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7 Eco-Friendly (And Cheap) Things You Can Do for Your Neighborhood Paulina Oswald

A member of a local murder of crows that Patsy Brown feeds every day.

Having a greener lifestyle does not have to be difficult or expensive, and a little goes a long way. In fact, making just one small difference in the way you inhabit your immediate environment can have a bigger impact than you realize. Here are seven ways to get started on the cheap.

But first...

Meet Jake the Crow

From left to right: Local resident Patsy Brown feeds neighborhood crow named Jake. Top middle: Jake's wing injury before he was rehabilitated by Brown. Bottom Middle: After Jake was rehabilitated, many of his feathers grew back. Right: Jake enjoys his daily gourmet meal, courtesy of Patsy. Photos by Patsy Brown.

Patsy Brown is a local resident in my area. A crow in the neighborhood, Jake, has become her most frequent visitor. As Brown is a retired Registered Nurse, Jake is also her most recently recovered patient.

"The first time I saw him in the tree by my house, I didn't know what to do. So I sang him a song. He came down."

She noticed Jake had difficulty flying, likely due to a squirrel attack. Brown has a medical background, and knew that feeding Jake a high protein diet could help him heal faster. After a few weeks of feeding him roasted peanuts, steak, and meatloaf, Jake was able to fly better. He later rejoined his family. "His feathers grew right back. I couldn’t believe it.”

By supporting the crows, Brown now has a front row seat to observe their behaviors and strong social bonds. "They share better than people," Brown says. She has also observed them dipping their food in water before they eat it to prep it and make it more palatable. Jake seems to be the leader of the group. Because crows are good at recognizing and remembering human faces, there are many accounts of crows who leave presents for humans that are kind to them. I ask Brown if she has gotten any presents yet. She says, "No. They owe me."

"I don’t want to be known as the crow lady," Brown says, "it’s like a cat lady. But with all this isolation he came right up to me. The first time I saw him in the tree by my house, I didn't know what to do. So I sang him a song. He came down. Next time you see them you should try singing them a song too." I did try, but I have not had luck yet. Maybe one day they will visit me too.

Jake and the other crows come to visit Brown every day. While we continue to social distance, Brown's story shows that connecting to nature can help us feel less isolated.

Below are eight ways you can connect with nature and improve the ecological health of your neighborhood.

1. Consider Helping Local Animal Populations With Rehabilitation

Whether it is a dehydrated bee, an injured crow, or a trapped insect in your house, helping local wildlife is a good way to make a positive impact in your environment. Just remember to always do research on the animal beforehand so you don't do more harm than good. You can get advice from experts at local wildlife rescue centers -- or, if you can't find a nearby resource, try a local animal hospital which likely can point you in the right direction. Additionally, wildlife rescue centers and animal shelters often offer opportunities to volunteer.

Supplies:

You may want to have old towels or blankets on hand for transporting animals. In my experience, putting small animals like squirrels or birds in shoe boxes works well. (Use gloves or a cloth when handling to avoid scratches or bites.) With the proper research, you can feed injured or starving animals the food that works best for their diet. Even if the only thing you have on hand is water, it goes a long way for the health of the animal or organism.

2. Grow FREE Groceries

Tomato plants growing in my uncle's garden in New Jersey in 2019.

Regenerate your groceries by planting their seeds. A fast and easy way my family grows tomatoes is to lay tomato slices horizontally on the surface of a pot or bed and cover with a layer of soil. If you have surplus produce, consider creating a donation box for your neighbors or donate to a local food bank.

Cost:

Local price of produce or seeds and gardening supplies. Below is a sample list of gardening supplies and prices. Some thrift stores may have gardening supplies that may be even cheaper than if bought new. If possible, consider sharing garden supplies with neighbors to reduce overall costs.

  • Large shovel: $10-15.
  • Trowel, shovel, and spade set: $9
  • Potting soil: $15-18 per bag. (Or consider composting. See number 8 of this list.)
  • A small pot if you do not have a lot of yard space: starting at $4 if made from clay, $1-3 if made from plastic. You can also reuse old food containers, cans, used or cracked dishware, or bottles.
  • Larger pots: starting at $10-30 if made from clay, starting at $6-10 if made from plastic. Old garbage cans, boxes, drawers, or tires can be used as alternatives to buying pots.

3. Clear Your Land of Invasive Plants and Replace with Native Plants

Invasive Plants

Your neighborhood can gain several ecological benefits if invasive plants are removed. Here are a few important highlights:

  • Invasive plants help promote biodiversity and decrease monoculture by allowing the growth of a variety of native species, instead of the uncontrolled growth of a few invasive species.
  • Invasive species can disrupt the health and productivity of an ecosystem. By removing them, you can help decrease the spread of invasives.
  • In aquatic environments especially, the removal of invasives can have a bottom-up effect. It can help with the biodiversity of other nearby organisms. Consider joining local initiatives to remove invasive species from waterways. These often involve a large social gathering involving food and prizes for removing the most invasives. In my hometown of Gainesville FL, we have The Great Invader Raider Rally where we collect the invasive Coral Ardisia. If you don't have an event like this in your area, consider starting one! (Just please remember to wear a mask and practice social distancing). If you live an urban area, you can still participate as these events can take place in a local local park or trail.
  • Be sure to research environmentally friendly ways to remove invasives. Introducing chemicals like herbicides can negatively impact local waterways and organisms.

Costs of Taking Out Invasives: Free

Gainesville, FL--October 2020. Growing in our yard is the Javanese glorybower, native to Java. Pollinators love it, but we will soon replace it as the Javanese glorybower is invasive. We will replace it with Turk's-cap, or Malvaviscus arboreus Cav., which is native to Central and North America.

Another invasive plant we will clear from our yard is the Elephant Ears. The petals resting on the Elephant Ears belong to the Javanese glorybowers, scientifically known as Clerodendrum speciosissimum Drapiez.

Elephant Ears prevent "the growth of desired vegetation by blocking the sunlight with its large leaves." It exhausts water and nutrient supplies, and releases toxins that poison nearby plants. It is also poisonous to humans and can cause blindness. Unfortunately, they are pervasive in Florida which is why we will soon clear them out and replace them with more eco-friendly native plants.

Plant Native Plants

Planting native plants is much easier on the land itself as well as the local ecosystem. Here's why:

  • Audubon says each plant becomes a part of "a collective effort to nurture and sustain the living landscape for birds and other animals." Because native plants co-evolved with native animals, their health affects the health and productivity of nearby wildlife.
  • They require less maintenance than non-native plants. This reduces the need for lawn mowers, chemicals, and irrigation.
  • If you live in an urban area, you can plant native plants in pots and window boxes. If they are outside, they can still be pollinated and are free to disperse their seeds through wind or animals. Depending on the rules of your city, you can even plant in abandoned lots or empty fields. Also consider starting or joining a community garden to plant native plants.

Cost: May Vary Depending on the Plant

I have bought plants from $1-7 apiece. Some plant stores sell dying plants at discounted prices or even give them away for free. There are also places called plant swaps where people can trade plants for free. Here is a tool to find a local plant swap. Or, start one yourself!

A variation of the goldenrod and the Bidens pilosa or cobblers peg (both Native to North America) provide a good habitat to pollinators like ladybugs.

4. Give Away or Sell Things You No Longer Need

Besides donation drop offs for used items, online communities like Facebook Marketplace or Letgo help people get rid of their used items cheaply and easily. There are Instagram pages devoted to items people are giving away for free. This reduces landfill usage and helps people get items cheaply. Ask around in your community for resources like these or create your own.

Cost: Free

A table headed to the landfill.

5. Focus on Supporting Local Wildlife

A monarch butterfly, or Danaus plexippus, pollinates one of our Javanese glorybowers in our yard.

Anything from growing pollinator-friendly plants to leaving water for animals and insects can cause a positive impact in your area. With wild spaces dwindling, making yards a safe haven for wildlife is more important than ever. Here are 40 additional ideas that help wildlife in your neighborhood.

Benefits of having a welcoming neighborhood for wildlife:

Cost: Varies Depending on What You Decide to Do

Bring nature to your doorstep. Without my neighbor's bird feeder, I would have never seen the birds that visit our trees every day.

A Katydid (Microcentrum rhombifolium) perches on a leaf of the same flower the butterflies pollinate.
A monarch butterfly visits my yard multiple times a day to feed.

One of the butterflies that pollinated my flowers reaches the end of its life.

Young caterpillars hungrily devour entire shoots of a bush in my yard.

6. Remember to Take Care of Your Local Watershed

Turtles lounge in the sun in front of a local business.
Remember that chemicals we release into the aquifer affect our drinking water and local ecosystems.

Make a list of the chemicals you introduce into your yard when landscaping. Do you mow the lawn with a gas-powered lawn mower? Do you use any herbicides or fertilizer on your grass? Consider switching to a lower maintenance lawn by planting native grasses, growing a moss lawn, or a managed meadow. If you live in a drier area, consider replacing grass with succulents and decorative gravel to reduce water usage. Considering that the average lawn uses 1.5 inches of water per week, cutting down on less drought-resistant plants will save a significant amount of water. If you live in an urban area, be mindful of water usage by updating plumbing to increase efficiency, using gray water to water plants, and reducing personal water usage as much as possible. This can be done by taking shorter showers, running appliances like the dishwasher and laundry machines only when they are full. Being critical of water usage does not only apply to urban areas, but to all neigborhoods.

Cost: Varies Depending on Which Action You Take

  • Reducing chemical and water usage saves money.
  • 1/4 lb of native grasses cost $10-18.
  • 2 lbs of gravel cost $6.
  • Native succulent prices will vary but can start at $3.
A Great Blue Heron searches for fish in the local pond. October 2020.

7. Set Up a Compost Bin

A decomposing elephant ear leaf would make an excellent addition to a compost pile.

Food waste contributes to 6% of global greenhouse emissions. According to Our World in Data, this is "around three times the global emissions from aviation. Or, if we were to put it in the context of national emissions, it would be the world’s third largest emitter." By turning your personal household food waste into compost, you can significantly reduce your carbon footprint and promote the health of your land. If you live in an urban area or in a college dorm, consider starting a compost bin with your neighbors or dorm complex. Many colleges already have a compost system set up and often are set up in each kitchen. This is often sent to the college garden. In urban areas, a shared compost bin can be set up and be used for a community garden, or for individual potted plant use. By taking responsibility for a more sustainable personal waste practice, you can greatly reduce your carbon footprint regardless of where you live.

Benefits:

  • Enrich the health of plants in your yard, garden, or potted plants.
  • As a result, this reduces the need for artificial fertilizers.
  • By putting food scraps in the compost instead of the landfill, methane emissions from landfills are reduced.
  • Reduces contamination from hazardous waste.
  • Helps maintain stable levels of moisture, reducing the need for irrigation.
  • Reduces atmospheric carbon dioxide.
  • Can increase crop yield and health of plants.

Cost and Materials

  • A large trash can with a lid: $10-20
  • Mulch. You can usually get this for free at the local dump. Find out more ways to get free mulch here.
  • A shovel: $10-15

Learn how to get started here.

Small Actions Add Up

By taking small and manageable steps toward a greener neighborhood, you can directly impact the health of yourself and your surrounding environment. Additionally, you can enjoy the process of it it coming to life.

Created By
Paulina Oswald
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