Re-Wilding Your Lawn

by Henry Homeyer

CORNISH FLAT, N.H. – Tired of mowing your lawn, but afraid to stop? What would it look like, and what would the neighbors say? I was on a panel discussing “re-wilding” the lawn on New Hampshire Public Radio recently. Here are a few of the points we discussed.

courtesy photos
Above: A sign like this lets neighbors know you are not lazy, but letting the lawn grow for a reason.
Below: clockwise from left: Chrysogonum virginianum is a nice groundcover; Queen Anne’s Lace is loved by bees and other pollinators; Buttonbush flower..

First, a lawn is the easiest, least time-consuming way to maintain your property. If you want a meadow of flowers for birds, bees, and pollinators of all kinds, lots of work is involved. You can’t just quit mowing, or rototill the lawn and broadcast some wildflower seeds, and then step back to enjoy. You would get some nice flowers, but your yard would also fill up with weeds and invasive trees.

My advice? Start small. A little corner of the yard — say something four feet wide and 15 feet long — would be a good start. Decide how much time you can commit to it, and how often you want to work in the garden. Can you dedicate half an hour each morning before work? An hour after work? Good gardens are built by people who do something in the garden every day.

Get a soil test done. New Hampshire and Rhode Island have stopped doing tests, Vermont will do them for Vermonters, while Maine, Massachusetts and Connecticut accept samples from out of state. Get a home gardener test with as much information as possible.

Next, remove the grass. That means slicing through the lawn to create one-foot by one-foot squares that you can remove and take away to your (new?) compost pile. Don’t try to do it all at once; do a little at a time.

Do your homework. Read books and go online to see what will work in your yard. Do you have full sun (six hours or more each day), part sun, or shade? Is your site hot and dry, or cool and moist? Select flowers that will work in your climatic zone and get a variety of bloom times: some for spring, others for early summer, late summer, and fall.

Improve your soil. All soil can be improved with compost. Buy it by the truckload, not the bag. Get it delivered if you don’t have a truck. Work the compost into the soil after the grass is removed.

If you want to support butterflies, birds, and bees, think native plants. Native plants are those that co-evolved with the wildlife. And let wildflowers be part of the mix. Right now, Queen Anne’s lace, a biennial in the carrot family loved by the bees, is in bloom along the roadside. Learn to recognize the small first year plants, dig up a few and plant them. Once established, flowers will drop seeds each year.

One of the panelists did a study in Springfield, Mass. where she asked homeowners to mow their lawn either weekly, every two weeks, or every three weeks. Signs were placed in the yards to inform neighbors the lawns were part of a scientific study.

Her study found that a two-week mowing schedule was best for bees and pollinators: clover and dandelions had time to bloom and provide food without being hidden in tall grass.

Creating a sustainable non-lawn requires not only tall, bright flowers such as black-eyed Susans and purple coneflower, but ground covers to fill in between plants.

In their book, “Planting in the Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes,” panelist Thomas Rainer and co-author Claudia West describe harmonious plant communities consisting of plants needing roughly the same soil and light. A balanced plant community requires a diverse, supportive collection of plants, including ground covers.

Ground covers can act like mulch by suppressing weeds and helping prevent soil erosion. While it can be challenging to find good native ground covers such as groundsel (Packera obovata) or goldenstar (Chrysogonum virginianum), there are other, more readily available options. Winecup (Callirhoe involucrata), is good for hot dry, sunny places, and oregano and thyme, a favorite of bees, can be used as an under-story ground.

Creeping Charlie (Glechoma hederacea), a “weed” hated by lawn-lovers because it can “spoil” a nice lawn and spread like crazy in partial shade, is a native plant with nice flowers and is loved by bees. Think about letting it proliferate in your “non-lawn.”

Lastly, if you want a beautiful and low maintenance landscape, think about planting trees and shrubs. Many bloom nicely and all are useful to wildlife. Native shrubs I grow and love include fothergilla (Fothergilla major), blueberries, elderberry, buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) and our native rhododendron and azalea.

But what about the neighbors? If you stop mowing the grass and want flowers, put up a sign. I recently saw one that simply read, “Butterfly Crossing.” Hopefully, it appeased the neighbors a little.

[Note: In a recent article about tomatoes, I mentioned garlic and onions in my sauce, but it was brought to my attention that sauce containing those ingredients needs to be cooked in a pressure cooker at 240 degrees for 10 minutes to avoid botulism.]