The suburbs get a bad rap: Unfriendly to bikes and pedestrians, they’re best known for strip malls and wide expanses of chemically infused lawns. Are the suburbs a lost cause when it comes to land stewardship? Absolutely not! Suburbanites have a real opportunity to lead the charge in activities that promote healthful care of the land and all of its inhabitants.
The Suburban Land Problem
Thinking of land stewardship, we generally envision large tracts of rural land managed by experts. This thought process excuses us ordinary Americans from participating. However, when I discovered that half of all Americans live in the suburbs, I realized suburbanites will have to play a role in conserving land and optimizing its use.
Wildlife habitat is being lost in three ways: destruction, fragmentation and degradation. The trees, soil and plants where animals—from tiny insects to large mammals—reside are being destroyed for development, clear-cut for farming and stripped for mining. This creates fragmentations, making the large tracts of contiguous, undisturbed land that any struggling species requires inaccessible. Amid all that, what land is left is suffering thanks to the toxic chemicals from our cars, our fertilizers and our waste.
We’re often apt to point fingers at industrial agriculture for their contribution to contamination of fresh water and soil erosion, but the fact is that America’s largest irrigated crop exists right in the suburbs. You guessed it: grass. How we use suburban lawns becomes a critical piece of modern land stewardship.
The City Solution
In recent years, a campaign advocating the repopulation of lawns with native habitat has emerged as a response to the negative environmental impacts of the suburbs. Native plantings are a great first step, but the practice doesn’t shed light on the full potential of the suburbs to affect land-management practices at a larger scale. Focusing solely on native habitat ignores the needs of the human inhabitants, who, by the way, eat a lot of food—it requires human food to be cultivated on distant (clear-cut) lands and shipped in.
By transitioning food production to the suburbs, we open the opportunity for rural wild lands to once more support native species in a more suitable environment of contiguous, undisturbed land. Modern industrial agriculture claims to be really efficient at producing food, so I wondered: Would we need more land for food production if we shifted production to the suburbs?
The answer is no.
According to “The Garden Controversy,” a study published by the University of London, suburban backyard gardens are three times more productive than farmland. When comparing food production on 1 acre of suburban land to food production on 1 acre of farmland, the suburbs produced three times the weight of food per acre than the farmland. In other words, small gardens aren’t a waste of time!
Transitioning a large part of food production away from rural areas to suburban lawns carries a lot of potential, but great care must be taken to ensure that backyard gardening practices regenerate ecological diversity. Toby Hemenway, author of Gaia’s Garden, writes: “Ecological gardens meld the best features of wildlife gardens, edible landscapes, and conventional flower and vegetable gardens … but they use time-tested techniques honed to perfection by indigenous people, restoration ecologists, organic farmers, and cutting-edge landscape designers.”
Ecological gardens with a focus on land stewardship will help reduce the toxic use of chemicals, improve soil fertility, reduce erosion, reduce chemical fertilizer inputs, increase habitat for pollinators and beneficial insects, create wild areas, and increase food productivity. If you want to start taking practicing better land stewardship on your suburban plot, the following gardening practices will help improve the land so you can leave it better than you found it.
1. Practice No-Till Gardening
Industrial farming may require tilling due to the sheer size of cultivated space, but it highlights a benefit of suburban gardening: Tilling is rarely needed. Rather, loosening soil with a digging fork reduces soil erosion while leaving soil microorganisms intact. Happy soil life is the key to any restoration project. To start a new garden bed, try lasagna gardening instead!
2. Mulch with Organic Materials
Mulching helps prevent soil erosion, retains moisture, suppresses weeds, fertilizes, and creates humus and habitat. In essence, mulching helps improve soil fertility and is a win for any busy gardener.
3. Keep Chickens or Bees
Keeping chickens is a great way to produce more food in the suburbs—either by way of eggs or meat—while producing a superior fertilizer on-site. This reduces inputs from far away, taking backyard gardens one step closer to a closed-loop ecosystem.
Keeping bees improves pollination of garden and orchard crops while producing an abundance of nature’s own sweetener.
4. Plant a Variety of Herbs and Flowers
Planting a diversity of herbs and flowers ensures support for a wide range of pollinators and beneficial insects. Many herbs and flowers even fertilize and help control pests. Don’t be afraid to plant them throughout the vegetable garden and under fruit trees.
5. Plant a Hedgerow or Brush Pile
Both hedgerows and brush piles are advantageous to wildlife. They provide shelter from the elements and a safe place to rest away from predators. Beneficial insects will also enjoy these havens.
6. Quit Pesticides
More and more gardeners are sharing concerns for the effects of pesticides on human health. Pesticides can also wreck the ecological balance of the soil and the health of wildlife, pollinators and beneficial insects. By using organic pest management, we can restore soil biology and remove toxic chemical pressure on struggling species.
Composting is one of the easiest ways to reduce the amount of waste sent to the landfill by turning it into a nutrient-rich soil amendment. Composting with worms, aka vermicomposting, is an alternative composting solution often used in small spaces. Compost helps improve soil tilth and encourages microorganism activity.
8. Manage Water
Modern municipal policy regards water as a nuisance quickly whisked away to minimize structural damage and human health risks. Meanwhile, desertification is becoming more and more common in parts of the U.S.
Holding water in the landscape recharges the water table, preventing desertification. There are many ways to manage water properly at a residential scale. Rain gardens and swales (aka, low tracts of land) are two ways to catch and hold water in the earth. Rather than encouraging run-off, they allow water to slowly percolate into the soil, naturally irrigating our gardens and recharging the groundwater.
A site assessment by a professional permaculture designer can help determine if earth-based water-management strategies are safe and appropriate for your property.
9. Plant Trees
Deciduous trees provide food, shelter and shade for wildlife; opportunities for pollination; harvests of fruit, nuts or medicine; and a nice supply of leaves for mulching and composting. While it’s often thought that full sun is necessary to grow a garden, the inclusion of some trees will create microclimates of shade, part-shade and sun to offer more opportunities for crop selection, as well as biodiversity.
10. Try Permaculture
Permaculture is a branch of ecological design used to create sustainable human settlements. The bread-and-butter of this theory is to build ecologically regenerative landscapes that provide for both humans and wildlife. Permaculture makes use of all of these tips and more to design backyard ecosystems. As a starting point, check out Toby Hemenway’s book Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture (Chelsea Green, 2009).
About the Author: Amy Stross lives on a 1/10-acre homestead in the suburbs of Cincinnati, Ohio, where she writes about her ongoing permaculture experiments. As coordinator of her local community garden, she also frequently teaches on gardening topics. You can find her online at TenthAcreFarm.com. Follow Tenth Acre Farm on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.