I live in an area of the East in which there are more than 80 deer per square mile so I understand the issue well. We created the deer problem by eliminating predators and fragmenting the eastern deciduous forest to the point where it is just about all edge-habitat: perfect for deer. It’s true that we could reduce the deer problem by removing all native plants in our neighborhoods, but that approach just creates other serious problems. There is only one real solution to too many deer, and that is to reduce deer populations. Don’t groan! We had no trouble shooting all but a handful of the millions of buffalo that once roamed the plains, so we can control deer as well if we decide it is important enough.
Hiring sharpshooters for your neighborhood has been proven to be safe and effective (though costly) time and again. Deer will not voluntarily leave suburbia until we pave it over entirely, and I doubt if anyone sees that as an acceptable solution.
I think most of us agree completely about the tragedy of America’s cult of the lawn. But how to convince landscapers, city inspectors, and suburban neighbors who consider everything a weed that’s not tightly mowed? Many people who grow native wildflowers in their front yards run every risk of being harassed.
I have started a new book that will deal with this issue in depth, but I can say a few things here about what drives our landscaping paradigm. We often landscape the way we do so that we will be accepted or, even better, admired by our neighbors. We seek acceptance, approval, and, yes, status in everything we do, and for the past 200 years the ability to have a large manicured lawn sparsely planted with specimen trees was a signal that we had free time and lots of money. Today, anything else is interpreted to mean that you don’t care about the values imposed on you by your neighbors. But we change what we consider to be desirable or valuable all the time.
It was once a sign of status to smoke. Now we know better. Last year it was a sign of status to drive an SUV. Knowledge and peer pressure is changing that status symbol too and soon SUV owners will be ridiculed for heating up our planet. It is becoming more socially admirable to drive a Prius or ride a bike instead.
In the past having native plants in your yard meant you had abandoned all efforts to beat back nature. It was a sign of the absence of landscaping, rather than progressive landscaping. But that will change as more and more people install artfully designed landcapes with smaller lawns, more woody plants, and a higher percentage of natives.
These folks will be the trendsetters. Choosing acres of manicured lawn over high-end native gardens will become the socially unacceptable option in the future. It won’t happen overnight. But the timing is right; both the biodiversity crisis and the climate crisis are pointing us away from lawns.