Riverdale’s lawns can be so much more than they are


Learning to live in harmony with and love nature, and pattern our lives in its rhythms — especially how we treat and honor the land — are mandatory if we are to withstand the worst possibilities of climate change.

Consider, please, a patch of forest, an un-mowed meadow, or anywhere nature reigns. Please experience there the joy of life and biodiversity. Witness the bursting of vegetation and the accumulation of countless flowers. Listen to the buzzing and swirling of bees, and watch butterflies sipping from flowers designed over the millennia to please them.

It is a joyous cacophony. 

A principle we honor in our work at Meg’s Garden and Edible Forest is nature is the best gardener. Best garden practices can be learned from places in which nature is “making the decisions.”

In permaculture practice, Zone 5 refers to the intentionally untended field or plot. Our practice relies on observing and studying the interactions between plants we have selected and plants that exist or emerge in the landscape. Organic matter and compost make the soil and its multitude of inhabitants happy. We observe the wind, angles of light and exposure to full sunlight. We trim plants that are too aggressive and drop what we chop as mulch to help preserve moisture in the soil. We dig trenches to capture rainwater.

Intentional sustainable practices help make the most of what nature provides.  Biodiversity supports a healthier urban ecology that is wondrous and healing.

So, it will come as no surprise I get irritated walking past properties on which biodiversity and the land’s potential as a vital pollinator pathway are squashed at a time when needed the most.   

There are more than 40 million acres of lawn in the United States on which biodiversity, local flora and pollinators are being systematically uninvited. Outdated aesthetics reign over sensible management for the possibilities of nature.

Here in Riverdale, lawns are still the de facto method for keeping one’s property.  Lawns are decorative, a cloak of green velvet around or setting off the house that’s easily cleaned. People pay good money to support landscape crews that pour fossil fuels into the ground and the air. The air and noise pollution is suffered by laborers who inhale and listen to/cancel it.

Dedicated walkers, like myself, also endure the costs on our hearing, our lungs, our shared environment and the obstruction of our peace.  

As reported in The Riverdale Press April 22, 2024, gas-powered leaf blowers could be gone with the wind. A bill before the City Council proposed by Councilwoman Gale Brewer that would ban the sale of gas-powered leaf blowers as well as set limitations on noise level and hours of use, supported by Councilman Eric Dinowitz, is a promising start but more needs to happen.

Plant Native Northwest Bronx was inspired when Doug Tallamy came to Riverdale Yonkers Society for Ethical Culture in November 2021 to share the idea of a Homegrown National Park. According to Tallamy, if 20 million acres of lawn — half of the 40 million acres total — were given over to conserving biodiversity and nourishing plants and pollinators, a new homegrown national park would emerge with more land than our ten largest national parks put together.

Keeping lawns as decorative, machine-dependent status symbols is not sustainable and is harmful to our environment. We must give up our glorification of the sterile lawn aesthetic if we hope to survive this era of climate change that Elizabeth Kolbert has labeled the Sixth Extinction.

While technological engineering feats are astounding, they will never rival the feats of nature itself. Lawns need owners who will accept the responsibility of sustaining biodiversity on their property. Keeping and feeding the soil, re-introducing native plants, letting your trees grow for their profound contributions to all New Yorkers, to everyone; this is the social, civic and environmental responsibility of our time.    

To have a richly biodiverse space unfolding daily upon one’s own property might just be the most valuable possession any of us can have. The irony is, once we witness the glory and abundance of nature, we realize it is not nor was it ever ours in the first place.

Nature belongs to all of us, including the more than human world we share Earth with and with whom we will need to coordinate with better in order for us all to survive.

The author is the founder and director of the James Baldwin Outdoor Learning Center.

Raymond Pultinas