Lawn Conversion Tips

Spring is a time of year when many of us focus on clearing out the old to prepare for the new.  If you’ve watched or read anything by Marie Kondo, you’ve probably learned some pointers on clearing clutter and simplifying your life to cultivate more satisfaction and happiness. With her method, you ask yourself, “Does this bring me joy?” If it doesn’t, you let it go.  I’ve been thinking a lot about lawns and how much space they occupy when most aren’t used for anything. According to Owen Wormser, author of Lawns into Meadows, the average homeowner logs 150 hours a year tending their lawn and collectively $40 billion is spent on these spaces that produce more carbon via lawnmower emissions than they absorb. You may spend less time and money on your lawn than the average homeowner, but I ask you, why spend any time or money maintaining a lawn if it doesn’t bring you joy and it isn’t useful to you? If you use your lawn as a play or gathering area, do you have more than you need? Perhaps your lawn was filled with laughter and games when your kids or grandchildren were young, but now it is quiet and boring. With a little effort, you can transform the dried-out look of a late summer lawn with eye-catching colors and rich textures of gardens and pocket meadows that will bring you joy for many years to come while supporting pollinators and wildlife; saving yourself time, water, and money.

If you are interested in converting some of your lawn into something more biodiverse and joyful, think about starting small to avoid getting overwhelmed and have fun with the design process. Gardens and meadows develop and change over time. Here are several options for getting started this spring:

Preparation and Planning

  • For the lawn you decide to keep, apply a ‘less is more’ attitude to its maintenance.
    • Water less frequently so that the grass roots grow deeper. As your lawn wakes up in the spring, refrain from starting the irrigation right away. Instead, water minimally to encourage deeper roots, and reduce the irrigation schedule. Lawns should only receive one inch of water per week. Early morning watering is best.
    • Mow less frequently and set your mower deck to a higher setting. Longer grass has deeper roots and requires less watering. A Massachusetts study found that mowing at two week intervals resulted in higher bee diversity and abundance in suburban lawns than other mowing regimes.
    • Reduce the amount of fertilizer applied annually, or consider halting fertilizing.
  • Your neighbors may have a different aesthetic, or your neighborhood association may have rules about landscaping, so do your homework.
    • When you are certain you can legally convert some lawn, leave a border of lawn to let others know your efforts are intentional.
    • Have your talking points ready to help your neighbors understand your efforts to promote more biodiversity. Here is a great resource.
  • Removing the turf grass prior to planting will give you more control over the outcome, whether you want to establish a meadow or a native perennial bed.
    • The smother method involves laying down a material that does not allow sunlight to penetrate through.  Useful materials include black plastic or cardboard covered with leaves, compost, or bark mulch. If you can get your hands on recycled black plastic you will also achieve solarization, which cooks the upper part of the root system and kills weed seeds close to the surface.
    • Be patient as solarization with black plastic takes about four to six weeks, and general smothering can take a few months.
  • Planting native meadow species directly into your lawn is another option, but you need to commit to cutting back surrounding weeds every 10 – 14 days.
    • Select an area and mow it at the lowest mower setting before you begin.
    • Use a flat shovel to scalp areas of lawn grass and dig out weeds to create space for planting your natives.
    • In the first year, you will likely need to mow as much as three to four times a year to keep perennial weeds from going to seed.  When doing so, set the mowing deck to about six inches so that your newly planted natives will continue to grow.

What to Plant

Pennsylvania sedge

  • Sedges or a native meadow, once established, are low maintenance and can store 70% more carbon than turf grass.  The deep roots make them suitable for tough growing conditions such as drought and poor soils. Sedges are a notable turf replacement, 99% of sedge species are native and they thrive in our natural soil conditions. A common sedge in oak/pine areas is Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica), which is a personal favorite.
  • Bare patches? Leave them ‘bee’ – If your aesthetic can tolerate a few bare patches, those bare spots provide habitat for ground nesting bees that are primary pollinators of gardens and appreciate flowers that accent your yard.
  • Incorporate native grasses into both meadows and garden beds to provide food and nesting material. Grasses are a great asset if you are in an area with a lot of deer activity.
  • Meadows require at least 5 hours of direct sunlight, so be mindful in your site selection for a meadow.
    • Plant plugs or seeds in the spring or fall. Avoid planting in the heat of the summer when weeds are more likely to outgrow and crowd new plantings.
    • If you choose to plant from seed, the Xerces Society’s “Establishing pollinator meadows from seed,” is a great resource.
    • Be sure to water until the roots are established, and consider a rain barrel for your water source.

Native meadow species above (left to right): Pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea), Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum)

  • A native perennial and shrub garden is another option.
    • You may prefer the aesthetic of a garden over a meadow, or maybe the site conditions do not fit the needs of meadow species.
    • A garden with complex vegetated structure can support more wildlife with greater species richness and abundance.
    • Select species that offer an extended bloom period.  Many native shrubs are host plants for caterpillar species, while others produce highly nutritious berries.
    • Ideally, plant shrubs in the fall to reduce water stress for transplants.

Native shrubs above (Left to Right): Winterberry (Ilex verticillata), Inkberry (Ilex glabra), Arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum)

Converting lawn space into garden space is a win-win for you and biodiversity.  Dynamic gardens provide better carbon sequestration and water filtration while reducing the need for additional inputs.  You’ll have more free time to enjoy a toxic-free space with your family while also establishing a sanctuary for wildlife.

 

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