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Louise Washer's front yard (Photo: Courtesy Louise Washer)

Love Nature? Your Lawn Says Otherwise.

A new homeowner digs deep into the world of native gardening after learning her yard is an environmental sin.

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On a winter day in 2016, Louise Washer received a call that would change her life. As president of the Norwalk River Watershed Association (NRWA), Washer was overseeing habitat restoration projects, monitoring water quality, and working to eliminate pesticide use in seven watershed towns in Connecticut. The call was from her friend Donna Merrill, who was developing a community land stewardship project at the Hudson to Housatonic Conservation Partnership, similar to the NRWA. Merrill had just experienced an aha! moment upon discovering the citizen-powered ‘Bee Highway’ in Oslo, Norway—a city-wide trail of bee-friendly food and shelter stations.

Emboldened by Oslo’s dedication to protecting its pollinators, Merrill and Washer teamed up on a mission to plant native dogwood trees in the neighboring towns of North Salem, New York, and Ridgefield, Connecticut. “It was a huge hit. People loved the idea of restoring habitats across state lines,” says Washer, who saw the potential for a similar initiative across NRWA’s seven towns. In late 2017, Merrill, Washer, and several other area women launched what’s now known as the Pollinator Pathway, a volunteer-run network of public and private gardens providing pesticide-free native plant corridors, spaced roughly half a mile apart, for bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies—all pollinators that are responsible for one in every three bites of food we eat.  Pollinators are four times more attracted to native plants than non-native or invasive ones, according to the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.

Anyone can register a garden on the pollinator map, which receives 70,000 online visits every month, by attesting that they’ve curated a predominantly native plant habitat (ideally by converting some modest portion of lawn). While the Northeast harbors the largest concentration of these official native gardens, the pathway has spread to every corner of the country, in cities like New Orleans, Atlanta, Chicago, Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Los Angeles, Bend, and Seattle. Today, there are more than 280 pathways comprised of thousands of individual properties (the majority of which are less than two acres), covering over 5,000 acres across the United States.

I learned about the Pollinator Pathway in late summer 2021. I had just bought my first-ever house in Ridgefield, Connecticut, and was out for a run in the neighborhood park when a flurry of butterflies stopped me mid-stride at the top of a hill beside a six-foot-tall patch of colorful plants; buzzing bees overpowered Queen B in my AirPods. A large butterfly sign advertised the Pollinator Pathway website, where I found info about how to convert your lawn into a pollinator-friendly landscape, find the best native plant resources, and effectively combat ticks without pesticides. I realized my new backyard was a crime against nature.

My 5,000-square-foot lawn, a.k.a. food desert for bees, is among the roughly 50 million acres of lawn in the continental United States that takes up as much land as all the national parks combined. Our sod-obsessed, grow, mow and blow culture relies on three trillion gallons of water, 800 million gallons of gasoline, and 59 million pounds of pesticides per year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The pesticides we use to keep our lawns pristine aren’t just bad for us, they’re deadly for pollinators. A study published last year found that exposure to commonly used toxic pesticides called neonicotinoids or “neonics” can infect multiple generations of bees. 

“Man is more dependent on these wild pollinators than he usually realizes,” wrote Rachel Carson in Silent Spring, published 60 years ago. More recently, a 2020 documentary called The Pollinators deftly depicts how the mass decline of these species threatens devastating food shortages, which also means the loss of our favorite pollinator-dependent foods, from fruit to nuts and chocolate. Turning our desolate lawns into native gardens is an essential step in preventing pollinator extinction.

Louise Washer in her garden (Photo: Courtesy Louise Washer)

This spring, I reached out to Washer for advice on how to “go native.” She told me I didn’t have to do much. “Stop mowing! See what happens,” she said. “If you don’t like what pops up, weed whack.”

For the first few months, the lawn gave off awkward vibes, like a teenager trying to grow a beard. When I called up Washer to report on my prepubescent native garden, she’d just come back from an exhilarating bike ride. “I saw a monarch butterfly laying eggs on poke milkweed on the side of the road!”

It’s little wonder that a person who stops mid-ride to appreciate the cycle of life would be the force behind the Pollinator Pathway. You’d never know that Washer once maintained a tidy sweep of turf at her home for years, unaware of the significance of native plants or how detrimental a leaf blower is to the ground nesting of native bees and other overwintering insects. “I turned my lawn into a wild native garden and suddenly the hummingbird moths and the monarchs came,” says Washer, who’s getting her botany certificate at the New York Botanical Garden. “It was like learning to read the world around me; I just saw green.”

By summer, things were beginning to sprout in my backyard: Queen Anne’s lace, clover, yellow buttercups. My kids helped dig holes and put native plants gently in the ground: ragweed, crystal peak white, coreopsis, goldenrod, brown-eyed Susan, aromatic aster. We started a new morning routine of eating breakfast outside with the bees, and I felt grounded in gratitude for this space that had become a form of meditation, a salve for climate anxiety.

I called up Jana Hogan, another Pollinator Pathway co-founder and president of the Woodcock Nature Center, who designed the Pollinator Pathway website and has joined Washer in Zooming and traveling across the Northeast to give presentations about starting native gardens and stopping the use of pesticides. Although my yard was turning into a meadow, I confessed I was kind of winging it and still hadn’t seen any butterflies.

Hogan has planted ten pollinator gardens in a single day, including at the modern art museum The Aldrich and the 18th-century historical site Keeler Tavern, so when she told me not to sweat it, I took her word for it.

Hogan suggested buying a bunch of plugs at Earth Tones, a 68-acre native nursery in Woodbury, Connecticut, with over 400 native plant species. The thought of more plants was overwhelming, but Hogan assured me they’d be easy to maintain as native plants need less water, fertilizer, and pruning than turf or non-native plants, which haven’t originally evolved in that climate. Before we hung up, she squashed any lingering doubts about why this project matters. “Bottom line, if something isn’t eating your garden, you’re not part of the ecosystem.”

At Earth Tones, I met owner Kyle Turoczi, a soil scientist and wetland ecologist, who has witnessed a multi-generational awakening around native gardening. “In the last two years, we’ve been busier than ever. People come here from as far as Maine, more aware of climate change and the decline of pollinators. They are alarmed by seeing so few insects in their gardens,” said Turoczi. “There is a collective sense of urgency I haven’t seen in 18 years of running this nursery.”

I drove home with a trunk full of perennials: purple wild bergamot, red cardinals, echinacea, black-eyed coneflowers. I dug more holes in the knee-high meadow. When my arms got sore, I told myself my kids were holding me accountable and that this Pollinator Pathway project was going to solidify their green DNA, ensuring they never lose touch with nature.

In July, the butterflies finally arrived: tiger swallowtail, monarch, black swallowtail, and cloudless sulphur. Tiny flying reminders of how important this collaborative effort is between us, and a sign that my backyard had rejoined nature.

Washer once looked me straight in the eyes and declared, “It is the end of the lawn.” She’s part of a chorus. The Washington Post is recommending road trips to native nurseries, the New York Times is advising readers to “kill” their lawns, the state of Nevada is outlawing them outright, and there’s even a reality TV show, Flip My Florida Yard, about converting lawns into eco oases. Outside, too, has written about the benefits of giving up on green grass in favor of messier but more natural landscaping. Although many homeowners associations require regular lawn maintenance to protect curb appeal, and towns are still laying down turf requirements—as in Elroy, Wisconsin, where it’s a violation to grow your front yard more than 6 inches tall—widespread issues like deepening drought and moral reckoning with the climate crisis are forcing change. If the old symbol of the American dream was Frederick Law Olmsted’s romanticized “turf in broad, unbroken fields,” then the new one is a native garden.

The author’s pollinator-friendly backyard, and her children (Photo: Courtesy Lauren Matison)

Pedaling through Ridgefield this summer, I see butterflies and butterfly-shaped Pollinator Pathway signs everywhere. It’s not lost on me that I live in an affluent, predominantly white community, where people can afford to be worried about a food desert for bees rather than human beings. But at least this restoration work to rebuild relationships with pollinators and the natural world is happening. And it’s not stopping here.

In August, Washer invites me to tour Oyster Shell Park in South Norwalk, Connecticut, where a city landfill has been transformed into a spectacular 5.5-acre native paradise. Volunteers wearing lime green “Weed Warriors” T-shirts are pulling up mugwort and Japanese knotweed. As I stare at a massive tangle of invasive plants, a volunteer named Betsy flashes a bright smile and says, “One weed at a time!” A 14-year-old named James chimes in, “I like getting outside and helping the environment. I wish we were here for longer than two hours.”

Standing on the banks of the Norwalk River, Washer talks about how the Pollinator Pathway will continue supporting pathways like Oyster Shell Park and aiding new local initiatives that call on them for help. Follow the Forest, for example, relies on forging partnerships in various Pollinator Pathway towns in order to help create wildlife corridors connecting coastal areas of Westchester and Fairfield County up to Massachusetts and the Canadian boreal forests. Washer’s determination to mend the broken connection with nature is so fierce it seems to change the air. Everything goes quiet when she speaks, like the insects are listening. She says the pollinator pathway movement is also evolving in new directions. “The goal has shifted to outreach, educating the public, and passing legislation around pesticides and native plant ordinances.”

“We’d like to bring more diversity into the picture, into what the pathway movement looks like. We’re partnering with groups in underserved urban communities and providing grant funding and volunteers to help with existing projects,” says Washer, citing plans to work in Bridgeport with Green Village Initiative’s community farms and school gardens and with Groundwork Hudson Valley in Yonkers, where the Pollinator Pathway hopes to partner on restoration work along the Saw Mill River with a paid “Green Team” of local teenagers. Washer also sees Indigenous people’s knowledge about sustainable land stewardship as integral to the success of the Pollinator Pathway movement. Cristina Cabrera, a Pocasset Wampanoag and executive director of the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group, will be speaking to the Pollinator Pathway board to share her experiences growing food on an Indigenous farm.

In September, my native garden is winding down, even as it courts pollinators, pickerel frogs, and migrating birds. I’m gearing up to co-host a neighborhood Pollinator Pathway party with Washer. The gist of it is you have some beers and chat with neighbors about how to create a pollinator-friendly property and the connection between people’s lawns and the water they drink. At the very least, people will stop using the worst pesticides and opt for an organic alternative; they’ll advocate to pass local legislation that expands the pathway habitats, bans pesticides, and requires towns use only native plants. Washer says this is a proven way to reach the others (like me, not so long ago).

On an early autumn morning in our meadow, my kids drizzle honey over pancakes as we sit under the heart-shaped leaves of an eastern redbud tree. My daughter points to a cluster of purple aster: “Bee, bee!” My son joins in: “Monarch!” He finishes a bite of pancake and says, “This is like the coolest TV show on earth!” He gets up to straighten our Pollinator Pathway sign, one of 9,000 sold so far, then turns to me. “Our garden will last forever, right?”

Lead Photo: Courtesy Louise Washer

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