One of the easiest things for anyone to do in terms of helping the environment is to desanitise their gardens. Having an entire yard of monoculture grass is not only boring, it’s close to being an ecological wasteland. If you spend a lot of time in your yard playing ball with your kids it could be a good thing, but mostly it’s just for aesthetics. You know what makes for better aesthetic? Butterflies and birds. Many people are moving towards having a wider variety of plants – and more native plants – in their yard, and it is having a beneficial effect. More native wildlife is returning to suburban areas which increases their range and gives them a better chance to avoid extinction. If you live in a flat (apartment block) it’s also easy to participate – just put a potplant with native flowers or vines on your balcony or windowsill; birds and pollinating insects can fly.
In our yard we have small places that we keep as grass so we can sit and play with the kids, we have places that we grow specific plants that we want, and other places that we leave wild (except for removing noxious weeds) to provide a habitat. I want to provide a brief testimony here of some of the cool things that came from this.
Pool 2 Pond: One of the things we did was stop trying to maintain our pool, and instead converted it into a pond. This involved not buying hundreds of dollars of toxic chemicals to dump into the water, and putting in lots of aquatic plants and fish. The kids love it – they have more fun playing in the pond than in the pool, because there’s more things to do. Adult visitors are more leery… Here is a photo of my son’s birthday party, and the kids doing an activity with the pond plants.
It’s a work in progress – we have more plants now, and are learning how the water level changes according to the season – but the thing that most excited me about this process was discovering that dragonflies start their lives as aquatic larvae called nymphs. They need ponds to reproduce, and bodies of uncontaminated water are hard to find near most human settlements. They very quickly colonised the pond.
I love seeing dragonflies zooming around the garden, and it was great seeing the nymphs climb out of the water to become the adult insect. Of course, the kids went insane, they thought it was the coolest thing they’d ever seen.
Leaving Weeds: A tree started growing out of the drainpipe of one of our levels, and I spend a couple of years trying to remove it so that it wouldn’t block the pipe or break the wall. Eventually I realised the pipe was blocked and the wall was solid, and I gave up trying to remove the plant. As it turned out, its growth was kept in check because it was quickly colonised by these little fellows.
Now, humans tend to have a love/hate relationship with Lepidoptera: We love butterflies and hate caterpillars, irrespective of the fact that they’re the same animal. Had there been hundreds of black caterpillars chomping on, for example, my basil, I would have been upset. But this was a tree that I didn’t particularly care about. So we and the kids got to watch the caterpillars chomping away, form a chrysalis, and then become butterflies to flutter around the garden and away across the land.
Setting aside a corner of your garden to let local plants grow will fill your garden with colour and wonder – not to mention give a boost to various pollinators. Plus things that are just cool, like this leaf insect below that colonised a plant we just left to grow…I don’t know what’s going on with the other insect there.
Enter the Tlacuache: Another cool thing is this dude, the tlacuache, which Americans call an opossum.
This is the only marsupial in North America; they expanded from South America when the Isthmus of Panama formed. A lot of people consider them pests, but just consider the fact that a little furry marsupial might come and visit your house every now and then…you don’t have to go to Australia! They’re nomadic and only live for a few years, and all we did to welcome the tlacuache was not have a dog and to have a space between a wall and a stone cliff where it can safely hang out. Then, after a few weeks, it moves on.
Arachnids with Vinegar: Finally, an honorable mention goes to the vinagrillo, which looks like a scorpion on steroids and with full plate armour. However, instead of a venomous sting they have a rod that lets it shoot vinegar. All they can do to humans is make the house smell of vinegar if they get scared. The vinegar is used to weaken the exoskeleton of the insects and other arachnids they eat…other arachnids like scorpions. That’s right, these fellows eat scorpions, those mean little beasties that can – and have – put my children into hospital in convulsions, because the scorpions can’t get their sting to penetrate the vinagrillo’s armour. So vinagrillo’s are always welcome in my house.
There are probably similar animals where you live, animals that look absolutely terrifying but in reality are harmless, and in fact eat all the things that actually can harm you. For example, in Australia there is the Huntsman spider, a giant hairy scary beast that has a habit of hanging above doors so you turn around and get a heart attack when you see them, but they’re not venomous and eat cockroaches and other spiders.