Land Management & Suburban Ecology

vegetation identification

Suburban residential landscapes now occupy almost one-fifth of the entire United States. How homeowners manage their yards therefore has large effects on the biodiversity of plants and animals and on the services that natural areas provide, like temperature regulation and prevention of water pollution.

This summer, Woods Hole Research Center scientists will launch a new project to quantify how management of suburban residential landscapes influences the Boston Metropolitan Region that stretches from New Hampshire almost to Cape Cod. The project is part of a larger study that includes university collaborators who will work in five other cities (Miami, Baltimore, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Los Angeles and Phoenix).

We will study yards in four categories. These are (1) “control” management that includes lawn mowing and traditional yard management, (2) “intensive” management that includes regular fertilizer use and lawn care by a landscaping company, (3) “wildlife-friendly” management that includes plantings and other management to encourage birds and wildlife, and (4) “hydrological” management that includes water capture from roofs, swales to capture runoff, and/or rain gardens.

We will compare yards to small undeveloped areas within suburban neighborhoods, and larger forested conservation lands.

Overall, we want to learn how potentially small changes in yard management might improve the ecological functioning of residential areas.

Participate in this Study

Why participate in this study?
Homeowners who participate will contribute to important environmental research. Participants will have the option to receive a report on our findings about plants and birds at the end of the summer. We will send a second update on bees, ground insects and soil nutrients early in 2018 when identifications and sample analyses are completed.

Sampling Timeline
We will visit your yard several times between June and August 2017, with a possible follow-up visit in August of 2018. Most visits will last under 45 minutes. Two will be in early morning to count birds. The vegetation inventory will take at least one full day to complete. We will make sure our research schedule works well for you and will email or call you at least one day before we visit. You do not need to be present when we are sampling in your yard, but we would enjoy speaking with you about our study if you are at home.

We may want to visit your yard an additional time during the summer of 2018 to follow up on the data we’ve already taken. If this is the case, we will contact you first to explain what this sampling will entail and to coordinate with your schedule.

insect cup hole      insect cups      bee bowls      soil borer     
left to right: holes used for insect collection cups; buried insect collection cups; bowls filled with soapy water for bee collection; soil corer in use; soil nutrient sticks

What will we measure?

Plant Inventory
We will identify all the different plant species present and take measurements of the size and structure of trees in your front and back yards. This survey will likely take at least a full day to complete and we will need access to both your front and back yard.

Bird Count
We will make several visits in June or early July 2017 to observe and identify birds in your yard. Bird counts will be conducted by one or two WHRC researchers in the early morning and will take place from the front sidewalk or curb.

Insect Survey
We will bury several small plastic cups in your front and back yard to catch ground insects. These cups will be covered between collection rounds and all holes will be filled after the completion of our study. We will also catch, quantify and identify bees in your area by placing small colored bowls filled with soapy water in your front and back yard. Ground insect and bee sampling will each take place over two 24-hour sampling rounds.

Soil Sampling & Nutrient Monitoring
Before soil sampling, we will contact Dig Safe, the “call before you dig” service, to have them mark all nearby utility lines. We will then collect two soil cores to a depth of one foot from your yard and bury a small plastic probe inside each coring hole to measure soil nutrients. We will leave the probes in place for two 1-month periods before retrieving them and sending them to a lab for testing. This testing will only be minimally visible and will not impede mowing, and we will refill all holes to leave your lawn as undisturbed as possible.

Thank you for your interest. We hope that you will participate in our study!

Participate in this Study

For more information, please contact:
Margot McKlveen, project manager – 508-444-1543 or
Christopher Neill, senior scientist – 508-444-1559 or