Everyday Environmentalist

Diversify Your Yard

Two complementary species planted together can grow larger than the same species.

"Ecosystems with a wide range of plant and animal species are often the most able to survive natural or human disturbances."

Laura Marx, forest ecologist with The Nature Conservancy in Massachusetts

By Laura Marx

What works for investments, school classrooms and diets also works in nature, too. If you want to keep your yard and your woods healthy, it pays to be diverse.

But why does diversity matter to Mother Nature?

Ecosystems with a wide range of plant and animal species are often the most able to survive natural or human disturbances that a less diverse system would not recover from.

Single-species systems are especially vulnerable to invasive insects and diseases, as well as to droughts and storms.

And an area with a range of native species will often take less time and effort to keep healthy. Compare the amount of water, fertilizer and work your lawn requires — with its single or few species of grass — versus a meadow or a hayfield.

Diversify Your Backyard

Anyone can create a diverse ecosystem in their garden or yard with a little work and thought:

  • In your garden, consider planting species that do well together — plant some herbs among your carrots, some beans among your nitrogen-loving plants.
  • Plant some wildflowers to attract pollinators and leave some mulch or compost or straw on the ground to provide places for predatory insects to hide.
  • In your woods, make your goal to have a number of native tree species in a range of ages and sizes. For example: aim for a mix of Douglas-fir with western hemlock if you live in Oregon; sugar maple, hemlock and yellow birch if you live in Michigan; or oak and juniper if you live in Texas.

The rewards are well worth the effort.

Hedge Your Bets

Here's another way to think of species diversity: as a way to hedge your ecological bets.

Losing one out of six species is a lot less devastating than losing one out of one. And if your goal is growing wood or food, you'll benefit in another way as well.

In ecology, we've long understood that species divide up their available living space, so that two complementary species planted together can grow larger than just one of those species growing in the same space.

Remember: Ecology applies to your backyard, too.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not represent those of The Nature Conservancy. 


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