What Lies Beneath: Better environmental health starts in your own backyard

Loren Byrne is a professor of biology and environmental science at Roger Williams University, and he digs dirt. His expertise is in the ways in which urbanization affects soil health, particularly when it comes to lawn and garden management. He argues that the manicured, pesticide-laden monoculture that is a typical lawn negatively impacts soil health. Instead, he advocates for freedom lawns: a pesticide-free biodiverse lawn that allows soil organisms to thrive. As people gear up to re-enter the great outdoors, Byrne and I sat down to talk about the stuff under our feet.

Emily Olson (Motif): Why is soil health important?

Loren Byrne: Soil health is fundamental to human health. We live above the soil, but in some regards, we are creatures from the soil inasmuch as it’s the soil that provides the foundation for our food. There’s plenty of research that shows that living in a green, biodiverse environment promotes human psychological health, and we’re getting to the point where we’re starting to make some conclusions about the value of urban biodiversity affecting our physical health as well.

EO: What can someone do to improve the health of their soil?

LB: I’ll start with organic matter. One of the important ingredients in a good soil is organic matter — detritus — the scientific word for dead stuff. That could be leaves, grass clippings, cow manure, compost and all of the dead soil organisms, bacteria, fungi that eventually die and contribute to the organic matter in the soil. This organic matter holds onto water and keep the soil moist. It’s the organic matter that provides the nutrition for plants and the food for the soil food web, especially microbes. The decomposition of organic matter in the soil is important for the circle of life. Dead things go into the soil and get decomposed and their nutrients can get taken back up by plants.

The challenge in urbanized environments is that people want to manage it so intensively that they disrupt those natural processes. So for example, leaf blowers and bagging your grass clippings are removing valuable food and organic matter from the system. A simple practice for people to do in their yards is leave the leaves where possible. They provide a home and insulation for the organisms and soil beneath. Then, as they decompose as the weather warms up, there are nutrients released.

EO: It sounds like you’re saying lazy lawn management is a good thing.

LB: Instead of calling it lazy, let’s call it stewardship. It’s care for the environment. I’m doing something good by leaving the leaves and returning my grass clippings into the lawn. In the spring, stop and think about the beauty of detritus. It’s not trash to be thrown away. And then, the challenge is convincing ourselves and our neighbors of that premise. So much of the urban landscape is about social dynamics and pressure from neighbors to maintain this “perfect” standard. We need to change our lenses and our worldview to see what was once considered beautiful as actually ugly because it’s doing real harm for health of the soil and the future of our urban places. 

EO: How do you shift a manicured lawn into a more biodiverse one?

LB: It’s helpful to envision a gradient of environments. The highly watered, managed and manicured one length, one color industrial lawn is the antithesis of life. Let it get a little wilder. Reduce fertilizer and pesticide application first. Then reduce irrigation. Then if you’re willing to go more, let it grow taller and mow less. Then, rip up part of the lawn and replace it with wildflowers, shrubs, bird-friendly trees, bee-friendly flowers, hummingbird-friendly stuff. That will reduce your carbon footprint because you’re not mowing, and you’re providing a better habitat for a diversity of organisms. The next step is to let those gardens go wild. Let things go to seed. You’ll get beautiful seedlings coming up year after year. New things coming in. A profusion of textures. And if you let it get wild enough, you have prairie. And when you have an environment like that, there’s more detritus accumulating. That’s when the soil biodiversity comes in with the spiders and beetles and nematodes that are small and important. Then let it go back to the native biome. For our area, it would be trees, a pond. You’d create a habitat for snakes and owls and other things. And that’s where you get into hardcore wildlife gardening.

EO: It sounds idyllic.

LB: It is. There are real health benefits to humans in gardening and creating green space. People find joy in watching birds. In order to have the birds, you need the habitat. And a lot of these birds eat the organisms in the soil. We have to connect the soil to what happens above ground.