Living Lighter on the Land

'Closing the loop'

To honor the beginning of the growing season, the next few posts will focus on backyard food production.  At the Armstrong House, we are currently designing and installing a modest food production system- namely a veggie and herb garden.  It is possible, however, to get very elaborate with your backyard food production.  For example people have taken to growing fish, fruit trees, mushrooms, vegetables, herbs, berries, rabbits, goats, chickens, and bees in their backyards.  See the following video for an example some intense backyard food production.

The foundation of any food production system- from the smallest pot of basil to the most elaborate homestead operation- is the nutrients found in the soil (or water if you are raising fish).  The soil health- the soil’s composition and structure, its ability to hold and release nutrients, its loftiness, pH, water holding capacity, its aeration and compactness- all impact how it can perform as a growing medium.

*On a side note, there is no universally ‘best’ soil.  Difference plants require or perform best in difference soil conditions, so for ideal plant growth and performance your soil characteristics should be paired to the plant you are trying to grow.  With that being said, there are loads of edible garden plants that commonly thrive in the average ‘loam‘.  

Now that we know soil is the secret, how do we get our hands on such a miracle mixture?  Most commonly we buy topsoil from a nursery or garden center; it comes in bags or it comes by the yard in a truck or trailer.  But what if we already have soil at our garden site but we just want to spruce it up a little bit- maybe add some nutrients or humus?  Again, you could go out and buy fertilizer or bags of humus.  An alternative is to create your own humus at home.        

To mow or not to mow- that is the question

This post follows the recent thread about habitat fragmentation and managing your backyard with an eye towards the organisms that live there.  Just a brief recap on the issue: through intense urbanization and its sprawl large pieces of intact landscape  (forests, meadows, wetlands) have become less common.  This leaves thousands of small patches of wild land across the landscape, which means: our backyards are the ecosystem, the ecosystem is our backyard.  Our backyards have therefore become places relied on by wildlife (bugs, birds, trees, bacteria, worms, fox, coyotes, etc) and our management actions (mowing, planting, cutting, spraying, gardening, bee keeping, etc) affect their survival.

The commonly cultivated and manicured lawn is an intensely managed landscape that does little to boost the vitality of our backyard ecosystem.  If you compare the ecological processes of a manicured lawn to those of a forest or a meadow (termed ‘non human-managed ecosystem’ in the table) you will see some stark differences.

Manicured lawn
Non human-managed ecosystem
Nope.  Mowed grass does not flower.  No pollen= no food for pollinating insects. 
Yes. Most plants flower and their flowers produce pollen.  Pollen is food for animals and pollination is needed to produce the seeds for next year’s plants. 
Erosion control
Not really.  Unblocked water falls hard on a lawn and kicks up pieces of soil.  Water is then quickly shed from a lawn taking soil and nutrients with it.
Yes.  Plants slow the speed of falling water.  Once slowed it can percolate into the soil. 
Wildlife habitat
Not really.  There are no hiding places or food sources in a lawn.
Yes. Trees, shrubs, and herbs in a variety of heights and densities creates diverse habitat
Water filtration
Not really.  If water is shed it does not enter the soil where filtration happens.
Yes. Water enters the soil where soil microorganisms and plant roots clean it.
Pollution control
Nope.  Quick moving erosive water caries away excess fertilizer, acids from the rain, and household nasties (detergents, oils, cleaning supplies).
Yes.  Thick living soil can accept pollutants.  The living parts of the soil- roots, bacteria, fungus, and insects- can metabolize these pollutants and render them harmless.  
Oxygen production
Not really.  Lawns don’t contain much biomass (the amount of carbon).  Biomass is the direct product of respiration, where (in plants), carbon dioxide exchanged for gaseous oxygen.  Lawns don’t make a lot of oxygen compared to a forest.
Yes.  Most non-managed systems contain more biomass than a lawn and therefor have produced wonderful, glorious, breathable oxygen.

This table could go on and on- obviously there are many ecological differences between our manicured lawns and non human-managed ecosystems.  Remembering that our backyards are the ecosystem we will see that the simple act of keeping a manicured lawn is preventing some pretty important ecological processes from occurring.      

So now what?  What can you do with your lawn?  What are the options?  Thankfully, gardeners, landscape designers, conservationists and permaculturalists across the country have begun to question the manicured lawn paradigm.  The goal is not to abandon backyard management, but instead, to manage our backyards in such a way that allows them to carry out ecological processes. The Mianus River Gorge Preserve in Westchester County has published this, which aids landowners in the conversion of their lawns into meadows.  For those of us don’t have a large enough backyard to create a full blown meadow what are some other tools?  Ecosystem gardening is a neat way to incorporate ecological principals in your own backyard.  Also, the well known bird conservation group The Audubon Society has for a long time educated the public about backyard ecosystems.  On their website is this neat interactive drawing of a healthy lawn.  Alternatives to lawns differ from region to region, place to place, town to town.  Remember, the examples I have included in this paragraph are just jumping off points and they are meant to be modified to fit your backyard and your desires.  It is not necessary to have a backyard that looks like a jungle or a prairie- the goal of this post is to help landowners understand the natural processes occurring in their backyards and how they affect the organisms living there.  Simply cutting your grass less often would make a difference to the organisms that live in your backyard.     

What about unwanted organisms like ticks and poison ivy?  It is possible to choose an lawn alternative that protects you and your family from undesirable plants and animals. To avoid ticks, keep your recreation (gardening, game of catch) away from tick hot spots such as stone walls, leaf piles and dark, humid forest edges.  Also, by spreading a 3 foot mulch barrier between the nearby woodlot and your living/working area you can protect yourself from ticks.  

Mulch barrier: a landscaping tool to prevent ticks

The 100%, hands down, no foolin’ best method to protect yourself from ticks is to check your body for them and be aware of your health.  Likewise, the best way to protect yourselves from poison ivy is to recognize and avoid it.  If desired, it can be removed from your backyard by hand (hands covered in gloves, that is).

Backyard management- to mow or not to mow? 

Where are we?


First post, let's start simple.  Where is Pound Ridge and how it fits into its larger landscape.  This can be answered in many ways- politically, socially, financially, aesthetically, ecologically, historically, geologically, physically, artistically, culinarily, etc., etc., etc., but because I like thinking about land use let's begin by considering the land use of the Eastern Seaboard, on which Pound Ridge, NY happily sits.



This video maps the densities of light pollution and human population along the Eastern Seaboard in 3-D, creating a rather bumpy surface. Consider any raised area on this map- this place has lights and people, (and therefore) houses, stores, roads, highways, buildings, ect.  These places are said to 'fragment' the landscape and leave the wild forests, meadows and wetlands that much smaller and less connected to one another.  Ecologists now have to ask themselves 'how do animal and plant populations (and their genes) move across a fragmented landscape?'      


This is a picture from space of the Northeast Megalopolis at night.  


This is Pound Ridge's backyard- we are part of this high density fragmented landscape.  Pound Ridge might appear only as a small bump in the video but we have to consider all of the map's mountains that surround us.  We can take a closer look at Pound Ridge (the pink balloon in picture) to see how the high density of the Eastern seaboard affects our local landscape.  We will start at the regional level and zoom into the town level:  


Region level.  The Hudson River is far left, Bridgeport, CT is far right.  

County level: highway 684 is visible on the left side.  


The squares in the picture are houses. 


The town of Pound Ridge.  A semi-fragmented landscape.


We can see that fragmentation happens at many scales; coastal, regional, sub-regional-town, watershed, etc.  What does this leave us with?  We find ourselves left with small bits and pieces of once continuous wild terrain.  Many big animals (big cats, bear, fisher) can't survive in a fragmented landscape like Pound Ridge, while others (gray squirrels and English sparrows) do quite well.  This shifting in animal abundances leaves ecologists and land managers wondering about animal-animal and animal-plant interactions of the future.  What about entire ecosystems?  How do they respond to fragmentation?  It is thought that fragmented ecosystems have reduced production of ecosystem services and biodiversity. 

It is futile to think that our ecosystems are like they were 100 years ago, therefore a growing emphasis is being put on our 'novel (or new) ecosystems' (see abstract here).  We are forced to engage nature in its current shape: chopped up, comprised of new animal and plant associations, invaded by plants from other continents, and possibly worst of all- an abstract notion almost totally removed from the thoughts, feelings and experience of most humans.  


Landowners have to recognize that the only wild places left in town may be their backyards.  We may not see our backyards as prime wildlife habitat, but in many cases it's all we've got left. To live lighter on the land we have to recognize how our actions at home and in our towns (planting trees, cutting down trees, mowing our lawns, etc.) affects the organisms that live there.  



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