Dogwood Lane

The Quarterly Journal of the Mary May Binney Wakefield Arboretum ___________________________________

Volume Four, Issue 1 - Fall 2021
Our Arboretum in a Warming World:
Land Stewardship and Climate Change
This past summer in New England was the hottest on record, and currently, we are experiencing the warmest fall and the warmest year on record to date. As the climate changes, setting new temperature records will likely be a yearly occurrence as we watch in real time our planet warming. The impacts of such warming are many, and we witnessed some of them this year: record floods in Europe and devastating fires in California to name only two. As an arboretum, higher temperatures will have numerous consequences on our plant collection, all of which we do not yet fully understand.

This edition of Dogwood Lane Quarterly focuses broadly on our warming world, and more specifically, about how we are changing our landscape management approach to both anticipate and adapt to a warmer future. It explores how we are striving to reduce our own contribution of atmospheric carbon through new landscape management strategies and practices. In addition, we address the challenges of talking to children about climate change - how to convey information on a critical issue that will impact them for years to come yet instill hope and inspiration at the same time.

Healthy ecosystems are a critical piece in the larger puzzle of how to prevent the worst impacts of global warming. Our relationship to the land is more important now than ever. As we collectively think about how to change our practices to be more environmentally sustainable, we would love to hear from our readers - please share with us your questions, ideas, and strategies to greening your landscape so that we may learn from you and share it more broadly.
The Role of Botanical Gardens and Arboreta in Conservation, Climate Education and Sustainability
Arboreta and botanical gardens have been at the forefront of research and conservation for hundreds of years. Climate change is one of the most, if not the most important challenges that human beings face today, and its impacts on local ecosystems are complex. According to Richard Primack, a climate researcher at Boston University, "over the past decade research at botanical gardens has advanced our understanding of climate impacts on plant phenology, physiology, anatomy, and conservation.”1
The staff and volunteers at the Mary May Binney Wakefield Arboretum have been contributing to this research by looking at the phenology of our Cornus kousa dogwood collection over the past 6 years. This information helps researchers better understand the changes in plant cycles in relation to our warming climate. Beyond contributing to plant and climate research, it is our goal as a certified arboretum to demonstrate and showcase various management strategies that allow for the enjoyment of our collection while maintaining a healthy ecosystem for plants, animals, and humans. We share this information with other arboreta, conservation organizations, and our public stakeholders through various types of programming including live and online presentations and classes, and publications including the Dogwood Lane Quarterly. As our environment continues to evolve in response to climate change, whether it is temperature extremes, high wind events, or pest and pathogen outbreaks, there are many actions that we can take at this arboretum and in our own gardens and parks to be better prepared for these changes and help mitigate their impacts.
The Mary May Binney Wakefield Arboretum is 22 acres of green space that includes formal gardens, woodlands, orchards, fields, and wetlands. Each of these areas requires a different management strategy. For the past 9 years, the arboretum has been maintained utilizing a landscape management plan that prioritizes levels of care and management based on plant communities, geology, hydrology, and public use. Currently, the management of green spaces in the formal gardens and many of the fields includes keeping them clipped as lawns for visitors to enjoy. Short grass keeps ticks and mosquito populations low and allows visitors to stay safe. Lawns also represent a sense of order in public gardens and are easier to maintain than garden beds. However, grass lawns are more often than not monocultures and do not provide food or shelter for pollinators and mammals that would naturally control ticks and mosquitos, including dragonflies and opossums.
After a decade of adhering to our landscape management plan, we feel compelled to develop a new management strategy that takes into account the reality of our changing environment. For example, our lawn management is being altered to reduce our carbon footprint while increasing the biodiversity and health of the landscape. Rather than large, mowed lawns, we are creating a series of clipped paths that meander through managed meadows. These meadows will be developed outside of Polly Wakefield’s designed gardens in other areas of the landscape that are enjoyed by visitors. Managed meadows are spaces where a mixture of grasses and native plants, including goldenrod and asters, are allowed to grow tall to create a pollinator-friendly environment. Besides reducing the amount of fossil fuels used to keep these areas mown, compaction will be reduced, and a more diversified ecosystem will be allowed to thrive.
This management strategy focuses on removing sections of lawn to create new garden beds using native plants. These gardens are being developed by the original Davenport farmhouse, along the entry lane, and around the wetland areas. Garden beds require more work than lawns, including planting, weeding, and pruning, yet they also provide much more diversity for the ecosystem, educational value, and visual enjoyment for the visitor. According to author Michael Pollan, “Taking care of gardens, as compared to lawn care, tutors us in nature’s ways, fostering an ethic of give and take with respect to the land. Gardens instruct us in the particularities of place. They lessen our dependence on distant sources of energy, technology, and food and, for that matter, interest.” Finally, in this approach, we let fallen leaves accumulate under shrubs where they can contribute to soil building and create a habitat for overwintering bees and butterflies.
It has been a challenging and rewarding process to continue to add new garden beds to Polly Wakefield’s existing gardens while keeping her formal garden design intact. The vast majority of Polly Wakefield’s collection of woody plants was propagated from plant material from the Arnold Arboretum in Boston. At the time of Polly’s involvement with the Arnold Arboretum, plant collectors were focused on collecting plant material from Asia and Northern Europe. These imported plants offered horticulturalists, including Polly, a chance to showcase new species that offered unusual flowers, bark, fruits, and other features not present in our native species. However, as non-native trees are integrated with native species, they often crowd out or out-perform the native trees, shrubs, and plants that provide habitat and food sources for native insects and wildlife with which they evolved to co-exist. As we think about expanding on Polly’s legacy, we will continue to focus on breeding her beloved kousa dogwoods, but also will add more native species to the collection to benefit the native ecosystems and help them to thrive.
Striking a balance: To Leave or Not to Leave, Leaves
Leaf drop is a natural process for all woody plants including conifers. The trees at the Mary May Binney Wakefield Arboretum are no exception. For the past 9 years, Wakefield staff have spent the month of November removing most of the leaves from the formal areas and adding them to the compost pile. Raking by hand is the preferred method for three reasons. Leaf blowers are not practical in a dense land-scape, they are bad for the environment emitting a lot of CO2, and the sound is deafening (literally).2
Every fall we ask ourselves the same question: Why not just leave all the leaves where they fall since it is a natural process? This arboretum is a place where visitors come to see gardens as an inspiration for what their own gardens could be. They often comment that they expect to see a sense of order and a level of tidiness that represents professionalism in the world of horticulture. It is also problematic to leave thick layers of leaves in formal beds as they can take up to three years to disintegrate, creating a thick anaerobic mat. However, as the climate warms, it is important to be more focused on the role of natural systems in that process and what can be done to protect and mimic those natural systems. With this thought in mind, a new approach is evolving with the goal of keeping a garden that is well maintained and benefits the ecosystem at the same time.

Because the Mary May Binney Wakefield Arboretum has hundreds of mature trees, some of the leaves will be added to the compost pile each fall. But going forward, a thick layer of leaves will be left in the garden beds until late the following spring when invertebrates and caterpillars have moved on. Leaves that were left on the beds all winter will then be added to the compost pile. This process will benefit wildlife, protect sensitive plants and improve soil quality. In the grassy areas, we will mow and mulch the leaves and leave them on the lawns to improve soil quality. These measures are just the beginning of our efforts to think about how we can benefit the natural environment.
It all starts with healthy soil
Along with diverse understory plantings and a variety of trees, the most important part of the garden is maintaining healthy soil. As our world warms, it becomes more important to do everything we can to reduce our use of fossil fuels while also changing our management practices to maximize our landscape’s ability to sequester as much carbon as possible. Sequestering Carbon is the biological process through which plants absorb and store carbon from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. Capturing and storing carbon in our own landscapes starts with healthy soil. We focus on management techniques that include adding compost, mulching appropriately in garden beds and around trees. These are fundamental practices when it comes to building healthy soil that develops and maintains good texture, storing carbon both short and long term.
photo credit:
Beginning in 2016 with the help of a donated 1960’s era International tractor, we began composting our own leaves, garden debris, llama manure, and grass clippings. Manure and compost increase soil productivity and the formation of stable carbon that can remain in the soil for decades. After four years, we were able to begin using this compost to restore some of the severely eroded areas of the landscape and rehabilitate some of the neglected garden beds. There were several important factors in creating good compost that included some trial and error. Initially, we accepted leaves from the town of Milton. However, it was soon discovered that there were several issues with this practice. It was very possible that some of the leaf litter contained herbicides, invasive weed seed, and trash.
This led to the decision to only compost what was produced here at the arboretum. The focus of removing invasive species before they fruited became a priority to avoid adding weed seed to the compost. If seeds were present, they were separated from the compost pile. It also became important to regulate the quantity of brown and green material that went into the pile to activate compost microorganisms to their fullest potential. It became clear that compostable foods and plates could not be added. We have strived to make our large events as green as possible, producing zero trash and using compostable plates and cups. Unfortunately what we have seen after adding used compostable plates to the compost pile is raccoons and other animals eating any remnants of food in the compost pile.
Another way we reduce fossil fuel use and improve our gardens' ability to store carbon is, instead of purchasing mulch in bulk, we work with a local tree company to get free deliveries of chipped trees from the Milton area. Using locally produced wood chips is a sustainable activity, keeping a useful product out of the landfill, which is both environmentally and economically important. According to Texas A & M Extension service, “A common misconception is that fresh wood chips tie up nitrogen during their decomposition. Nitrogen depletion will be a temporary problem when fresh wood chips are incorporated into the soil, which is why we should only use fresh chips as surface mulch or around established woody plants. In this case, nitrogen depletion would only be right at the soil surface, which may be one reason wood chip mulches are efficient at suppressing seed germination. Because of this, it is recommended that they not be used around vegetables and in annual flowerbeds.” Because wood chips from tree services are usually a combination of bark, sapwood, hardwood, and leaves (during the growing season, or from evergreen plants), as they break down they slowly provide small amounts of nutrients. Also, as they decompose they increase the organic matter of the soil. This organic matter gets worked down into the soil through the activity of earthworms and insects that live and burrow through the soil. The increased organic matter in the soil results in healthier plant growth.3
With better soil structure comes better water absorption and less runoff. Mulch also slows heavy rains, giving the rainwater a chance to percolate into the soil. In summer, mulched soils are less likely to form a crust, enabling better absorption when irrigating. We have also found that when we have drought years, the mulched beds hold the moisture much longer, keep the soil cooler, suppress weed seed, and inhibit erosion. Fine plant roots are highly susceptible to drought stress and high temperatures; mulch helps keep the soil cool and hydrated, enhancing plant establishment and overall vigor. Furthermore, healthy plants are more resistant to pest damage, requiring fewer chemicals, most of which are petroleum-based, and need less maintenance. According to the Ecological Landscaping Alliance, long-term, deep soil carbon storage comes about through the creation of humus, which is the result of relationships between actively growing plants, fungi, and soil microbes and insects, in a matrix that includes mineral soil and organic material. This process, termed “humification,” builds topsoil while storing carbon in a stable form that can stay put for hundreds of years. To read more, click here.
photo credit:
Carbon Sequestration
Organic carbon sequestration is one of the oldest tricks in nature’s ancient playbook for global ecosystem regulation. These days, as we search for ways to pull excess carbon out of the atmosphere in order to mitigate global warming, new attention has focused on “natural climate solutions,” or managing land for carbon sequestration by conserving and restoring ecosystems and changing agricultural and gardening practices.4 Scientists calculate that these low-tech methods could draw down over a third of global carbon emissions by 2030, while simultaneously rescuing ecosystems, strengthening biodiversity, managing water, and mitigating pollution.5
Trees as Carbon Sinks
photo credit: Forest Service USDA Northern Research Station
Arboreta are made up of a variety of woody plants. Woody plants are particularly good at storing carbon. Trees help remove carbon dioxide gas from the atmosphere through photosynthesis, a process that converts the carbon from carbon dioxide to a solid form in sugars that can be stored in leaves, stems, trunks, branches, and roots, and contribute to tree growth. Some of the carbon ends up in the soil where it can stay locked away for thousands of years. Oxygen, the other by-product of photosynthesis, is released back into the atmosphere and animals depend upon it for their survival.

Of all the different types of vegetation, trees are the best carbon "sinks" or reservoirs, meaning they can lock carbon away, preventing it from entering the atmosphere. This is due to their larger size and therefore the increased area of ‘biomass' (leaves, stems, roots, etc.) within which carbon is stored. The amount of carbon a tree sequesters varies depending on species, and the rate at which the carbon is sequestered varies over time too. Large trees absorb more CO2 annually than small or young trees. It has been demonstrated that one-half of the dry weight of a tree is stored carbon. When you look at a large oak tree, try to fathom its dried weight to approximate how much carbon it has removed from the atmosphere over its lifetime. A fast-growing tree species will sequester more carbon in the first years as it grows quickly, but these trees tend not to live as long as some slower-growing trees. Slow-growing trees, which do not sequester as much carbon over the initial years, eventually grow to a bigger size and tend to live a much longer time.

As a rough guide, a tree of 10 years of age can absorb up to 48 pounds of CO2 per year, a small fraction of the average US citizen's emissions in a year.6
Yellow Poplar (or Tulip Tree), the top carbon-storer in one New York City study, works hard under rough conditions.
The Silver Maple can trap nearly 25,000 pounds of CO2 in a 55-year period, according to the Center for Urban Forests.
Oak (White Oak, Willow Oak, Laurel Oak, and Scarlet Oak) has adapted to thrive in many climates, provides food and shelter to wildlife.
Restoring Our Native Woodlands
Between the arrival of European Colonists in the mid-17th century and 1900, much of New England was cleared for farming and wood collection. The Mary May Binney Wakefield Arboretum landscape is no exception. There are approximately 12 acres of woodlands that were most likely cleared more than once and are currently severely impacted by invasive species. These species include bitter-sweet, mile-a-minute vine, and buckthorn. They are considered invasive because they can very quickly out-compete native plant communities and become mono-cultures, providing little sustenance and variety for our native species of birds, insects, and other creatures that are important contributors to a healthy ecosystem. These landscapes require a different management approach than the rest of the arboretum. It is very important to understand the lifecycles of these invasive plants and how they spread in order to manage them effectively. In order to begin to restore some of the native plant species, invasive species need to be removed.
We began this process at the arboretum in 2012 with the systematic removal of some of the largest invasive plants. Bittersweet vines as thick as small trees were cut to stop the plants from photosynthesizing. Once the vines began to die back, they could be pulled from the trees. Bittersweet stumps were carefully painted with glysophate, killing the root system while having minimal impact on the rest of the ecosystem. After several years of seasonal management, native species began to reappear including trillium, bloodroot, jack-in-the-pulpit, spicebush, and red maple. However, land management does not end when native species begin to rebound. Continued management will include adding new native plant material to the woodland that will speed the process toward a more healthy ecological system. There will always be continued challenges; this strategy is only effective if the management continues into the future allowing the native species to only compete among themselves.
How should we talk about climate change with kids
From our work with school-aged children here at the arboretum, we have been challenged about how to incorporate the topic of climate change in the broader discussion about human impacts on the environment and local ecology. The fact is, an immense amount has been written on the topic by sources ranging from National Geographic to Psychology Today, with suggested strategies and scenarios, do's and don'ts, and volumes of statistics about mental health impacts for children in response to highly publicized climate disasters, etc. Like many parents we hear from, who want to protect their children from hard truths yet at the same time desire an open and honest dialogue in order to foster a sustainability mindset, we have struggled to find the balance between understanding the reality of climate change and instilling a sense of hope about what we can all do about it. The fact is, when it comes to discussing climate change and global warming with children, many of us don't fully understand what "global warming" and "climate change" will really entail, and therefore, we often feel ill-equipped to explain it when asked.
Today it is impossible to avoid hearing some discussion of climate change and global warming in a variety of media outlets, creating confusion and anxiety and leaving us with many unanswered questions. This is not just true for adults, but especially so for young people of all ages; they are exposed to images and stories about fires, drought, tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods impacting the world they live in like never before. Many parents too have concerns and fears about leaving their children, and the generations to come after them, a livable and sustainable planet. Let’s just be honest about it: it's scary. 

A recent poll by NPR found that 84% of parents agreed that kids should be learning about climate change, but only 45% had actually talked to their kids about the issue, leaving much of the “talking” to our teachers. Unlike many other hot-button issues about what should or shouldn’t be taught in schools, more than 80% of parents in the U.S. support the teaching of climate change in school. And teachers agree - in fact, 86% of teachers believe climate change should be taught in schools.7
Talking about climate change is challenging, and adults - parents and teachers alike - are often more confused about it than their kids and many are reluctant to discuss it because it can be terribly anxiety-provoking. In our work here to educate children and adults about our local ecology, it is critical that the lessons we share during our elementary education field trips relate to age-appropriate science standards. While more and more states, including Massachusetts, are turning to the Next Generation Science Standards, which were introduced in 2013 and explicitly include climate change in the science curriculum, it is not until middle and high school when students learn about how human activities— such as the burning of fossil fuels—contribute to global warming.
An interview with a key education partner who regularly brings hundreds of children to this Arboretum each year for outdoor field trips confirmed that he does not get into climate change in his teaching, other than how it relates to ecosystems for older elementary students. Yet, for thousands of elementary-aged children, these outdoor field trips provide an opportunity to teach the science behind those words without actually using them.
For example, when a prolonged drought deeply impacted the arboretum's wetland area, reducing the water level in the pond used to explore freshwater aquatic ecosystems, it prompted conversations about the difference between weather and climate, and discussions about whether aquatic animals can survive if their habitat disappears. Similarly, when an unusually harsh storm blew down several mature trees, it offered an opportunity to consider how that event would impact the forest ecosystem and living creatures and plants that inhabit the forest floor, now newly exposed to full sun and exposure. These impacts to the arboretum are likely related to the warming planet. Hopefully, these inquiries and explorations will resonate with students when climate change-related frameworks are introduced in middle school science.
Surveys show that of respondents aged 16 to 25, a staggering 77% said that they felt that the future was frightening due to climate change, 60 percent endorsed that they felt "very" or "extremely" worried about climate change, 50% stated they had felt afraid, sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless, guilty, and 45 percent said their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily lives.8 The fact is children have more at stake than adults- they will bear the brunt of serious climate change impacts in the future- and they are making their concerns known. In September of 2019, anxious about their future on a hotter planet, masses of young people poured into the streets on every continent for a day of global climate protests. It was the first time that children and young people had demonstrated to demand climate action in so many places and in such numbers around the world. They shared a painful truth as they marched through New York City, chanting “You had a future, and so should we.”

Parsing through the abundant recommendations about how to talk about climate change with children, one is struck that often the advised approach is mismatched with the audience. Young children won’t easily understand concepts such as fossil fuels and greenhouse gases, so it is critical to begin with concepts they can embrace such as "living things grow and thrive when we care for them."
Rather than a lesson on fossil fuels or greenhouses gases, or bio-thermal dynamics, the other resources recommend getting very young children out into and connected with nature - plant seeds, care for animals, dig in the dirt, take a walk in the woods, turn over stones and logs - to raise young environmentalists. Renowned environmental educator David Sobel has stated "Early life experiences in the wild lead to a lifetime love of nature," and when kids have a connection to nature and the earth, they will hopefully want to help heal and restore it.

To begin the conversation about climate change with kids, it is useful to find out what they already know. Experts recommend that we not underestimate what kids can understand. The recommended steps start with listening - and hesitating before replying. It's important to really hear what the young person is asking - are they afraid, or just trying to understand how something works? Before going further, most adults might need to improve their own understanding of the topic. A couple of particularly valuable resources are the BBC's Simple Guide, a remarkably approachable yet definitive primer on the topic and resources available at Yale Climate Connections, a nonpartisan multimedia platform that "aims to help citizens and institutions understand how the changing climate is already affecting our lives." Then explore the topic together utilizing some of the amazing and fun resources provided by NASA's Climate Kids and at Climate Change Resources.
“Let us organize to re-establish the contact between the land and the people.” —Polly Wakefield 
As the shared understanding develops, pair it with tangible action and measures to make a difference such as planting a tree, using less plastic, walking and biking instead of using the car, buying produce from local farms, etc. To teach children about greenhouse gases and warming, take them into a greenhouse in the cold seasons and let them experience the warmer environment the enclosure creates. The most illuminating discovery in our survey of recommendations about "how to talk to kids about global warming" was that the best strategy might just be letting kids teach kids, and also letting kids teach adults. In fact, one study shows that educating children may be the best way to reach parents who don’t seem to care about climate change and it has been shown that educating kids can spur changes in parents as they bring those ideas of change into the home, e.g. recycling, eating less meat, etc.
A Goal of "Zero-Waste" Lunchtime
Over a decade ago, when discouraged by the excessive volume of trash created during school field trip lunch breaks, we introduced a goal of "zero-waste" lunches, encouraging children to go through the game of sorting their trash into what left-overs can safely go into the worm compost, what can go to the chickens, what gets recycled, etc. Fortunately, the approach is a great success story: it has greatly reduced trash output from the field trips, especially as schools have moved to more sustainable lunch packaging and strengthened their in-school recycling programs, and the children arrive more prepared to successfully sort their own waste in an eco-friendly way - and not to mention, they have fun doing it.
The Problem with Lawns
Who doesn’t love a lush, freshly-mowed green lawn? The smell of the cut grass, the feel of it under our bare feet, the sight of the emerald glow in the late summer afternoon evoke memories of family BBQs and childhood games in the backyard. But lawns are America’s largest monoculture, and like all monocultures come with all sorts of problems. Under closer inspection, as we better understand the complexity of our climate and ecosystem, lawns and how we care for them greatly contribute to the emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) in a number of ways. But here’s the good news: because so many of us actively manage our lawns, we are at the center of a climate solution right in our backyard. If there’s one thing we can do collectively to have a positive impact on de-carbonizing our back yard, it would be to think twice about our lawns, and how we care for them.

According to a 2005 NASA study, here in Massachusetts lawns cover 20% of the state - that’s about double the amount of land dedicated to farming. And keeping up with the neighbor’s lawn next door is very costly: lawns require more equipment, labor, fuel and use more agricultural chemicals than industrial farming, therefore making them the largest agricultural sector in the US. According to a University of California-Irvine study, the total estimation of greenhouse gas emission from lawn care, which includes fertilizer and pesticide production, watering, mowing, leaf blowing, and other lawn management practices, was found to be four times greater than the amount of carbon stored by grass. In other words, our lawns produce more CO2 than they absorb.9
Here at the arboretum, we have modified how we care for and manage the fields and lawns in a number of ways. For example, a decade ago we brought back sheep, and later added llamas, to graze the orchard field, largely eliminating the use of the lawnmower to mow the 1.5-acre area. This was an important incentive to Polly Wakefield for keeping two dozen horned dorset sheep in the eighties. We significantly decreased how often we mow certain fields, allowing the grass to grow tall and let the margins fill in with native wildflowers. We continue to experiment with eliminating mowing all together in certain areas to see how the land responds. And we are always learning about new strategies and techniques that further “green” our landscape.
How standard lawn care contributes to global warming is both multifaceted and complex, and practices to manage our lawns - mowing, fertilizing, irrigating, etc. illuminate a potential climate solution, as well as important both “downstream” and atmospheric impacts. But because of our proximity to and hands-on engagement with our yards, we have a tremendous opportunity to make a significant and positive impact in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Let’s start with mowing: it is estimated that 54 million Americans mow their lawns every weekend. The process of mowing lawns produces a large amount of carbon dioxide (CO2). According to the US Department of Energy estimates, each year Americans use 1.2 billion gallons of gas to power their lawnmowers, emitting 41 billion pounds of CO2.10

However, there are simple steps that can be taken to reduce these numbers. One way is to mow less and let your grass grow to a height of 3-4 inches. The longer the grass, the more water is retained and the longer the roots of your lawn will be, making it stronger and more tolerant. Keeping your grass longer also may allow it to outcompete weeds, reducing the need for herbicides.
Fertilizing is also problematic: It is estimated that Americans use ten times more fertilizer on lawns per acre than they do on food crops. In addition, Americans use 90 million pounds of fertilizer on their lawns every year. The manufacturing of synthetic or chemical fertilizers leaves a large carbon footprint: carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane are produced during the fabrication of fertilizers. Fortunately, there are alternatives: one is to use organic or slow-release fertilizers; these types are less likely to run off your lawn than inorganic or fast-release fertilizers that end up in the watershed. Grass clippings contain nitrogen, a key ingredient in fertilizer. Use your grass clippings as fertilizer by leaving them on your lawn. It may be all the supplement you need, and it will save you time and money. Clippings are approximately 85 percent water, so they usually decompose within a week and will not smother your lawn.

Along with synthetic fertilizers, the pesticides and herbicides used in lawn care contribute to climate change because they are manufactured using petroleum products, and, like synthetic fertilizers, they kill helpful microbes and insects that contribute to the healthy soil, a key driver in carbon sequestration. They also have deadly impacts far away from our yards.
Our lawns and yards are not isolated islands - they are all connected to a larger ecosystem and watershed through the movement of water. Watering our lawns can carry harmful toxins from our backyards to the ocean. Like thousands of homes in our area, we know that our small arboretum located on the slopes of the Blue Hills is connected to the larger Neponset River watershed. During a heavy rain, water from our fields and woods runs down the slope and into the stream that carries it to the Neponset River and eventually into Boston Harbor and the Atlantic Ocean. When nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizers reach the ocean, it results in excessive growth of aquatic plants, and they initially flourish. However, these plants die and sink to the bottom where they decompose resulting in less oxygen in the water, causing what are called Dead Zones - water so depleted of its oxygen that aquatic species cannot survive. Neponset River Watershed Map courtesy of the Neponset River Watershed Association.
As much as we love them, lush green lawns come with a very high environmental cost - and are part of an urgent and immediate problem that we have the power to do something about right now. There are abundant resources to learn about how altering one’s yard and lawn care management can significantly decrease one’s carbon footprint. Here in Massachusetts, one such resource is our state’s website, which has all sorts of proven ways to accomplish this. (See Websites like have many ideas and products that can help you re-think how you manage your lawn to reduce its negative environmental impact. There are new grass seed mixes that enable you to mow less, reduce irrigation and decrease the use of synthetic fertilizers (visit this link at (The image above shows a well-established rain garden created to solve basement flooding issues for the homeowner. Shared courtesy
Another more radical approach is to redesign your landscape to include reducing or removing your lawn, planting native plants and grasses, native landscaping, or what’s known as xeriscaping - a process of landscaping or gardening that reduces or eliminates the need for irrigation. When thinking of ways to reduce your carbon footprint, look out the window and consider what it would look like to see a field of native wildflowers rather than an expanse of green…and imagine not having to spend your summer weekends mowing.
Backyard Solutions to reduce your carbon footprint
Ditch the Gas-powered garden tools
Did you know that gas-powered garden tools like lawnmowers and leaf blowers are big contributors to greenhouse gas emissions? Consider buying electric tools - from mowers to blowers, even chainsaws - and ensuring that your electric energy is sourced from renewable sources. And no more fussing with gas and oil too! There are now many well-known brands making a full line of electric yard equipment for home use.
Re-Wild your yard
Imagine a yard full of native wildflowers and grasses. Re-wilding is letting a designed landscape return to its natural state and letting nature take care of itself. Through rewilding, wildlife’s natural rhythms create wild, more biodiverse habitats and ecosystems. Consider reducing or eliminating your lawn and replace it with wild and native species. Try designing your backyard to be in synch with natural flora and fauna - you’ll be amazed how easy and beautiful your yard will become. When thinking about your yard, move from monoculture (example: grass lawn) to greater and greater biodiversity, re-incorporating native species into your landscape. Research Xeriscaping.
(The image above shows a front lawn alternative planting that also serves as a rain garden, designed by Pretty City Gardens and Landscapes of St. Louis, MS, shared courtesy of the

Say “no” to synthetic fertilizers and pesticides
Run-off of excessive chemical fertilizers is spoiling our watersheds and creating Dead Zones in our oceans. If you need to fertilize, use organic fertilizers, or better yet make your own compost from yard waste and kitchen scraps.

Talk to your landscaping company and learn about what products and practices they use to manage your yard
Many landscape companies use chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and other products to manage your lawn and yard. If you contract with a company, ask them about alternative practices that can lower your yard’s carbon footprint, like leaving leaves and grass clippings to increase organic matter of your soil, or switching to electric blowers and mowers.
Grow your own food & buy from local farms
Industrial agriculture is the source of about 25% of GHGs. Did you know that food travels on average 1,800 miles from farm to plate? That’s a lot of carbon with your peas! Plant a vegetable garden and enjoy fresh food from the backyard, and when you can buy direct from local farmers.

Plant a shade tree
Not only do trees help prevent run-off and soil erosion, remove and store carbon from the atmosphere and provide habitats for birds and other animals, they also provide, wait for it… shade. Trees are nature’s air conditioner, and a shaded home is a cooler home, reducing your need to use the air conditioner.

Reduce water consumption
You can greatly reduce the need for irrigating your yard by increasing the organic content of your soil. Add mulch and wood chips to your soils and watch how cool and moist they remain in the summer months. Healthier soils store more carbon and have less need for fertilizers and pesticides - which are petroleum-based.
Compost your waste
Don’t throw away your yard and kitchen waste - they are valuable sources of nutrients for your landscape. Go online and see all the creative and simple ways you can start your own compost pile and use it to improve the health of your soil. And the next time you need to buy a garden product at the local hardware store, consider riding your bike - you might find it a lot more fun too! 
We want to hear from you! Please let us know what practices you’ve adapted to make your backyard truly green - we’d love to share your stories with others and help build the momentum of backyard solutions to climate change.
The Nature of Oaks: The Rich Ecology of our Most Essential Native Trees, by Doug Tallamy

Each quarter we will suggest a new book that focuses on topics including horticulture, climate change, ecology, and the intersections of humans and nature. At the end of the quarter, a zoom presentation will be given on the book and readers will be asked to participate in the conversation about the topic.
Doug Tallamy is a professor in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware, where he has authored 88 research publications and has taught Insect Taxonomy, Behavioral Ecology, Humans and Nature, Insect Ecology, and other courses for 36 years. Most recently Doug Tallamy has published two books: Nature's Best Hope: A new approach to conservation that begins in your back yard, and The Nature of Oaks: The Rich Ecology of Our Most Essential Native Trees. The Nature of Oaks is a fascinating read about this keystone species that is so common all over New England. We hope you will join us in reading this wonderful book. Watch for details about the zoom discussion.
Articles written and edited by Erica Max, Debbie Merriam, and Mark Smith.
Layout by Erica Max.
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For a printable list of sources footnoted in this quarterly, click here.