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February 22, 2024

Empowering Youth, Tree Health, and Buzzworthy Backyards: Reflections from Keep America Beautiful conference

By: Jeremy Kranowitz

Earlier this month, I had the privilege of speaking on two separate panels at the national Keep America Beautiful conference in San Diego, California, discussing the importance of greenspaces in our cities. One panel focused on the benefits of engaging youth in maintaining greenspaces once established. KIB stands as a national leader, boasting our Youth Tree Team for high school-aged students and our Urban Naturalist program tailored for college-aged students.

I was also delighted to share the stage with Dr. Aruni Bhatnagar, MD, from the University of Louisville, who is researching how different tree species can enhance overall health, addressing issues such as blood pressure, asthma, and various health indices. His findings underscore the correlation between a higher density of trees and improved citizen health. For more information on his captivating research, visit Green Heart Louisville.

One of the keynote speakers, Dr. Doug Tallamy, a professor of agriculture at the University of Delaware, has authored over 100 research papers and several acclaimed books, including “Bringing Nature Home” in 2007 and the New York Times bestseller “Nature’s Best Hope” in 2020. Dr. Tallamy emphasizes the necessity of diverse insect populations, especially pollinators, for global ecological balance. He often illustrates this point with an anecdote about chickadees (known by its birdcall that sounds like chick-a-dee-dee-dee) which typically has a nest of 3-4 eggs. Once hatched, the mama bird needs to find between 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars to feed her chicks until they are ready to leave the nest! 

Meanwhile, our backyards of evenly cut grass, doused with fertilizer and pesticides, raked clean of any leaves — are ecological deserts. Our traditional green lawns are destroying biodiversity. We also learned that companies that spray for mosquitoes only remove a small fraction of adult mosquitoes, have no effect on stopping young mosquitoes before they hatch, but unfortunately are highly effective at killing beneficial insects, including butterflies.  

Luckily, there’s a solution! Approximately 40 million acres of privately owned yards in the United States are covered in grass—nearly equivalent to the COMBINED area of all of America’s national parks. If each of us planted a section of our lawn – just 10 percent – with native, pollinator-friendly plants, we could create a “Homegrown National Park.” In addition to planting a number of native, pollinator-friendly plants in my own backyard, I replaced all of the grass in my backyard with varieties of clover. Clover requires no fertilizer, it restores the soil, it’s a beautiful carpet of green that doesn’t require watering, and it doesn’t need to be mowed! What a great deal. 

Indiana, in particular, presents a critical need for such ecologically friendly spaces. If we each set aside a portion of our lawn, and divided it off visually with a low fence, or stepping stones, it looks intentional, and pretty not just when in bloom, but during winter months, as well, when those insects need to find shelter. And turn some of your lawn to clover while you’re at it! 

Similarly, Dr. Bill Toone, an esteemed conservation biologist, shed light on the urgent need to conserve the monarch butterfly population, which has declined by 90 percent in recent years primarily due to habitat loss. But we can help! Planting milkweed can significantly aid in their preservation.

KIB operates a nursery at our headquarters dedicated to growing milkweed, which we offer for free to our Tree Tenders, Ambassadors, and Adopt-A-Block Captains. You too can contribute to creating insect-friendly environments in your yard and join us in being part of the solution.

Categories: Education, Engaged Citizens, Partners, Trees and Native Habitats