Maintaining a lawn isn’t easy - or cheap! A healthy lawn requires regular mowing, fertilizing, liming, aerating, and weeding. If you’re successful in creating a putting green perfect yard you’re doing so at the expense of wildlife. Most lawns are biological deserts and don’t do a good job supporting pollinators and other critters.
Rewilding is a conservation approach that allows nature to lead the way. It aims to support and encourage beneficial insects like pollinators as well as birds and other wildlife. A rewilded lawn is easier and less expensive to maintain than a traditional Kentucky bluegrass lawn and is less susceptible to insects like chinch bugs. Plus, it offers colour and interest year-round.
The first step to naturalizing your yard is rethinking the space. How do you use it? Is it a space for kids or pets to play? Does it get low or high foot traffic? Also, take a look at your yard at different times of the day to learn more about its growing conditions. Is it very sunny or does it have some shaded spaces? It’s essential to select plants that will thrive in these environments.
You don’t have to dig up your entire lawn or spend a lot of money to create a biodiverse space. Make a plan and start with a small area, rewilding sections of the lawn as your time and budget allows. A good place to start is with native plants.
Native plants are central to rewilding as they’re adapted to local soils, drought, insect, and disease resistant, and attractive to pollinators, birds, and other species. A couple of years ago I dug up my back lawn and replaced it with beds of native plants like swamp milkweed, New England aster, goldenrod, yarrow, black-eyed Susan, and turtlehead. (Learn more about native plants by visiting the Harriet Irving Botanical Gardens at Acadia University.)
The year I replaced my back lawn with native plants, the number of bird species in the yard increased. By year two, our swamp milkweed plants played host to dozens of monarch butterflies, and the garden was filled with native bee and bird species. It doesn’t take long to see the impact of rewilding.
However, my first foray into naturalization started about a decade ago with a $5 bag of white Dutch clover seed. I was tired of fussing with grass and overseeded my front lawn with this compact clover. Clover requires less mowing than a traditional lawn, produces flowers for pollinators, doesn’t need to be fertilized, and once established typically doesn’t need to be watered.
At the time, my front yard was a space for play and I didn’t want to remove the grass, just reduce the work needed to keep it green and tidy. I welcomed the clover, which produced nectar and pollen from early spring through autumn. Other options for lawn alternatives include meadow gardens, vegetable beds, or a no-mow yard planted with Eco-Lawn, a blend of fescue grasses that stay relatively compact.
Ground covers are low-growing spreading plants and often sold as lawn replacements. I generally advise gardeners to steer clear of most ground-covering plants. It’s common for plants labelled as ground covers, like goutweed or periwinkle, to be invasive and spread aggressively through lawns, gardens, and natural spaces.
Instead, opt for a tapestry lawn which uses low-growing perennials like creeping thyme, sedums, and clover to create a colourful and biodiverse space that won’t invade the neighbourhood. This approach is perfect for small, urban yards.
Re-thinking traditional lawns and increasing biodiversity is an important step to creating habitat for pollinators, beneficial insects, birds, and other wildlife. Plus, it saves time, energy, water, and fertilizer. Our rewilded backyard is still a work in progress, but even after only three years, the changes are dramatic and the space offers year-round beauty and interest.
Niki Jabbour is the author of four bestselling books, including her latest, Growing Under Cover. She is a two-time winner of the American Horticultural Society Book Award. Find her at SavvyGardening.com and on social media.