Scott Funk: Habitat gardening, the affordable alternative

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It is surprising how many of the retirees we meet with raise the expense of maintaining their properties (large lawns) as a burden causing them to consider selling their beloved homes. One gentleman recited the costs of paying to have his yard sprayed to kill bugs and weeds, and to make the grass grow, and then paying someone to mow the grass more often. He used to be able to mow it himself but can't manage it anymore.

This is a dilemma we understand. Our house stands on almost an acre of lawn, more than we could keep up with using our electric push mower. We have opted to reduce costs and effort by making our property pollinator- and bird-friendly. Instead of struggling to keep up the typical suburban lawn, we let nature take her course. What has evolved over the last five years takes a different kind of effort, lowers costs, and is far more pleasing than just watching the grass grow.

When I share this

alternative with clients, they almost always smile. It feels somewhat like what Wilbur Wright must have experienced as he explained the idea of heavier-than-air flight to skeptical neighbors and friends. But in spite of our expectations about yards, we can simply stop spending the money and effort, and enjoy what happens next.

The first steps save money. Stop spraying pesticides. You can't encourage life with poison. Yes, bugs will come, but a lot of those bugs are pollinators like bees and butterflies. Others are caterpillars that turn into butterflies and moths. They are also the food for birds. In no time, you will notice birds that were not bothering to visit before because there was nothing for them to eat.

Next, no more herbicides. What may be weeds to us are often important flowers for pollinators, especially indigenous plants and flowers. Take the dandelion, everyone's prime enemy in the garden. However, in early spring, our yard is filled with cheerful dandelions because they are among the first blossoms for spring bees. Another weed people fight to eradicate is milkweed. It may need controlling, but it is the only plant Monarchs lay eggs on. (Remember how you enjoyed Monarchs as a kid? They seemed to be everywhere.)

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No more paying to make the grass grow or to mow it either. Instead, the lawn shrinks, as plants, trees, and bushes develop, until all that remains are various grass paths, easy for a push mower to handle and pleasant to do.

With an herbicide-free garden, you will be amazed at what pops up. We have an apple tree, two ashes, and several sumacs, courtesy of bird droppings. The variety of flowers that have grown up and blossomed is beyond my telling. Yes, some turn out to be aggressive or

undesirable, so there is weeding. Not the frantic, it's-got-to-be-perfect kind of weeding of old, but a pull this out here, snatch that up there, or just top them so the seeds don't spread.

Although the purpose of a habitat garden is to provide for the birds, bees, and butterflies, we are still the greatest beneficiaries. Visitors are always amazed at the variety of native plants and the abundance of beautiful birds in our yard. It is a special thing to relax in the shade of a tree and enjoy watching the Monarchs or Swallowtails flutter about while a catbird mocks the cardinals.

Yes, we have purchased flowers. Yes, there is work to a habitat garden. But it is cheaper to maintain and contributes more to our peaceful enjoyment of nature than any green expanse of grass could. Plus, without all the toxins, it is healthier for all life in the garden, including us.

Scott Funk lives, works and writes (and gardens) in Vermont. His Boomer Funk columns are available at, as are his blogs and archived Aging in Place columns.


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