March is National Women’s History Month, and this year the theme is “Women Taking the Lead to Save Our Planet.” The National Women’s History Project website celebrates 100 women who have worked in ecological projects ranging from starting nonprofits to raise awareness of global warming (Wendy Abrams of CoolGlobes) to campaigning for community open space (Esther Yanai of New Jersey, d. 2003).
One of my favorites on the list of honorees–and one of the oldest living–is Lorrie Otto, who spent most of her life in Wisconsin educating people that there are greener alternatives than landscaping with grass. Lorrie says,
If we care about the Earth we could heal it by removing lawns, by finding alternatives to lawns. You can do wonderful things on your own property to protect the environment. Each little island, each corridor will help bring back the butterflies and birds.
What makes lawns bad for the environment? For starters, they take a lot of water, and they are the suburban form of monoculture: grass is the fifth-largest crop grown in the United States, according to the USDA. When a single crop, like grass, dominates, it lacks the natural protection that plant diversity provides, and so herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers are needed to keep it looking lush.
In her Wisconsin yard, Lorrie planted native plants, which take little to no water or care.
[The yard is] very low maintenance because it’s been restored with the native plants. Those plants are already adjusted to the climate and the soil. People who have lawns do something every week. I just do something every season.
Native landscaping is so easy to maintain that “no one is going to have a failure” if they plant natives in their garden, she says.
In the areas where we could put our learning and teaching into practice–schoolyards, churches, hospitals, roadsides and, most obvious of all, our own yards–we neaten and bleaken, consistently and relentlessly destroying habitat for almost all life. It’s as if we took off our heads, hung them up, and left them at the nature center.
Update: Lorrie Otto died in 2010, but her work lives on through people and groups inspired by her commitment to native plant landscaping. One of these organization is Wild Ones, a nonprofit offering free native garden designs for cities throughout the Midwest.