Last month, researchers from the Woods Hole Research Center put out a call to Wellesley homeowners, seeking yards to include in The Boston Project, a study designed to help researchers study the outcomes of different yard management practices in the metropolitan Boston area. This Massachusetts-based study is part of a larger project that compares residential landscapes in Boston, Baltimore, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Miami, Phoenix, and Los Angeles. The data they collect on vegetation, birds, soil, and insects of Wellesley will become part of a larger project that explores how homeowner yard management affects the wildlife and plants living in the yard.
Wellesley homeowners Henry and Judy Paap’s yard was one of those selected for participation in the study, and I was invited to stop by and observe the doings. All the Paaps had to do was agree to allow access to their front and back yards for one full day, followed by four or five shorter visits, all during the summer. The were assured that all the study information would be kept confidential, and that no information would be released that could be linked to them.
Only The Swellesley Report would blab that kind of thing.
When I stopped by, a team of five scientists, there since 9am, were fanned out across the 13,000 square-foot property, collecting soil samples and doing a vegetation survey. Methodically, they were working their way through the Paaps’ yard and identifing every plant species present. The were also taking various measurements of all the trees in their yard and identifying each tree species. They were expected to be there until around 5pm, so it was a very thorough study of the yard, indeed.
Margot McKlveen, Research Assistant at the Woods Hole Research Center and Project Manager for the Suburban Ecology Program study, took a few minutes to talk to me about the study.
McKlveen, a University of Minnesota graduate with a bachelors degree in environmental science and policy management, says the big picture the study hopes to reveal is observations and data about “…how suburban ecosystems from different regions of the country compare to each other. What we think we’ll find is that our suburban ecosystems across the country have more similarities to each other than they do to their native ecosystems.”
In other words, if I go to a backyard barbecue in Phoenix, it’s likely that I’ll feel right at home in a yard that will probably feature a green lawn, foundation plantings, and maybe a few hosta. In fact, McKlveen says I would probably be able to recognize species from yards across the country, such is the public’s level of national sameness when it comes to our gardening habits. “If you think of the ideal suburban yard, an image tends to pop into mind although in reality our native vegetation is very different from that image,” she says.
The study seeks to document decisions that homeowners make about their yards by finding out if the homeowners use fertilizer, employ a landscaping crew, have a wildlife certified yard, or include water-saving features. At the same time, researchers will draw conclusions from the data collected on vegetation, birds, soil, and insects. When all the information is synthesized, researchers expect to be able to understand more about whether how a yard is maintained has an effect on its vegetation, birds, soil, and insects.
At least three Wellesley yards will be included in the study. In choosing which yards to study, researchers required that each site meet certain criteria. Each site had to be within a certain census block because they are controlling across the country using demographic data. What they want are homes across the country that have generally similar demographics of income, age of homeowners, are single family homes, and are a certain distance from parkland and open spaces.
Here at The Swellesley Report, we were eager to brag to the neighbors about our selfless dedication to science. We also thought it would be cool to have researchers studying our yard, and envisioned ourselves supplying them with endless glasses of lemonade and making general pests of ourselves. Alas, we were not one of the chosen ones for participation in The Boston Project. Too close to open spaces, we were told.
Some other people have all the luck.