One homeowner’s chaos is another’s natural landscaping. Incorporating native plants into shoreline landscaping can improve water quality, so researchers are finding smart ways to promote it. Photo by Julian Bunker.

When given a choice between a neatly mowed lawn with carefully coordinated flowers along a lakeshore and a seemingly overgrown flurry of tall grass that crashes into the sand, many landowners prefer order over chaos. A clean-cut lawn can appear pretty, quaint and even healthy. But much like people, ailing landscapes don’t always show their wounds, and it’s easy for homeowners to mistake an orderly yard with a natural-looking one.

According to a Great Lakes Echo article, a recent survey by University of Wisconsin found that property owners often believe their lawns are more natural than they actually are. The survey was part of a larger effort to uncover how best to approach landowners about natural landscaping.

Two lakes, Long Lake and Des Moines Lake, in northwestern Wisconsin serve as the focal point for this survey. Biologists inspected 163 shoreline lots between the two lakes and found that 82 of them could be classified as “groomed.” When surveyed, landowners were much more forgiving; they cited only four of those 82 lots as groomed, claiming the rest were either part or all natural.

In order for property owners to better understand what constitutes a healthy lakeshore, researchers identified ways for them to see their yards as an ecologist does. Creating a checklist for property owners to measure their lawns against and recommending short lists of native plants and shrubs can help environmental agencies align homeowners’ perceptions. If landowners along the shore take up the needed changes, they can improve wildlife habitats, water quality and the natural beauty of the lake.

Researchers are attacking the issue of natural landscaping in a smart way; they’re discovering what makes property owners love their manicured lawns and then using those findings to motivate them towards shoreline friendly choices. Much like Biodiversity Project, the survey findings are used to change behaviors, not minds. As researchers show natural landscaping to be the easiest and most obvious choice, the residents of Long and Des Moines Lakes will improve their environment, regardless of their personal lawn preferences.