It's time we talked about lawns. I'm not the first to bring it up, I know. The drought in California and the southwest (and the green-shaming that followed), and fertilizer-related fish kills in the bays of my home, Long Island, are instigating some soul-searching when it comes to the living green carpets we've been tending around here.
The sins of lawns are many. They are water hogs where water is scarce. The pursuit of the perfect green lawn encourages overfertilization, leading to nitrogen runoff that feeds toxic algae blooms in water bodies. Lawns are sterile monocultures occupying habitat that could instead support hundreds or even thousands of species of native wildlife. Gas-powered mowing is its own noisy, polluting nuisance.
And. And. On the whole, we tend to spend so much of peak lawn time indoors, away from the mosquitoes and heat and humidity, that many of us hardly even enjoy that soft green yard we spend so much time babying.
So yeah, if you ask me about lawns, I'll probably suggest you rip it out, and replace it with something else. Veggies. An orchard. Or most likely (since you're talking to me) a native plant garden.
You see, I don't feel even a little bit bad recommending native plant landscaping. After years of poking around in parks and preserves, learning the names and habits of my own wild plant neighbors, and teasing out the invasive species that don't belong, I can swear to the fact that North American native plants are so dang pretty, you probably wouldn't even miss that plain boring green stuff. And if you followed my advice, you'd be creating significant habitat and food sources for our troubled wildlife.
For all the sins of lawns, native plants provide answers. They're adapted to their local environment, so they don't typically need extra watering beyond what the weather provides. Many of them easily thrive in nutrient-poor situations in the wild, so they don't need extra fertilizers when planted in yards. With care and planning, a native plant garden can be just as enchanting as one packed with typical garden varieties. And a native plant garden is almost guaranteed to draw you out to see what's blooming, and which butterflies and moths and bees and birds are using it. They're the right plants for the right places.
It's so much easier to find sources for native plants now than it was even eight years ago. A web search for “native plants (your state)” will likely yield dozens of nurseries, native plant societies, and blogs. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and regional botanical societies like the New England Wildflower Society are good places to learn about plants from your region.
I've been recommending Doug Tallamy and Rick Darke's book, The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden to everyone I know. It's a gorgeous book that shows how well native plants work with landscape design principles.
It's easy to get started, especially if you start small. And it's a little addictive. One summer when I was a college student, I brought home a dozen prairie plant plugs I'd been nursing in my dorm room. My parents raised eyebrows, but didn't ask questions. While my parents were at work, I dug a nice big bed out of the side yard I hated mowing, and settled all my plants where the green grass had grown. My parents were... not very surprised (I suppose I'd prepared them for this kind of activity all my life). In fact, they were happy to have less yard to mow themselves. Even now, I can count on at least one call per summer from my mom. “I bought a bunch of native plants, so I had to enlarge the prairie bed again.” The bed almost fills the entire yard. Almost. I guess I still have some work to do.
Erin Gettler is a writer, photographer and naturalist living on Long Island, New York. She likes long walks in the woods, but she's too slow for real hiking on account of stopping to look at every little thing. She travels with a sketchbook, and keeps a spare pair of binoculars to share.