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How To Replace Lawn With Native Plants

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Native Grass Alternatives To Lawns

Team Coco water saving tip: Replace your lawn with native plants

There are few things more American than the concept of expansive lawns. We love our dutiful blades of grass, all lined up and trimmed, just waiting to receive picnic blankets and soccer balls. We love grass so much that lawn care is a multibillion-dollar industry. Grass permeates our culturecountless movies, advertisements, and jokes reference this icon. However, grass is under stress in California. With the ongoing drought, the governor and local water districts have issued water-use restrictions, a main portion of which are aimed at turf grass designated as non-useful. But does this mean we will have to give up our lawns? Fear not! California native grasses and sedges are here for the win.

I stand on the shoulders of the experts to bring several recommendations for easy lawn replacements. An obvious option is to tear out lawns and fill the area with hardscape, but this is a bad idea. By doing so, we lose the numerous benefits of living lawns. This seemingly useless turf cools the environment, allows water to return to underground reservoirs, provides refuge for insects and small animals, and aids in protecting mental health. Consider replacing your turf with native plants, particularly grasses and grass-like plants that require less water and fewer resources to maintain.

Meadow Plants

Visually beautiful, the meadow grasses are excellent for commercial areas, medians, planters, parks, you name it. The following plants are some personal favorites:

Lawn Replacements

Tips For Evolving A Naturalized Garden Quickly

Jeff Lorenz and his team at Refugia Design specialize in creating native landscapes in the Philadelphia area. In addition to looking better than turfgrass, the gardens they design also manage stormwater much more effectively and provide better habitat for native pollinators. Transforming a lawn into garden space can be a big undertaking, but Jeff shared some simple tips on how to do it without feeling overwhelmed.

Should You Kill Your Grass To Make Way For Native Plants

A black swallowtail butterfly visits Susan Brownstein’s coneflower in her garden.

  • Susan Brownstein | Special to

CLEVELAND, Ohio — The weather is too unpredictable to start working on the flower beds in earnest, but while the ground is moist and the lawn and weeds are dormant, it is a perfect time of year to start reclaiming some lawn space for a flower bed.

I shrunk my first lawn in California, where years of drought have made it a necessity in many areas. The soil there is mostly dirt and rocks with no nutrients or moisture retention, so it was more out of desperation than any sort of woke mentality that I discovered landscaping with native plants. Sure, with enough water, fertilizer, and soil amendments, you could establish the traditional bushes that were familiar from my Ohio childhood, like azaleas and lavender. You could even grow showy glamorous tropical plants from around the world, but it turns out the bougainvillea, hibiscus, and palm trees we all associate with Southern California arent from here and take a lot of water and luck to establish. I was a working mom with two young kids and a hefty mortgage payment, and I didnt have time or money for all that fuss. The great thing about native plants, I discovered, is that they actually want to grow in lousy conditionsits where they belong.

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Nibble Away At The Tough Places

The first place to consider eliminating lawn is wherever it is difficult or dangerous to mow, such as next to vertical surfaces or on steep slopes. Creating curved borders reduces mowing time. Shady spaces that must be reseeded annually offer opportunities to reconsider alternatives to grass. And definitely stop mowing within 100 feet of a stream or wetland – buffer zones are needed to protect water quality.

The First Step In Replacing Your Lawn Can Be A Challenging One You Need To Kill Your Lawn

Replace Your Lawn: Diversity Creates Stability

Why should you Kill Your Lawn ? By removing some or all of your turf you will:

  • Reduce water use dramatically
  • Reduce or eliminate fertilizer and associated polluted runoff
  • Eliminate weekly maintenance labor and expense
  • Free up square footage for more attractive and beneficial native plants!


Step 1: Identify the type of turf you have

  • Cool season grass: Fescue, Marathon, Bluegrass and grass blends that stay green in the winter
  • Warm season grass: Bermuda, St Augustine, Zoyzia and any rhizomatous grass that is brown in winter

Step 2: Determine a strategy for removal based upon these factors

Step 3: Kill your lawn!

COOL SEASON GRASSES: Hard To Grow, Easy To Kill, Quick To Replace

  • Smother with mulch, no plastic
  • Strip and flip using a sod-cutting machine, mark and avoid sprinkler heads that may be retrofitted for the new garden.
  • Rototill, only if no rhizomatous weedy grasses are present
  • Herbicide- typically not necessary with cool season grasses

WARM SEASON GRASSES: Easy To Grow, Hard To Kill, Slow To Replace DO NOT ROTOTILL

  • Hand removal by weeding, digging out roots
  • Herbicide- controversial but effective, each gardener needs to make their own cost/benefit analysis of this method


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Idea 5 Native Plants Will Limit Water Runoff

No crop is worse at stopping runoff than trimmed turf grass. For the most part, the grass in your lawn has roots only as deep as the blades themselves. That means that lawn grass has virtually no space to absorb extra water. What it cant absorb will simply seep into the ground or wash over top of it. Either way, that can mean trouble for you. If your lawn gets too soggy, it can slide away. If it cant take any more water, that water rushes away and contributes to flash flood situations and spreads any fertilizer or other chemicals youve applied to it.

If you develop a yard filled with native plants, youll have a larger variety of root systems that are more capable of protecting your property and containing the water that falls on it. Youll also be using plants that are appropriate for your soil type, meaning the roots will have the best branching activity for that soil. Essentially, native plants have a better grip on the soil than turf grass.

Maintaining Your Meadow Or Prairie

The first three years of a meadow or prairie garden require the most time and money. Once established, however, your meadow or prairie will be virtually maintenance and expense free, requiring only an occasional weed inspection and mowing once a year.

During the first year, while your plants are small, you will need to mow several times to control weeds. Mow the first time before the weeds reach 8 inches in height. Mow to a height just above the level of the desired plants . Mow often enough to prevent weeds from growing taller than 8 inches or from developing seed heads. At the end of the growing season, discontinue mowing in order to give the young plants overwinter protection.

In the second spring, whatever vegetation was left over winter should be mowed to the ground before the start of the growing season. During the growing season, watch for invading weeds and remove any undesirable plants by pulling them out or cutting them off at ground level. From the second year on, mow your meadow annually late in winter or early in spring before the next year’s growth begins.

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Planting Your Meadow Or Prairie

Meadows can be planted using seeds or plants. In most areas, the best time to plant is in the spring. In Pennsylvania, April is the ideal month to plant. Once your meadow has been planted, add a light layer of mulch and water as needed during the first six weeks.

An alternative to planting a meadow or prairie is simply to stop mowing and allow nature to take its course. Many wildflowers, including goldenrods, asters, ironweed, joe-pye weed, and milkweed, will come in on their own. To maintain a good balance of species and control the most aggressive species in your meadow, you can pull out excess plants or remove the seed heads before the seed pods burst. This natural method of establishment is inexpensive and will result in a meadow that is attractive to many wildlife species, from butterflies and birds to rabbits and red foxes. The only disadvantage is that you have little control over which species will colonize your meadow.

Idea 6 Native Plants Are Drought Champions

Workshop: Lawn Replacement with Native and Drought Tolerant Plants

Going hand-in-hand with limiting water runoff, plants native to your area are going to be best adapted to resist droughts. Unlike grass, their root system is likely deeper allowing the native plant to tap into moisture stored deep in the ground. At the same time, native plants are naturally adapted to surviving the extremes of their native environment, and that includes the regular drought cycle that your area may face. Even if droughts are unheard of in your area, simply understanding that native plants are built for your environment is important.

Theres a reason why some traditional garden center plants require daily watering its because they simply arent meant to survive in your area.

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How To Turn Your Yard Into An Ecological Oasis

For years, Toni Genberg assumed a healthy garden was a healthy habitat. Thats how she approached the landscaping around her home in northern Virginia. On trips to the local gardening center, she would privilege aesthetics, buying whatever looked pretty, which was typically ornamental or invasive plants, she says. Then, in 2014, Genberg attended a talk by Doug Tallamy, a professor of entomology at the University of Delaware. I learned I was actually starving our wildlife, she says.

The problem, Tallamy explained, is with the picky diets of plant-eating insects. Most of these bugsroughly 90%eat and reproduce on only certain native plant species, specifically those with whom they share an evolutionary history. Without these carefully tuned adaptations of specific plants, insect populations suffer. And because bugs themselves are a key food source for birds, rodents, amphibians, and other critters, that dependence on nativesand the consequences of not having themworks its way up the food chain. Over time, landscapes that consist mainly of invasive or nonnative plants could become dead zones.

Croplands can be just as destructive, making up nearly 20% of all land in the United States. And that doesnt even include the single largest irrigated crop in the country. Covering more than 40 million acres in the U.S., grass lawn consumes an area roughly the size of New Englandland that, for the sake of habitat conservation, might as well be pavement.

How To Replace Your Lawn With Native Plants

Replacing a lawn with native plants for a naturescape designis a big job. The hardest and most time-consuming part of the job is gettingrid of existing grass. There are a few methods you can consider trying:

  • Black Plastic. Cover your turf with black plastic in sunny areas and the heat trapped under it will kill the grass. You can then till the dead grass into the soil.
  • No-Till. Another option is to cover the grass with thick layers of newspaper or cardboard. Put a layer of a few inches of soil over it and with time the material will decay and you can directly place new plants in the soil.
  • Herbicide. A non-specific type herbicide will kill the grass and does not persist for very long in the soil.

Once you have destroyed the turf, you can put in nativeplants according to your naturescape design. Check with your localcounty extension to find out what plants in your area are native.For the best design, use a mix of native grasses, shrubs, perennial wildflowers,and trees.

Naturescaping your entire yard will be a big commitment.Consider doing one area at a time to spread the work out over a few years. Oryou may even realize you like having a mix of turf and native lawn instead.

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Idea 7 You Dont Have To Love Every Native Plant

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, dont feel bad for dismissing certain native plants because you dont like their looks. Chances are there are dozens of native plant options in your area, so dont settle for something that leaves you cold.

Further, know that your native plants will need some maintenance, and that maintenance effort can be used to beautify your yard. Pruning, trimming and judicious training of these growths can make your plants look great so great that you wont even miss that neatly trimmed lawn!

Meadows And Prairies: Wildlife

Ernesto on Instagram: Ca Native Mix Meadow pt.1: Replacing a lawn with ...

In the United States, over 24 million acres of lawn surround our homes. As suburban development continues to spread into open and forested land alike, we lose more and more of our native vegetation and wildlife habitat.

Although lawns can provide benefits, large expanses of lawn displace other diverse natural habitats that most wildlife species find appealing. The lawn, clipped short and consisting of very few species, is a rather hostile, sterile environment for most wildlife, being devoid of food and places to hide or nest. Planting and maintaining a lawn also has time, economic, and environmental costs.

As homeowners become aware of the costs of maintaining lawns, both to people and to wildlife, many are choosing to replace all or part of their lawns with more wildlife- and environment-friendly alternatives.

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Pay Attention To The Weeds And Theexplosive New Plants You’ve Justplanted

Xeriscaping, zeroscaping and xerogardening all have been used in allsorts of diabolic ways. I think it’s safer to use native plants fromyour region to achieve low water use. Use Texas plants in Texas,California plants in California, New York Plants in New York. Do notput them all together in a garden, call it zeroscaping and expect lowwater use.

Then Comes Site Preparation

Once you’ve picked the part of your lawn you want to convert to native plants and even before you have selected plant species you can start site preparations.

The goal is to get rid of traditional turf lawn or bluegrass in that area, including the matted roots beneath the surface.

“It’s only about 3 inches of roots, but you do want to get down to bare weed-free soil as much as possible,” Baurely explained.

Both Bauerly and Vanatta described two different effective methods:

  • Use a sod cutter: This will let you take out chunks of grass at a time, with fairly minimal effort. You can also use a flat-edged spade to do this manually, but a sod cutter is quicker, Vanatta said.
  • The “lasagna method”: This involves putting wet cardboard or layered newspaper directly on top of the lawn, then adding topsoil and wood mulch. This will smother the grass underneath, and the layers will decompose. If you start in the fall, the area should be ready for planting come spring.

A sod cutter will likely be best for a large project, Bauerly said, but the lasagna method can do the trick in smaller spaces where you’re starting with live plants.

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How To Convert Your Lawn To Drought

The ongoing drought that is afflicting California and the western part of the US, should have everyone evaluating their landscape water usage. Potable water is a finite resource, and our lawns and irrigation systems can be large guzzlers.

Heres how to convert your lawn to a more water-efficient landscape using drought-tolerant plants.

In addition to consuming water, lawns are often treated with chemical fertilizers and pesticides that can have a negative impact on the environment. Drought tolerant plants require less maintenance than a lawn and can consist of native grasses, wildflowers, and succulents.

Put Your Plants To Work

Converting a Lawn to a Native Plant Garden 1

Jeff says that the typical lawn allows most stormwater to wash away without being absorbed into the ground. Replacing turfgrass with a garden has an immediate impact on stormwater management. Once planted, there will be very little stormwater runoff, as the plants will utilize any rainwater. Another reason to plant native plants in place of grass is to help with soil compaction. The roots of many native plants will naturally pierce and break up clay or compacted soil. Since the roots of some native grasses can grow 8 feet deep or more, these plants can break up soil far more effectively than mechanical means.

If you garden in an area with deer, Jeff advises using North American native ornamental grasses and aromatic plants. Deer do not tend to browse on the sharper blades of grasses, or on aromatic plants such as scarlet bee balm . However, when protecting the shrub layer, you may need to install fencing temporarily during the fall rutting season and in winter. Deer deterrents such as Deer Scram or Plantskydd can also provide helpful protection while plants get established. Once established, a diversity of plants should help mitigate the effects of deer browse. The deer may eat some, but not enough to affect the plants.

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A Yard Overhaul With Natives

Jason Austin purchased a home in Pine Beach in 2005 and began using his own yard to test-grow native plants before adding them to his nurserys catalog.

Jason Austin is passionate about native plants. He has transformed his Jersey Shore yard from a sandy lot into a colorful, attractive, low-maintenance landscape of natives, and he offers his native plant expertise to others through his landscaping business, The Little Plant Company.

Jason credits several professors at Delaware Valley College, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Ornamental Horticulture, with motivating him to study native plants. He was also inspired by field trips to Island Beach State Park, Double Trouble State Park, and other Pinelands destinations, where he was intrigued by the unique flora of New Jerseys special eco-regions.

After graduation, Jason moved to New Jersey to work for growers who were starting to offer native plants, and he became an expert at growing perennials and native species. As manager of the growing operations at RareFind Nursery, he expanded the nurserys stock of native species, including a specialty in carnivorous plants for bog gardens.

Jason transformed his once sparse front lawn into a garden of perennials providing color from early spring to late fall.

Contact Jason is now the co-owner of The Little Plant Company. Contact him at .

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