not only for ourselves, but for everyone.”

This article is part of a series on reimagining lawns as habitat as part of the David Suzuki Foundation's LawnShare program. LawnShare participants will receive simple guidance on how to take care of lawns with fewer impacts on local water, air and soil, and on how to transform these spaces into habitat that supports native plants and other wildlife while saving time and money.