Land Use

Kill Your Lawn and Go Native

You probably know by now that the typical U.S. lawn with thick, green grass and manicured hedges is horrible for the environment.

In addition to pollution from mowers, trimmers and leaf blowers, chemically treated lawns wipe out all vegetation, worms, and insects, to grow a single species of grass. Those fertilizers derived from fossil fuels create toxic runoff, and contribute to a range of environmental and health problems such as asthma and cancer in humans and pets.

“Unfortunately, it’s a pretty disastrous landscape,” said horticulturist Mark Richardson, director of the botanic garden at the New England Wild Flower Society in Framingham, Mass.

Richardson describes the constant “mow-and-blow” maintenance required to maintain a traditional lawn as “soul-sucking.”

“I really feel our lawns and gardens should contribute to our society, and the best way to do that is to kill your lawn,” he said.

There are ways to replace the modern lawn. The University of Rhode Island-trained turf and wildflower expert suggests transitioning from the golf course-inspired carpet to a unique landscape, one with a rich ecosystem of natural grasses, wildflowers and shrubs. It doesn’t hurt that these living landscapes are also great for storing carbon and a haven for beneficial insects and pollinators.

Each process requires some upfront labor, but once done there is considerably less maintenance and watering for a habitat accustomed to temperamental New England weather.

Experiment. The simplest approach is to stop mowing and see what grows. “Sometimes a meadow shows up,” Richardson said.

He recommends dispersing seed packets of native wildflowers and grasses and planting a few perennial shrubs. Spot-treatment with pesticides may be necessary.

Solarization. The most effective approach to a natural landscape is to start with a blank slate. Removing or destroying the current lawn, invasive weeds and other undesirable vegetation is key. Thick, clear plastic sheeting left for six weeks creates sufficient heat to kill plants but not the beneficial microbes. Landscape fabric or cardboard covered with leaf litter or mulch can achieve similar results.

Mechanical. Lawns can also be removed with a sod cutter, which can be rented from an equipment supplier or hardware store. Smaller areas of turf can be removed with a pitchfork and shovel. The work can be done in one day, but there is a risk of losing soil while leaving behind weed remnants that may regrow.

Chemical. Chemicals can be the fastest method to kill grass. Some are safer than others. And organic isn’t always safer than inorganic. Acetic acid, an organic pesticide that is a popular alternative to synthetic pesticides, is similar to a concentrated vinegar but also has health risks.

Start small. There’s no need to covert an entire lawn at once. Start with a section and experiment with these different techniques and plantings. Converting a small area still saves water, time and money on lawn care.

What to plant. There’s plenty to chose from, and much of it depends on how the space will be used. There are grasses, such as Pennsylvania sedge, and fruit, such as wild strawberries, that are durable and can planted in walkable areas.

Purple lovegrass tolerates salt and drought, and offers vivid color.

Others plants are suitable for a mix of shade and sun, as well as a tolerance for drought. Some can be grown between stones and bricks in a walking path, or durable enough for a parking area, such as little bluestem.

For native plantings and where to buy them search the URI Native Plant Guide.

Search here for a list of landscape professionals in your area who can assist with the conversion process.

Fast fact: New England uses about 30 percent of its potable water on lawn care.

Hear more from Richardson in this recent webinar

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  1. I love this idea, I hope it "comes into fashion" so that more people will jump on board. I let my lawn go this year to see what would grow. I have never used chemicals on the lawn, I have a well, and family. My question is how do you define "invasive weeds and other undesirable vegetation "?

  2. All well and good BUT this is an article that begs for pictures of and suggestions for attractive alternatives. I strongly suggest a follow up…perhaps a contest among local landscapers for design tips and maintenance tips. To suggest that i let my lawn grow and see what happens is simply NOT ENOUGH

    • Hi, Roz – A follow up article is a great idea!
      For plant selection in RI, the Native Plant Guide is the place to start. It’s interactive, so it will generate lists based on the microclimate of a project. Planting in a Post Wild World by Rainer and West is an outstanding design/implementation resource. Garden Revolution by Larry Weaner is also excellent, as is his conference in CT and PA, New Directions in the American Landscape. The Rhode Island Wild Plant Society, the Ecological Landscape Alliance, and the New England Wild Flower Society all offer classes/walks/workshops. When I lived in RI, native plant design was my specialty. I now refer folks to Tysh McGrail at Woodscapes, Inc.

      Start with a site inventory/analysis (sun/shade; wet/dry; soil test; exiting vegetation; views; circulation, etc.)
      Pursue the 2 above mentioned books for ideas/methods. Measure your space and estimate the number of plants needed to fill all the layers. Use the Native Plant Guide to generate a list of appropriate species, most likely found in the nursery trade. Team up with a landscape designer who specializes in native plant design or experiment on your own! Water until established. Encourage the plants that thrive! Strive for a high percentage of locally native species, but don’t be afraid to mix in annuals for extra color, tropicals for contrasting textures, and/or bulbs for early spring interest. (See: Piet Oudolf’s work for inspiration.) Have fun!

  3. Recently they removed beautiful trees to put in grass and sidewalks at the small complex where I live. When asked what they do with birds nests from those trees I was met with tremendous hostility. When will they ever learn…

  4. Photos! would love to see photos with examples! I usually see just the plant itself, and rarely do I see actual landscaping pics

  5. I am so visual. I have read and read and read about replacing lawns with native plants, but I need to see examples of actual project – before and after – and plant lists used and zone. I ripped everything out of my front lawn except for a paper maple (small urban front year coastal Maine) and I would love to see what some of you have done or even recommendations of really good resources to use. Thanks !

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