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Could We Manage Backyards to Increase Biodiversity?

By Christopher Neill 

This article originally published in Native Plant News, the member magazine of Native Plant Trust.


​Emily Tanner measures water vapor exchange in an oak leaf in Myles Standish State Forest in southwestern Massachusetts. Photo by © Christopher Neill.

At dawn on a June morning in 2017, Megan Shave, a member of my summer field research team at the Woods Hole Research Center, parked on a residential street in the leafy inner suburbs of Boston, MA. She entered a previously chosen suburban yard, set a timer for 10 minutes, and watched and listened for birds. When the timer beeped, she wrote down on a data sheet everything she had seen and heard, then drove to the next yard.  

By the time people in the neighborhood had headed off to their workdays two hours later, Megan had joined up with three other team members for a day-long, intensive survey of a single yard in a nearby town.  Like an eco-SWAT team, they noted every plant species and the lawn or garden feature in which they occurred. They measured the species and diameter of every tree, set traps to measure the diversity and abundance of bees and crawling insects, and took soil samples. They deployed small strips of special resins, designed to capture soil nutrients, that they will collect on a future visit. Before leaving, they created a detailed sketch map of the yard. 



Since then, similar teams have surveyed yards in exactly the same way in metropolitan Baltimore, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Miami. Teams in all six cities are part of a nationwide study nicknamed the Yard Futures Project, which continues through 2020. The project aims to measure—across yards and across large regions—how the management of residential single-family house lots influences the structure, biodiversity, and function of residential ecosystems. Our study is one of the most detailed scientific investigations into the broad ecological functioning of the suburban landscapes in which 51 percent of Americans now live. 


This is critically important because residential areas continue to expand, and their influence on biodiversity and what scientists call ecosystem services—such as conserving and filtering water, cooling hot spaces, and retaining carbon—is poorly understood. Yet suburban yards could play a vitally important role in supporting more biodiversity and ecosystem services, which also make suburbs enjoyable places for people to live. One goal of our project is to help suburban landscapes become more successful in all these ways.

PRS ™ probes measure the soil nutrients available to plants. Photo by © Christopher Neill.

Here’s how we have structured our project: Within each metropolitan region, research teams visit yards that fall into four main categories, or “treatments”: (1) typical or passive homeowner-conducted management without fertilizer or pesticides; (2) intensive management with fertilizer and pesticides and hiring of a lawn-care company; (3) wildlife friendly management that includes certification by the National Wildlife Federation: and (4) hydrological management that includes specific activities to reduce water use or water runoff. In each place, teams also compare the structure of yards with the structure of large natural areas in the region, and the smaller remnants of natural areas that residential neighborhoods often now abut. 

We know that the way homeowners manage their yards in Phoenix might not have the same consequences as in Boston. But that’s the point. We want to learn about those differences and put them into the service of making backyards maintain more natural functions, and over more of the country.


“We set out to determine if this apparent ecological homogenization created by suburbanization was real,” says my colleague Peter Groffman, who leads the Yard Futures Project from the City University of New York’s Advanced Science Research Center. “In short, it is. Not surprisingly, residential yards in Phoenix and Baltimore were more similar to each other than were the Sonoran Desert and hardwood- forest native ecosystems that they replaced in terms of plant species, soil properties, microclimate, and the distribution of ponds, lakes and streams.”


But other results were more surprising. “Of greatest interest was that in cities across the country, there are more species of plants in residential ecosystems than in the native ecosystems that they replaced,” Groffman reports. “Lots of birds and insects as well. It turns out that most of the native species in an area can find some place to live in suburban areas.”

The project team includes social as well as natural scientists, because we want to understand why people do what they do in their yards—what values and motivations literally shape the home landscape. Project scientists Kelli L. Larson and Melissa Fleeger, of Arizona State University’s multidisciplinary Global Institute of Sustainability and Innovation, used residential surveys

to probe what people want in a backyard. They surveyed residents in the project’s three warm, Sunbelt cities (Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Miami)
and the three cooler, northerly cities (Baltimore, Boston, Minneapolis-St. Paul). The surveys revealed that despite the disparate geography, homeowners overwhelmingly shared a common goal: a landscape that simply looks nice and is easy to maintain.

The story doesn’t end here. As we near the end of the project, we are collecting research from our scientists to illuminate our attachment to conventions like the lawn, so we can understand how to motivate change. We will be sharing those stories  at, where you will also find a wealth of tools, classes, and other resources to help create eco- friendly yards.

This project grew out of previous work by the research team that tested how building suburban residential environments homogenizes ecosystems by pushing the landscape towards similar microclimates, plant communities, and nutrient cycling patterns. By comparing our yard maps to our detailed inventories of species and ecological responses, we aim to make our ever-expanding data on yard structures a more useful predictor of biodiversity across U.S. suburban regions. With its mission of conserving and promoting New England native plants to ensure healthy, biodiverse landscapes, Native Plant Trust is partnering with us to share our research with an engaged audience. 

About the Author

Christopher Neill, Ph.D., is a Senior Scientist at Woodwell Climate Research Center in Falmouth, MA, and a co-principal investigator on the Yard Futures Project responsible for science in the Boston Metropolitan Region

 Nanking Cherry


The Nanking cherry is easy-to-grow and very prolific.  Though cherries are a favorite of so many they are often elusive.  They are often eaten by birds way before they are ripe or plagued with disease spread by wild varieties.  Nanking cherry is a bush version of the cherry often used as a hedge. They bloom in early spring, with pinkish buds opening up into pale pink or white fragrant flowers.  They produce tart and sweet cherries, slightly smaller than the classic cherry, ripening in Mid-August.  They can be eaten fresh or used in pies, jams, and jellies.


Nankings are in the same family as cherries, plums, and peaches but they are a shrub reaching between six and ten feet tall and wide. They can be planted as close as four feet apart and trimmed into a hedge.    Be sure to plant more than one Nanking cherry for cross-pollination.  

For light requirements, they like an area with full sun (at least 6 hours) and well-drained soil.  They are very tolerant of drought and heat.

The growth rate is about at 12”-24” per year, so they are considered a vigorous, adaptable shrub well paired with our cold winters and hot summers.

There are minimal pruning requirements for Nanking cherries except the occasional heading cut to reinvigorate new growth or if they are getting out of reach you can easily prune them to any height you desire. 

Because Nanking cherries fruit so profusely you can share with the wildlife and still have plenty for the humans to enjoy.


Permaculture emphasizes making maximum use of your gardening space.  Since the Nanking Cherry is a shrub, it can fit into parts of the garden where a standard cherry couldn't grow. 


Here is link to a short video about growing Nanking cherries by Ben Falk of Whole Systems Design in VT. 

As Climate Change Threatens Food Supplies,

Seed Saving is an Ancient Act of Resilience

BY SARAH VAN GELDER      4 MIN READ         Originally printed JUN 7, 2017

On Feb. 26, 2008, a $9-million underground seed vault began operating deep in the permafrost on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, just 810 miles from the North Pole. This high-tech Noah’s Ark for the world’s food varieties was intended to assure that, even in a worst-case scenario, our irreplaceable heritage of food seeds would remain safely frozen.

Less than 10 years after it opened, the facility flooded. The seeds are safe; the water only entered a passageway. Still, as vast areas of permafrost melt, the breach raises serious questions about the security of the seeds, and whether a centralized seed bank is really the best way to safeguard the world’s food supply.


Meanwhile, a much older approach to saving the world’s heritage of food varieties is making a comeback.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, a group of volunteers in the northern Montana city of Great Falls met in the local library to package seeds for their newly formed seed exchange, and to share their passion for gardening and food security.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen to our climate in the future,” said Alice Kestler, a library specialist. “Hopefully, as the years go by, we can develop local cultivars that are really suited to the local climate here.”

For millennia, people the world over have selected the best edible plants, saved the seeds, and planted and shared them in sophisticated, locally adapted breeding projects that created the vast array of foods we rely on today. This dance of human intelligence, plant life, pollinators, and animals is key to how human communities became prosperous and took root across the planet.

The Great Falls Library Seed Exchange is continuing that tradition even while a modern agribusiness model works to reduce the genetic diversity of our food stocks and consolidate control over the world’s seeds. Six seed companies now control three quarters of the seed market. In the years between 1903 and 1983, the world lost 93 percent of its food seed varieties, according to a study by the Rural Advancement Foundation International.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that giant agribusiness companies have no interest in the vast varieties and diverse ways people breed plants. It is hard to get rich off of an approach based on the distributed genius of people everywhere. Such a model doesn’t scale or centralize well. It is intensely democratic. Many people contribute to a common pool of knowledge and genetic diversity. Many people share the benefits.

Making big profits requires scarcity, exclusive knowledge, and the power to deny others the benefits. In this case, that means the appropriation of the knowledge built up over generations, coupled with the legal framework to patent seed varieties and punish those who fail to comply.

Especially in a time of climate change, though, genetic diversity is what we need to assure food security and resilience.

The Great Falls Library Seed Exchange is on the second floor of the library, which sits less than a mile from the Missouri River. Climb the brick building’s big, central staircase, and you can’t miss the brightly painted seed catalog. Borrowers are encouraged, but not required, to save some of the seeds and return them to the library for others to plant.

The exchange began just over a year ago, and is one of 500-some seed libraries worldwide. It sources its seeds from local organic farms and distant companies that specialize in plants that can grow in the rugged terrain of the northern plains, as well as heirloom varieties that have proven their worth over generations of seed saving. Locals also bring in their favorite varieties to share.

Each grower chooses which of each variety to save for seed, and those choices shape future availability.“Since we have such a short growing climate here, getting seeds from plants that fruit early is really advantageous,” Kestler said. Some growers, though, select for the biggest fruit; others for the best-tasting. This built-in diversity helps to secure a resilient food supply.

“The seed in its essence is all of the past evolution of the Earth, the evolution of human history, and the potential for future evolution,” author and seed saver Vandana Shiva told me when I interviewed her in 2013. “The seed is the embodiment of culture because culture shaped the seed with careful selection. That is a convergence of human intelligence and nature’s intelligence.” 

The Norwegian doomsday vault makes an important statement about the irreplaceable value of the genetic diversity of our planet, and it may prove to be an important failsafe in the event of disaster. But the time-honored process of saving and sharing seeds is dynamic. It naturally adapts to changing conditions, like climate change, and keeps the power with people everywhere to make choices that assure local resilience.

“Seed saving is such an important political act in this time,” Shiva said. “Save the seeds, have a community garden, create an exchange, do everything that it takes to protect and rejuvenate the seed.”




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