The Top 6 Threats to Healthy Backyard Ecosystems

TGN Interviews Joyce Connelley on Backyard Biospheres, Healthy Ecosystems, and the Beauty of Native Plants

Nominee: Joyce Connelley

Home Digs: Grapevine, TX

Organization: Marshall Grain Company

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Fast Facts: It may have been Joyce Connelley’s love for the outdoors and insatiable curiosity about the natural world that first led her to tinker in organic gardening. But it was her eye-popping move from Silicon Valley to the ‘burbs of Dallas in 2005 to purchase the historic Marshall Grain Co. that led this marketing professional and former investigative journalist to a crash course in all things green. Today, she and husband Jim own and operate the 73-year-old business, which thrives as the leading organic garden center and pet supply store in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. With an eye to helping locals create healthy backyard “ecosystems,” Joyce teaches off-site classes, keeps Marshall Grain in the news, and relishes taking care of customers (including those of the canine and feline varieties!) in the popular Grapevine store.


Joyce Connelley

What are today’s top gardening norms that work against creating a healthy, balanced ecosystem in our yards?

  1. Fear! Most people are terrified of harmless animals like possums and armadillos. Of course, we’re also afraid of snakes. And possums EAT snakes! In fact, because they are marsupials, possums are immune to snake bites. We need to learn to share our territory with the entire spectrum of animals native to our areas.
  2. Misunderstanding. People want to be able to pick and choose which animals they allow into their yards—as in No. 1. They want songbirds, but not predatory birds. They say, “OMG, there’s a hawk scaring away my cardinals.” Well, hawks are part of the ecosystem, and they help maintain a healthy environment by killing weak, sick, and injured animals. They also hunt rodents, so they keep rats and squirrels away from your feeders. Besides, nature has a way of taking care of the problem by itself. Once the hawk notices that all the other birds have fled, she will move on, and your songbirds will return to your feeders.
  3. Cleanliness. We are obsessively neat. We’re incessantly raking up leaves, mowing our lawns, and excessively trimming trees and shrubs. In nature, things are intentionally messy. Piles of leaves provide nesting materials for birds, cover for insects to burrow into, and fresh compost for the soil. Tall grasses hide lizards, frogs, and hundreds of other small animals. Bushy shrubs are shelter for small birds. Cultivate a natural look.
  4. Pesticide/Herbicide Use. Chemical pesticides and herbicides do a lot of damage to the environment—from killing pollinators to polluting our water supplies. Yet, I’ve found that there is still a lot of resistance to using organics, especially among some older gardeners, who falsely insist that organic methods don’t work. There’s also a strong resistance among people who want to spend as little time as possible on their yards. We’ve been able to make some headway by offering our organic maintenance service. When we do it for them, we know it’s getting done correctly and in a timely fashion, so we can ensure that they’re getting results. We teach and promote this same program in the store through one-on-ones with customers and also through our classes. Of course, we all use these methods ourselves at home in our own gardens, so we all have practical personal experience. On a related note, it’s important to remember that even organic pesticides can harm our pollinators if they are not used correctly, so you want to make sure you don’t apply them while bees are present. We encourage customers to use organic pesticides in conjunction with a self-sustaining system that incorporates releases of beneficial insects such as ladybugs and praying mantises.
  5. Using Chemical Weed-and-Feed Products. Chemical weed-and-feed products combine a fertilizer with an herbicide in a spreadable granule. This is an especially toxic combination. It will actually kill trees that have been treated with it. It’s so bad for your garden that even well-known proponents of conventional gardening methods are against it. Yet people use it anyway, in the name of convenience. After a few years, they come in and want to know what’s wrong with their trees.
  6. Topping Trees. Some people whack their trees all the way back to the primary branchings. You see this everywhere. It’s not only ugly as sin, but it weakens the tree and leaves nowhere for it to grow. Since new growth occurs at the ends of branches, you end up with a messy bush at the end of the trunk.

You’re a strong proponent of the “Backyard Biosphere” concept. Can you describe this term in action?

Sure. The earth’s biosphere is the portion of our planet where life exists. It’s the part that extends from below the soil, where tree roots grow, and from the deepest parts of the ocean up into our atmosphere, where birds fly and seeds drift on the winds. Scientists have built several man-made biospheres that replicate portions of these zones. The Biosphere 2 research facility owned by the University of Arizona is probably the most ambitious example. Essentially, a biosphere is any self-contained, self-sustaining ecosystem.

Our backyards are fragments of an ecosystem, albeit one severely damaged by human habitation. That said, I believe habitat loss is at least as devastating to our planet as climate change—and definitely contributes to it. The good news is that there’s a whole lot we can do about habitat loss, and it can start with each of us rethinking our own gardens. I use the term Backyard Biosphere to describe how we can begin that repair process.

Many of our customers have taken the first step toward the Backyard Biosphere model by going organic. Usually, they make the switch because they want to help pollinators, or feed the birds, or grow organic vegetables for their own tables. Eliminating toxic pesticides and herbicides is critical, but it’s also only a piece of the puzzle. The next step is to make it self-sustaining. Unfortunately, one backyard garden generally isn’t big enough to offer everything needed to make it fully self-sustaining. No one homeowner can offer a comprehensive selection of native plants, for example.

So, the solution is to network your garden with others. By linking many urban and suburban gardens together into a network, we can transform huge swaths of urban and suburban landscape back into self-sustaining ecosystems that can support the full range of wildlife native to their given areas. By doing this, we can create territories big enough to support large animals, like coyotes and bobcats, which are essential for rodent control. It’s similar in concept to the National Pollinator Garden Network’s Million Pollinator Garden Challenge, but taken a couple of steps further.

You can extend the Backyard Biosphere concept even further by getting cities and states to incorporate native plantings into roadside landscapes, and by planting rooftop gardens in highly urbanized areas.

You speak of the importance of nurturing nature’s pollinators. How does our tendency to strive for a bug-free backyard clash with the environment needed for important insects and arachnids to thrive?

Well, as I mentioned above, people are afraid of bugs. It’s unfortunate, because entomologists will tell you that something like 80+ percent of all the insects in our backyards are either beneficial or innocuous. We need to learn to live and let live. Assuming it’s not actually attacking you, try just leaving it alone.

I have come to apply that philosophy even to the inside of my home. Spiders eat insects, and whether we realize it or not, our homes are full of bugs. In Texas, it’s also pretty common for geckos to find their way into your home. These harmless little reptiles terrorize mothers who think the geckos are going to kill their children. The fear level can get really crazy. 

How about the warm-blooded “pests” we drive away? Can you name a few feared animals that are actually quite beneficial to our gardens and yards?

Possums, raccoons, and armadillos all love to eat large insects that live in the soil. They are particularly fond of grubs. They also love to eat slugs and snails. People hate them because they leave little divots in your lawn, but even the divots are beneficial, because they help aerate your soil. And as I mentioned, possums eat snakes. Foxes and bobcats are also common in our area, and they both thrive on rodents. Everything has a beneficial purpose, even if that purpose is to provide food for another creature.

You believe native plants rule! Can you explain the pros and cons of introducing native versus non-native species, including their interaction with native pollinators?

Several recent studies have been done comparing whether native pollinators prefer native plants—and the answer is yes, they do. Here’s a quote from the Audubon Society: “Research by the entomologist Doug Tallamy has shown that native oak trees support over 500 species of caterpillars, whereas ginkgos, a commonly planted landscape tree from Asia, hosts only 5 species of caterpillars. When it takes over 6,000 caterpillars to raise one brood of chickadees, that is a significant difference.”

The other reason to go native is that native plants just grow better here. If you want a low-maintenance yard, then plant natives. They’re better suited to our weather and soil.

On that note, what are some of your favorite natives that you recommend to your north Texas customers?

Some of my personal favorites are the many different types of sages—I guess because they offer so much variety. This one family of perennials comes in different sizes with different foliage colors and blooms, ranging from red and pink to white to purple and blue. One of the most popular (and, in my opinion, most interesting) is Texas Sage, a.k.a. Desperado Sage or Purple Sage. I love it for its silver foliage and purple flowers. Some say it can tell you when it’s going to rain because it tends to bloom right beforehand. Another versatile and popular sage is Autumn Sage (Salvia greggii). A smaller bush, it comes in a wide variety of colors, including both solids and bicolor.

Native grasses add a softness to the landscape and can change color—from green in the spring to deep pinks and purples in the fall. These come in a huge range of sizes. Pampas grass, for example, can grow to 15 feet high. Others only get to be 2-1/2 feet high max. I really like purple Fountain Grass. A small variety, its foliage is bronze/purple, and it has huge plumes that create a very soft effect.

I also love Esperanzas for their intense shades of yellow and orange bell-shaped flowers. And there’s nothing more beautiful than a Texas Redbud tree in bloom.

What are some advantages to adding a water feature to our backyard landscapes?

Water features are great for those who want to establish a tropical feel. Somehow, we feel a little cooler when we’re near the water, and the sound of flowing water is very soothing. Water features also attract all sorts of wildlife, so you need to be prepared for that.

Any last tidbit of gardening, eating, or healthy living advice that would be of interest to our Grow Network community?    

The best advice my parents ever gave me was, “Go play outside!” Gardening gets you outdoors, which is good for you! Tending a garden boosts your immune system and lifts your spirits. If your garden is organic, you’ve also significantly reduced your exposure to toxic chemicals, and you’re helping the environment in general. So, what are you waiting for?

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