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The Native Lawn: An Introduction

We planted a native lawn!

I am super behind on getting this post written. I've already introduced this project on the socials, so you may have been following along already. There I've covered the what's, the when's, the where, and the how's. The who is me. Just me. Here we'll cover that again for those who are just finding the project, but I'll also go a little more in-depth into the why's.

So what is a native lawn? It's not just a native grass planted instead of traditional fescue. It's not something that looks like a traditional lawn, although it is meant to replace one. A native lawn is a matrix of native plants that mix and mingle together to create a tapestry of low-growing ground cover. It can be mowed occasionally if needed, and probably should be mowed in late winter as a cleanup. It can be walked across, but is not necessarily designed for regular traffic, and is not a great surface for pets.

The plants used in a native lawn should be fairly locally native - preferably in your Level III ecoregion. The plants I chose are roughly similar to those in the native lawn at Cornell Botanical Gardens: Cornell Botanic Gardens, which was the inspiration for this project.

And why on earth would you want a native lawn to begin with? Picture me climbing up on my soap box now....

A traditional lawn is what we describe as an ecological dead zone. It supports no life. It is the largest crop grown in the world and no creatures eat it. In fact, lawns are actually detrimental to the environment:

  • Lawns are ineffective at absorbing storm water, only absorbing 30-70% of the water that falls on them during a heavy storm, depending on how compacted the soil is. This contributes to unnecessary flooding downstream.

  • Lawns are not great at absorbing CO2 - almost any other plant does a better job.

  • The equipment used to care for lawns burns fossil fuels and creates air and noise pollution. The lawn care industry produces 5% of the US's air pollution.

  • Fertilizers and pesticides/herbicides are generally poorly absorbed and end up washing off with the rain, entering our stormwater systems and waterways.

  • Lawns are the highest maintenance portion of a landscape in terms of time, human & machine energy, environmental and monetary costs. They are inexpensive to install, especially if planting seeds, but very very costly over the life of your home in terms of these other costs. Much more costly than planting anything else.

As far as functionality, I urge you to ask yourself how much of your lawn you USE for something purposeful. For activities like lawn games, sports practice, entertaining space, or pet relief areas, traditional lawns are the best surface. If you think your children need a lawn to play in, keep in mind that kids' imaginations are stimulated by exploring, not by sitting in the middle of a lawn. Lawns are really not that fun. How many memories do you have of playing in the lawn?

OK, how much of that lawn are you using? That's how much you need.

The rest can be something else!

And will cost less in the long run.

And will be beneficial to the environment rather than detrimental.

Stepping off the soap box now.

If you'd like more resources on any of that, reach out and I can point you toward some. If you are wondering why in the world we have lawns to begin with...well... I can point you towards some resources on that as well. You may be surprised. In the meantime, you may be wondering what you're supposed to do with the rest of your property? I know it can feel daunting. You don't have to tackle it all at once.

First of all, let's make a slight shift in our thinking. When people tell me they want a low-maintenance landscape, I ask them what that means to them. It's always different, but not one person says taking care of the lawn is a high maintenance task. Most people don't consider the lawn to be part of the landscaped portion of their property. It's a separate thing. Maybe because it doesn't take any skill or knowledge to take care of a lawn. A middle schooler can do it. But it takes a LOT of time. All of the other plants may take a bit of knowledge, and that seems mysterious and difficult. You need to hire someone or have a green thumb to care for it. Or you just don't enjoy dealing with it. Pruning the shrubs is tiresome. You probably shouldn't be pruning most of those shrubs, BTW.

Back to that shift in thinking. Picture yourself standing in your front yard. Take a look around. Now consider every single part of your property except the house and driveway to be the landscape. The shed, the fence, the deck, the hell strip, all of it. Better yet, let's think of every single thing on your property except the house and driveway to be the garden. That's a better word. Your entire property is a garden. The whole garden can be enjoyable and provide health benefits for humans, can be ecologically beneficial for wildlife, and can be environmentally beneficial as well. It should be sustainably maintained. That means we work towards decreasing the lawn and increasing other types of plantings - trees, shrubs, perennials, ground covers. They don't all have to be native, but mostly native is best, a minimum of 70% is a good goal.

What you plant is highly individual. Eliminating that much lawn can feel very uncomfortable. We are all very accustomed to the wide-open expanse of a perfect monoculture. A native lawn is an alternative. It's not a perfect single color. It's not a perfectly cut single height. You can't get those perfectly straight mow lines all season. But it can be low and expansive and open -- an option to something that doesn't feel too "landscape-y" or too much like a traditional garden.

This project is both an experiment and an example. If I want my clients to decrease their lawn footprint, they need to see what their options are. The Harrisburg area does not have many examples of naturalistic design or residential native plantings. So, I'm trying to create a few display gardens myself. A "build it and they will come" kind of thing. You get to follow along to see the process and know exactly what to expect if you want to try this yourself (or with the help of a certain landscape designer near you). I did this in 2022 with the meadow planting on the opposite side of my property. It continues to change, and I continue to post updates.

Here are the stats of where we started with this project in March 2024:

And a quick video of the space from last March:

Hopefully I'll get the next post up soon where I'll catch you up on the grass removal and my not-mulch mulch layer, then on to planting! If you can't wait, hop on over to Instagram or Facebook to see what I've been up to!

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