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Habitats: A Way to Cope with Drought

As the most severe drought of the century continued to hold the East Coast in its grip during 1999, traditional lawns and gardens were dying of thirst, and ran the risk of perishing altogether as mandatory water restrictions took effect.

But homeowners who had replaced much of their traditional landscaping with a Certified Wildlife Habitat® site featuring local native plants were escaping the frustration and disappointment faced by their neighbors.

"Native plant landscapes will flourish even under stressful drought conditions," said Jean White, landscape designer at the National Wildlife Federation. "They are able to adapt to the irregular rainfall patterns that Mother Nature imposes."

Fast Lawn Facts:

  • There are more than 20 million acres of lawn--32,000 square miles--in the United States, covering more land than any single crop.
  • In urban areas, lawn irrigation accounts for as much as 30 percent of water consumption on the East Coast.
  • The average lawn uses 10,000 gallons of water over the course of a summer.

And when this water isn't available, the results can be devastating.

Coupled with intense water needs, the high doses of fertilizers used on many lawns make them practically a biological desert, and environmentally destructive.

Benefits to Replacing Lawns with Local Native Plants: 

  • Reduces water needs.
  • Provides a landscape that can prosper despite temperature fluctuations.
  • Reduces the amount of chemical pesticides and fertilizer needed.
  • Benefits wildlife populations as well.
  • Reduces the potential of an eyesore when reduced rainfall causes water shortages that turn lawns brown.

"My native ground cover is a great alternative to grass and does not require extra watering to stay looking good," says Irene Hems, a native plant advocate from Bristol, Pennsylvania. "It looks a lot better than dead grass during dry times like we're having."


Her sentiments were echoed by Pat Adams of Stoneham, Massachusetts. "My yard is doing much better than my neighbors' who have more lawn and are having to use a lot of water just to keep it alive," said Adams.

Locally native plant species  have adapted over thousands of years to their particular region and are genetically suited to their location. They thrive in local soils and under the rainfall patterns and temperatures of their place.

Native grass species, unlike exotic turf grass varieties, may better use the moisture content of the soils to which they have adapted. Their root systems, unlike the shallow root mat of traditional lawn grasses, extend deeper into the soil. Native plants have other ways of dealing with drought, including trapping and collecting dew.

In addition to their water conservation benefits, locally native plants are more wildlife-friendly, providing the best overall food sources for backyard birds and other animals.

Native plants may support 10-50 times as many species of wildlife as non-native plants.

Trees, shrubs, ground covers, prairie or meadow patches are much better environmental choices than lawn or other non-native plant species.

People think of deserts as desolate, sandy, dry places, yet the natural desert regions of North America contain a far richer diversity of plants and animals than do most urban and suburban yards. As we've paved over natural landscapes and expanded the acres of lawn grass, the urban desert has evolved, incapable of sustaining life.

By making a home for wildlife in their backyard, people can make a valuable contribution to protecting Mother Nature's gifts. At the same time, they are discovering the joys of "gardening for wildlife."

The loss of wild places is a major reason wildlife is disappearing all over the country. Habitat restoration and conservation are critical for wildlife in urban and suburban settings where commercial and residential development has eliminated most natural areas. Providing habitat for wildlife is especially critical during times of drought when food and water sources are especially scarce. The current drought illustrates how global warming will deal wildlife a severe blow unless additional habitats are created.

Creating a Certified Wildlife Habitat

habitat sign

Since 1973, NWF has been rewarding people for their efforts to welcome wildlife by certifying their properties as official Certified Wildlife Habitat sites. To qualify for certification, a habitat must provide four essential elements:

Individuals who have had their yards certified are gratified that they have personally made a difference by protecting and improving the environment both for themselves and for the animals with which they share the planet.

The biggest reward of all for homeowners who replace their non-natives with a locally native habitat is they can start spending more time observing and enjoying their garden or yard and less time doing maintenance chores. Instead of mowing, watering, mulching and fertilizing, time can be spent connecting with the natural world and being amazed by its wonders.

"My habitat is doing well and I haven't had to do much to keep it looking good," said Kay Packard, a certified habitat owner from Chamblee, Georgia.

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