Need more space for native plants? Replace your lawn

Once a status symbol, lawns today are problematic. They require fertilizers and herbicides and don’t support insects, birds and other wildlife.

  • Friday, April 22, 2022 1:30am
  • Life

By William McClain / Special to The Herald

Lawns dominant our landscapes. It has been estimated that U.S. lawns cover a land area equivalent to all of New England. Our heavy dependence on lawns can be traced back to the 1700s when they were status symbols, signaling great wealth. Having huge lawns meant you could devote large tracts of land away from productive agriculture, and could hire the extensive labor needed in those days to maintain them.

Today, they continue as status symbols. Many people think that perfectly trimmed, brilliantly green lawns are part of being a good citizen and neighbor. But do they really represent good citizenship? The fertilizers and herbicides used to maintain this standard ends up primarily in our streams and water tables, where they wreak havoc on fish and other aquatic life. Further, they are ecological deserts in terms of supporting insects, birds and other wildlife.

That is not to say that no one should ever maintain a lawn. Instead, we should stop the practice of using lawns as our default landscape choice. Besides being a poor ecological choice, they require more labor and carbon to maintain than a well-managed planting bed, especially one that uses mulch and ground cover to control weeds, as discussed in last week’s article.

Lawns accommodate foot traffic, so they can be useful as pathways and play areas. Often, though they are used to fill up the landscape, without regard to whether the entire space is needed as lawn. Many people have found that native ground covers, stepping stones and other materials can often take on roles typically assigned to lawns.

Should you decide to replace lawn with native plantings, you may want to start small by working on one section at a time. The easiest way to convert a lawn is to cover it with cardboard followed by a thick layer of mulch. It helps if you mow the lawn as low as possible before covering.

If your area of lawn is small, you could save up and flatten cardboard boxes to cover it. If it is a larger area, you might want to consider purchasing a large roll of cardboard. These are available on Amazon and sold as packing material.

Once the area is covered with cardboard and mulch, wait six to 12 months for the lawn to die and the cardboard to begin decomposing. Then you are ready to start planting. You may decide to get a head start with your new garden by planting some of your larger “anchor” plants before laying down cardboard. To do this, you simply remove small sections of sod in the spots where you want to plant, and then lay the cardboard around your plantings.

Replacing unneeded areas of lawn can create opportunities to include more native plants in your landscape. Next week’s final article will discuss a number of additional steps to consider in making your home space nature-friendly.

William McClain of Lynnwood is a member of the Pilchuck Audobon Society. A native Washingtonian, he published his first novel, “The Risk in Crossing Borders,” in 2020 after retiring from a career in benefits consulting. He hopes to publish a second novel set in England during World War II in 2023. HIs interests include hiking, nature photography and playing soccer.

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