We are excited to announce that, although the Earth Week edition of the City Voice is over, the environmental column will continue. Ecology, and economicology, is a big part of academic life at City High Middle. Teachers often discuss issues surrounding invasive species that attack local areas, like Sea Lamprey and the Emerald Ash Borer, but we often forget about another notable kingdom of organic life, plants.
According to a study published by Scientific American, plants, quite literally, rule the world. More than 80% of the total biomass on planet Earth is plant life, and forests alone cover nearly 30% of the globe. Only about 29.2% of the Earth’s surface is land, but 20% of the Earth’s surface is covered with grass, leaving only 9.2% of the Earth’s solid surface free from grassy incursion. According to recent statistics, there are 418 million blades of grass for every person on the planet.
With so many plants on the planet, it is no surprise that some invasive plant species get overlooked. After all, if you looked out of your window one morning and saw a shifting green carpet of Emerald Ash Borers covering every non-paved piece of flat land you would be alarmed, but nobody is concerned to see grass covering land for miles. Nevertheless, common grass is equally invasive. What we think of as ‘grass’ is actually a distinct genus of the species known as Zoysia grass. Zoysia grass is native to China and Japan and was not introduced to the United States until 1911, meaning that the modern concept of the American lawn is barely a century old.
As Zoysia grass is invasive to the United States, the potato is equally invasive to Europe. This staple crop is native to the Americas and never naturally grew in Europe. Nevertheless, after being imported by Spanish explorers, it became such a staple crop in Europe that there is a major historical tragedy called the Irish Potato Famine. Some ecologists argue that invasive plants are far more damaging to world ecology than invasive animals have ever been.
Just like animals, plants have evolved to suit their environments. Native plants can help to remove pollutants, strengthen the earth against erosion by extending their roots deep into the soil, and provide habitats for native wildlife. Invasive plants, on the other hand, are not so beneficial to their new environments and these environments often suffer as the invaders increase soil erosion and allow pollutants to flourish.
So why do Americans often choose to plant invasive species instead of native plants? Unfortunately, one of the main reasons is that people do not want native plants. Invasive plants have become so common that some gardeners have come to consider the paradigm of a beautiful garden to be made up almost entirely of invasive plants even though, in geologic time, the ‘traditional’ garden has been around for barely the blink of an eye.
There is no scientific reason to cultivate the average American lawn, yet so many people spend a great deal of time and money on growing a perfect green stretch of weedless grass that Americans spend a total of $40 billion on lawn care every year. Lawn grass does not grow widely without human intervention. Still, some Americans chose to let their lawns grow more naturally. In an article titled “Our obsession with green lawns drives me nuts, and it’s killing the environment”, Guardian reporter Syndee Barwick wrote, “I’m a lawn rogue – I have one, but I refuse to water, fertilize or treat it with anything. So what if the neighbors hate me? The butterflies don’t.”
For many, it is not just the neighbors who might react against a less than “perfect” lawn. Many cities have ‘nuisance’ codes that regulate how citizens may cultivate their lawns, usually with the justification that such regulations are to benefit other citizens who want a ‘beautiful’ view. Barwick acknowledges this by saying, “I do cut [the lawn] – reluctantly, about once a week so that the neighbors don’t call town officials about me.”
Indeed, according to the nuisance code of the City of Grand Rapids, “Grass or weeds taller than 12 inches or trash in someone’s yard is dangerous.” Cities like Grand Rapids with such laws often argue that tall grass prevents visibility, especially for drivers attempting to turn corners, but it is still hard to imagine how serious a threat grass could pose. These laws seem to require social conformity in a manner that is actually harmful to the environment, for no scientific reason.
Nevertheless, not all is bleak. City High Middle is already working on projects to reintroduce native plants. For the past few years, Mr. Rizley and Mr. Brown, with the help of their EPIC students, have been working to create and maintain a riparian buffer zone at Riverside Park. The buffer zone strengthens the river bank, provides habitat for native pollinators, and filters nonpoint source pollution before it reaches the river. Unfortunately, this area was accidentally mown one year because knowledge about native plants is limited. Since then, educational signage has been put up, the cost of which was shared by City’s PTSA and other partners of GR Parks & Recreation.
Other native plant projects are ongoing all over the world. Just like the Guardian reporter, many Americans are quickly losing their enthusiasm for the perfect American lawn. A 2013 scientific paper titled The American Lawn: Examining our Cultural Commitment to an Energy-Intensive Institution found that “most people had ambivalent, negative or neutral feelings towards their lawns, that many of the traditional values once associated with lawns are not as strong as they once were, and that a significant portion of respondents are interested in reducing the amount of turf grass in their lawn.”
Meanwhile, a variety of eco-friendly plant projects like green roofs are on the rise. Some cities have planted bus shelter roofs, and specially-designed benches, with native plants to help filter pollution and improve biodiversity. This helps to offset carbon dioxide emissions produced by the very buses which use the stops. The City E-Club has also been exploring how to instal native plants on the roof of the City High Middle building. GRPS facilities staff met with E-Club members in December 2019 and their meeting was filmed by the visiting Harvard film crew.
Next time you see a neighbor killing ‘weeds’, consider leaving some native plants for the bees. In the words of Guardian writer Alex Morss, “If we change our perceptions and see the dandelion flower for what it is – an absolute lifeline to our bees in early spring – we might learn to love them more.”
You can find resources to start a native plant garden at https://www.kentconservation.org/plant-sales.