Ecology + Design

2018 Eco-Resolutions Part 3: Reduce Your Lawn Area, Boost Biodiversity

Ever step back and wonder how a trend came to be? Like fat free cookies, shoulder pads, and fidget spinners…were they good ideas that rapidly ran their course, or absolute absurdities that never should have taken off in the first place?

As landscape professionals, we can confidently say the #1 landscape trend in America is… LAWN! Nearly every residential and commercial landscape in America contains lawn. The ubiquitous turf knits together houses and neighborhoods in a bizarre dynamic of unification and cut-throat competition (whose yard most resembles a golf course?!). As journalist Michael Pollan, who has filmed and written about the American Lawn phenomenon, puts it:

Like the interstate highway system, like fast-food chains, like television, the lawn has served to unify the American landscape; … France has its formal, geometric gardens, England its picturesque parks, and America this unbounded democratic river of manicured lawn along which we array our houses.”

What’s in a lawn? Precious resources.

In blanketing our massive national landscape in a uniform crop, with no regard for the local climate and hydrology, we’ve created a perpetuating cycle of environmental problems. Some staggering lawn statistics:

  • Lawn is the largest irrigated crop in America, occupying 40 million acres of land
  • 30-60% of urban freshwater is used on lawns [source]
  • The typical American lawn uses 10,000 gallons of rainwater annually [source]
  • 80 million pounds of pesticide active ingredients are used on U.S. lawns annually. [source]
  • 90 million pounds of chemical fertilizers are applied on lawns annually. [source]
  • Lawn mowers consume over 800 million gallons of gasoline each year and produced 26.7 million tons of air pollutants annually. [source]

In an effort to homogenize our landscape and keep up with the Jones’, we’re over-nitrifying our waterways, polluting the air, destroying habitat, and by extension, contributing to biodiversity loss. Not to mention, all but squelching creativity and individuality in our landscape.

Or, in a more optimistic view – reducing the amount of lawn has the sunny potential of reversing these negative environmental and ho-hum design trends! That’s why ‘Reducing Your Lawn Area & Boosting Biodiversity’ is part of our 2018 Eco-Resolutions series.

Thankfully we’re not alone in this endeavor! National Wildlife Federation will certify your property as a Certified Wildlife Habitatif you meet certain ecosystem criteria.

To meet the certification, your property must have:

  • At least 3 forms of food:
    • Seeds, berries, nectar, foliage/twigs, fruits, sap, pollen, suet, nuts, supplemental animal feeder
  • At least once source of water for drinking and bathing
  • At least two forms of cover/shelter:
    • Wooded area, bramble patch, ground cover, rock pile or wall, cave, roosting box, evergreens, brush or log pile, burrow, meadow or prairie, dense shrubs/thicket, water garden or pond
  • At least two places to raise young, such as:
    • Mature trees, meadow or prairie, nesting box, wetland, cave, burrow, dead trees, dense shrubs/thicket, water garden/pond, host plants for caterpillars
  • Employ sustainable strategies from two of the three categories:
    • Soil and water conservation
    • Controlling exotic species
    • Organic practices

Is biodiversity decline really such a big deal?

You may be thinking – that sounds like a large undertaking. Can my yard really make an impact?


  • The North American Bird Conservation Initiative recently reported that a third of the nation’s 1,154 bird species are considered “most at risk of extinction without significant action.” [source].
  • Additionally, the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation found over a quarter of the nation’s 47 bumble bee species “face some level of extinction risk. [source].
  • Audubon’s 2014 Birds and Climate Change Report concluded that 314 North American bird species could lose more than half of their current ranges by 2080 due to rising temperatures.
  • To suppliment the pollinator decline, we’re now shipping bees from east to west in our country to support our agriculture. A staggering 30 billion per year to pollinate California’s almond crop alone! [source]

This alarming decline of biodiversity is attributed to habitat loss from development and agriculture, widespread pesticide/herbicide use, and global warming. As individuals these may seem like daunting issues to tackle; but with each yard that pledges to go organic and plant native, hardy plants that include a variety of food and shelter sources, a patchwork of habitat weaves together through the path of development, linking ecosystems together and building species resilience.

At Green Jay Landscape Design, we design ecological landscapes, meaning our design decisions are made with acuteness for habitat creation, year-round food sources, plant communities, organics, and storm water management. It is not just about picking the right plants (although that is essential, and we choose bio-regional natives wherever possible), it’s also about locating and grouping them appropriately so that wildlife feel comfortable utilizing them. The components are only as strong as the design!

We won’t hide the fact that we are always encouraging our clients to reduce their lawn area, because it is inevitably replaced with a garden that is more biodiverse and less resource intensive. Ditching the lawn is furthermore a step towards individuality – an opportunity to step outside the cookie cutter mold and design a landscape unique to your property, style, and environment.

Over the years we’ve learned a few things about designing for human and wildlife habitat. Below are our design considerations for each Certified Wildlife Habitat criteria.



  • Include successional sources of food so wildlife are provided for year round. Perennials may provide pollen, nectar and foliage in the spring and summer; their seed heads another food source in fall, later succeeded by shrub berries to carry through the winter.
  • Group plants in numbers of three or more – insects and birds like to be able to feed at length in one spot rather than flit around to numerous specimen plants.
  • Provide easy transitions from the edge habitat to other areas of your property – this mimics natural and safe environments for pollinators.
  • GJL Favorite Native Plants:
    • Perennials: Wild Geranium, Milkweed, Golden Alexander, Cardinal Flower, Turtlehead, Blackeyed Susan, Goat’s Beard, Butterfly Weed
    • Grasses: Little Bluestem, Big Bluestem, Switch Grass, Pennsylvania Sedge
    • Shrubs: Inkberry, Winterberry, Chokeberry, Clethra, Bayberry
    • Trees: River Birch, Flowering Dogwood, Serviceberry


Wildlife needs water for drinking and bathing. Adding a water source to your landscape will do wonders for your backyard habitat and create a focal point in your design.

GJL has experience in a wide range of water feature styles:

  • Ponds should have a pump, aerator, or waterfall feature to keep water moving. Stagnant water allows mosquitos to breed and can lead to eutrophication.
  • Create different depths in a pond with rocks and driftwood so birds and other wildlife have something to perch on. Build it and they will come!
  • Waterfalls’ soothing, cascading melodies are pleasing to humans and attractive to birds.
  • Consider a natural swimming pond, purified with bog garden plants, rather than chlorine.
  • For a smaller space, bird baths can have a strong ecological and stylistic impact!


We strive to mimic natural landscapes by creating layers of plant communities. For example, if you have existing mature trees on your property, consider under planting with understory trees and shrubs, to provide transitional plant material that help connect different elements of your garden. From a bird’s perspective, stopping from tree to shrub to perennial is much less intimidating than a long shot from forest perimeter, over open lawn, finally to pollen sources.

  • GJL favorite Native Plants:
    • Maple Leaf Viburnum, Staghorn Sumac, Arrowood Viburnum, American Holly
    • White and Red Oak, Eastern Red Cedar, Sugar Maple, Red Maple


For more tips on the final NWF criteria, employing sustainable practices, see our previous blog posts on organic yard care and storm water management.

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