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In Your Own Backyard: The true benefits of a natural habitat garden

The tapping of a woodpecker, the chirping of birds, the buzzing of bees, all happening harmoniously. These are the sounds you may or may not have the fortune of hearing in your own backyard, but what you see in Connie Davidson’s is much more extraordinary.Nestled in the foothills of Appalachia in Millfield, Ohio, down a long-winding road and past many log cabins and farms, you will happen upon an early 1800’s farmhouse in pristine condition. With a red tin roof and a large porch and all its worldly treasures on the inside, Sand Ridge Bed & Breakfast is easily one of the best kept secrets in Athens County. The house sits on seven acres of wooded landscapes, two and a half of which are reserved as a certified natural habitat garden, kept by Davidson.

From patches of snakeroot to orange fields of impatiens, to wild ginger and phlox, this garden is thriving with life. There are five distinct ecosystems in the small, but lush landscape. There is a prairie, a wetland, a bog, a woodland area and a transition area.

Some of the plants are hard to imagine as native, such as the exotic looking cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) which stands over eight feet tall and looks like it came straight out of the pages of a Dr. Seuss book. But, natives are beautiful and great for the environment, and that is the exact message Davidson is trying to grow.

Formal gardening and landscaping in America, especially as we see it today, is a recent phenomenon in human history. When European settlers first claimed their territory in America, they had an idea of what a home should be, this included the neatly-trimmed, vibrant flower beds we see outlining almost every home in the country.

It became popular partly because of nostalgia for Europe, but also because it was seen as a status symbol if someone was able to afford such lavish landscaping. In early history, they were based off of royal gardens: a monoculture of grass kept clean with no weeds or discoloration, and perfectly-manicured hedges and bushes with decorations of roses and peonies.

Nowadays, they are simply a nuisance to homeowners. But, are still held in high regard partly due to the “keeping up with the Joneses” attitude that many Americans have yet to filter out of their lifestyle choices. American homeowners spend, on average, $40 million a year total on lawn care. Each homeowner will spend 150 hours a year working on their lawn or hiring someone to do it.

Simply put, we are obsessed. And it’s an incredibly wasteful obsession. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), approximately 30 percent of the average household’s water use is allocated to their lawns and gardens. We also use about 30 billion pounds of pesticides for insect and weed control every year.

But, Davidson points out that the native plants in her garden are not weeds, they are natural. Native plants are essential for a thriving garden such as her own. Invasive plants, plants that are not native and pose a threat to an existing habitat, can have many consequences.

According to the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), invasive plants out-compete natives and can prevent them from reproducing. They also alter food-webs because they eliminate native food sources, negatively affecting the biodiversity of a landscape.

In Davidson’s garden, you can identify hundreds of insect and animal species, that you wouldn’t see otherwise, because their host plant is present, offering them a safe haven from the unnatural world a typical lawn presents.

To have a certified natural habitat garden by the NWF, Davidson needed to complete four major steps: food, water, cover and protection. By implementing bird baths, places to hide, host plants and plenty of shelter to raise offspring, Davidson has created the perfect place for these species to thrive.

Davidson bought Sand Ridge in 2008 and started almost immediately digging away at the land. She had the garden become certified in 2009 and has been restoring it inch by inch for the past six years.

“I never had land before, so when I came here, I decided to do something good for the environment,” Davidson said. “I consider myself a steward, this is just my way of giving back.”

Davidson is proud to say she doesn’t even own a tractor. However, that does not mean the work is done once the plants are in the ground. She spends hours weeding out invasive plants and ensuring that the habitat remain a safe place for all native living things. Davidson has made Sand Ridge open to the public and encourages people from all over the world to visit her garden.

Though there is a lot of allure to having a garden such as Davidson’s, not everyone can. Many people, especially living in suburban neighborhoods, find that deed restrictions keep them from doing a lot of good things for their plot of land. For instance, most homeowners must buy a certain kind of sod, mow grass at a desired length, and keep weeds to a minimum. If the homeowner doesn’t abide, they will receive notices or even fines from their neighborhood or homeowner association.

The best way around this is to plant natives whenever you have the chance with trees, shrubs, and flowers. Limit your pesticide use, use organic fertilizers if you must, and water at night when the plants are able to store more water without fighting off evaporation.

It’s time to put our lawn care practices into question. Invasive plants and pesticides not only hurt native species, but they affect the health of humans and the environment. Though it may not be possible to do what Davidson has done with her land, there are ways to make your land a little less harmful and lot healthier overall. And by doing so, we can challenge what we perceive as status and wealth and turn it into something thriving and beautiful.

Photos by Alexandria Polanosky, Multimedia Editor

Cassie is quite the busy bee. She is a senior in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism and has plans to get a certificate in environmental studies before she graduates. She is an ambassador for the Institute for International Journalism and loves to travel. She is also secretly Mary Poppins and nannies for kids whenever she has the chance. Cassie enjoys cooking, so much so that she has created a food blog

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