Compiled by Marsha Mercer, Extension Master Gardener
Americans love their lawns – 40 million acres’ worth in the continental United States. But our lawns don’t love us back.
To most insects, all that green, green grass is the equivalent of paved parking lots or dead space, and, as naturalist E.O. Wilson observed, insects are “the little things that rule the world.”
Insects pollinate more than 80% of all plants and 90% of all flowering plants. Without insects, the food web that supports humans and other mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and freshwater fishes would disappear.
Lawns may feel good to our bare feet, but they’re wastelands that require excess water, nutrients, and pesticides and support only a few wildlife species.
However, as entomologist Douglas W. Tallamy writes in Nature’s Best Hope, his 2019 book about a backyard conservation approach he calls “Homegrown National Park,” homeowners east of the Mississippi typically have 90% of their yards in lawn and only 10% in the tree biomass that was there previously. (Check out homegrownnationalpark.org.)
With insects and birds in decline around the world, Tallamy and other ecologists urge us to end our love affair with our lawns — and plant natives instead. Where to start to help create a hospitable lawn?
One of the easiest things we can do with our lawns to save insects and our food supply: Mow less. Let grass grow to at least 3 inches before mowing — tall enough to protect box turtles and frogs — Tallamy advises.
But that’s just the beginning. Tallamy challenges us to shrink our lawns by half with walkways and paths that define beds and groves of trees, planted with natives to restore biodiversity. Native plants require less water and care than non-native lawns.
Native oak trees are at the top of do-plant list — with white oaks the “superstars,” Tallamy writes in his 2021 book, The Nature of Oaks.
Not everyone has the space for oaks, of course, but anyone can start small. Converting just 10% of your lawn to natives is a worthy goal. Take up a 4-foot square area of grass one year and plant an edible garden in a raised bed, or plant native shrubs in a border along a driveway or sidewalk. Expand the lawn alternative area in future years.
Here are steps from the Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia (MGNV), Maryland Department of Natural Resources, and other groups to help you plan and plant your lawn alternative:
- Pick a small area of your yard to convert from turf grass. Look for an area of lawn that’s not used much or one where the grass doesn’t grow well anyway. Under shade trees? On a steep slope? In a wet area?
- Assess site conditions. Use a soil test from Virginia Cooperative Extension to determine your soil needs. Consider how much sun and how wet the area is.
- Clear existing vegetation. It may take two to four months to completely clear turf grass.
- Choose plants. Consult the Plant Virginia Natives site and the Virginia Native Plant Society’s list of nurseries. In Northern Virginia, PlantNovaNatives.org and the MGNV site, www.mgnv.org, are good sources. Decide whether you want seeds or plugs. Seeds are often cheaper, but plugs are faster to establish.
- Plant. Most alternatives are best sown in the fall or spring. For plugs, pay attention to spacing and spread guidelines.
- Weed. You’ll need to weed to maximize the success of your new plantings.
Happy lawn-alternative gardening!
From the MGNV Virtual Classroom
The MGNV website identifies native plants that thrive in our area and has categorized them by type. Take a look:
- Ground covers — https://mgnv.org/plants/native-plants/ground-cover/
- Grasses and sedges — https://mgnv.org/plants/native-plants/grasses/
- Best bets to attract pollinators — https://mgnv.org/plants/best-bets/attract-pollinators/
- Native trees — https://mgnv.org/programs/small-trees-make-big-canopies/
For more information:
- MGNV: Rethinking Your Lawn — https ://mgnv.org/climate-change/rethinking-your-lawn/
- MGNV: Small Space Gardening for Pollinators — https://mgnv.org/pollinators/small-space-pollinators/
- Plant Virginia Natives — www.plantvirginianatives.org
- Plant NOVA Natives: Lawn Care for Earth Renewal — https://www.plantnovanatives.org/reducing-lawn
- University of Maryland: Lawn Alternatives — https://news.maryland.gov/dnr/2019/06/14/lawn-alternatives/
- University of Maryland Extension: Lawn Alternatives — https://extension.umd.edu/resource/lawn-alternatives
- Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation: Virginia Native Plants Finder — https://www.dcr.virginia.gov/natural-heritage/native-plants-finder
- Virginia Tech: Alternatives to Grasses for Lawns —https://turf.spes.vt.edu/ClippingFAQ/TurfClippingsearch/Alternatives_to_Grasses.html