NASHVILLE — When I mention the new meadow I am cultivating where our front yard used to be, my adult children roll their eyes. The word “meadow” conjures the mental image of a sunny field of blooming wildflowers, but this one is a work in progress. A dream more than an actuality.
The new meadow where our front yard used to be is mainly white clover, chickweed and grass gone to seed, though there are also patches of low-growing violets, which I love, and creeping Charlie, which I do not. (An invasive species, creeping Charlie is the bane of the natural yard.) But already there are also some lovely clumps of fleabane — small daisylike flowers on knee-high stems — that look very much like the romantic fields brought to mind by the word “meadow.” Soon there will be other flowers, too. Perhaps not this year but certainly the next, and there will be even more the year after that.
This is not a statement of faith but of fact. Every year we let more patches of our yard go wild, and every year more flowers appear in the uncut areas. First came pokeweed and butterweed in the backyard, then white snakeroot and Carolina elephant’s foot in the side yard. Last year we had frost asters for the first time.
May is Garden for Wildlife Month, according to the National Wildlife Federation, but gardening doesn’t necessarily mean planting. It can also mean giving the volunteer flowers a permanent home. Because where there are wildflowers, there will be insects. And where there are insects, there will be birds and bats and tree frogs and many other creatures who rely on the protein insects provide.
I wonder if more people don’t try to do better by the environment because they think doing better is too hard, too impractical, too expensive. In truth, you can make a difference with an effort as small as planting milkweed in a pot on a city balcony to provide food for monarch butterfly caterpillars. Making a difference can be as easy as learning to love clover and dandelions. It can be as simple as joining the No Mow May movement, a British initiative rapidly spreading across the United States, or the Garden Club of America’s Great Healthy Yard Project.
In this deeply red region of the country, it’s not always evident that more Americans are embracing eco-friendly lawns and gardens, as a recent story by PBS NewsHour noted, but I think I might be seeing the first stirrings of change even here. Last fall a plumber looked at the holly hedge beside our broken faucet and said, “You know, you used to see bumblebees just covering bushes like this in the springtime, and now you don’t see them things at all anymore.” Noticing and feeling deeply the loss of the bumblebees isn’t the same thing as skipping the pesticides, I know, but surely it’s an important first step. Maybe that’s why I’ve begun to see a carpet of blooming clover in front of more and more houses near mine.
I follow Mr. Tallamy’s movement, Homegrown National Park, on Instagram, and I am heartened to see it spreading like creeping Charlie, one yard at a time. This crucial program aims to turn a volunteer network of private land into a haven for biodiversity that rivals the entire national park system. “It is the largest cooperative conservation project ever conceived or attempted,” according to the program’s website.
Unlike so many other questions of environmental stewardship, gardening for nature does not require taking a political position. Unless you live in an area of extreme drought, or in another environmentally sensitive place, what you think a yard should look like, or which flowers are welcomed there, is mostly a matter of taste. Tuning our own preferences to what our wild neighbors desperately need should be an easy switch.