Around this time last year I saw a local television news story out of Portsmouth, VA, that was more important to me than Chinese spy balloons, Barbenheimer box office sales, or any other world event happening at the time.

The story involved a homeowner along the Elizabeth River whose next door neighbor hadn’t cut or trimmed the vegetation in his yard in over four years. In the segment, a homeowner named Dennis Melms stands in the middle of his well-groomed backyard as he airs his grievances against the densely vegetated property over the fence. Included in Melms’ list of concerns is the intrusion of snakes and raccoons, the lowering of his property value, the dangers posed to his granddaughter, and the fact that he can’t comfortably play horseshoes in his backyard anymore.

Melms ends the segment by announcing, “You need to cut your grass, Bill!” A literal shout into the void.

For me, this colorful local dispute gets to the heart of a perception issue that is critical to the future of the Chesapeake Bay and its wildlife.

On one side, you have the majority of people whose ideal yard is bright green, low cut, and tidy, with perhaps some shrubs or a row of daylilies around the edges. The standard can be traced back to sprawling lawns in English estates and has been reinforced by decades of lawn care marketing — so much so that turfgrass is now the most irrigated crop in the country.

On the other side, you have the brave few who aim to break tradition and use their yard in ways that actually benefit the environment.

A garden in front of house

A garden installed through the University of Maryland Extension’s BayWise Program

I cannot say whether Melms’ neighbor’s overgrown property is out of a love for nature, or simply neglect, but the fact is there’s a lot of benefit to it. The reason that the neighbor can let his yard grow so lavishly is because it’s in a Resource Protection Area due to its close proximity to the water, which by law means he doesn’t have to cut it if he doesn’t want to. Tall grass, shrubs and trees do a great job of absorbing stormwater runoff, which keeps nutrient pollution, chemical contaminants and sediment from washing into the river. Conversely, frequently mowed turf grass has shallow roots, which means it doesn’t absorb much stormwater.

But the benefits go beyond cleaner water. Bugs, bees and birds are dying off by the billions across the country due to dwindling natural habitat. Melms’ yard, though likely a better place for a granddaughter to run around in, provides far less habitat for wildlife. The overgrown property, on the other hand, is likely bursting with insect and pollinator life, which is food for birds.

A garden near the sidewalk in front of a house on a sunny day

A garden installed through DC DOEE’s RiverSmart Homes program

While I can’t defend leaving your yard uncut for four years, I do encourage people to make room for more intentional vegetation in their yards in place of turfgrass.

Breaking the perception is going to take a few trailblazers. To help you be a part of the change, I have a few tips on how to maintain a more Bay-friendly yard.

  1. Choose plants based on the benefits they provide to wildlife. For example, a shrub like winterberry produces fruit for birds late into winter, while milkweed is the host plant for larvae of the beloved monarch butterfly. Also try to pick plants that bloom at different times of the year, so you can provide different wildlife with habitat and food all year round.
  2. Where you must mow, set the mower height to 3.5 inches or higher, which will make your lawn healthier and more drought resistant. After mowing, spread some of those clippings back onto the yard as natural fertilizer — or better still, use a mulching mower, which does much of that work for you by leaving the clippings where they lie.
  3. Use as little chemical fertilizer as possible, especially during rainy seasons and when you’re close to a body of water. Better yet, use only native plants, which often require no fertilizer at all.
  4. Consider giving your property a “mullet,” by leaving the front yard with turf grass and dedicate the backyard to growing native trees, shrubs and other plants. Similarly, you could establish a “wild space” or two in the yard, where you let the vegetation grow and move all your fall leaves to.
  5. Look into resources and programs near you to install rain gardens, pollinator gardens and other “conservation landscapes.”

To be clear, there will be barriers to rewilding your yard. Replacing turf grass with new plants can be time consuming and expensive, and there’s no guarantee wildlife will show up once you do. The Orwellian elephant in the room — homeowner associations — can also be an obstacle, often requiring you to keep your grass under a certain length and even dictating which kinds of shrubs and trees are permitted. These rules can often be at odds with environmental best practices.

A person walking through a garden of flowers, shrubs, and other various plants

Washington, D.C. homeowner Rodrick West walks through his garden of native plants

At the end of the day, we need more middle ground. It’s okay to leave space in your yard for kids to run around and to play horseshoes, but it’s also okay to stand out from your neighbors and provide habitat for wildlife.

It’s my hope that in my lifetime, homeowners will be proud of their yard not because it’s close-cropped and bright green, but because it’s attracting birds and soaking up runoff. We are in a time where smart land management is so critical, and we should all be on the same page about what we want to get out of our natural spaces.

If you’re interested in making your own yard a little “messier,” visit our Native Plant Center!