Low-maintenance Landscaping for Earth Renewal

Many of us have no time or interest in planting and weeding - we just want a tidy-looking yard that keeps the neighbors happy. Can a conventional-looking landscape help renew the Earth? Absolutely, if you make some simple changes to your maintenance practices.


If you think of planting native plants and reducing lawn area as a huge gardening project, it may seem overwhelming. If you think of it as fitting into the local ecosystem, the steps you need to take may become clearer. For example, dense woods are not covered with plants every square inch. The “groundcover” is mostly dead leaves and wood, which have a tremendous amount of habitat value. So by far the easiest way to enhance the habitat value of your yard would be to allow parts of it to reforest.

Some simple schemes for adding habitat value to conventional landscaping


If you want to keep the same amount of lawn:

  1. Simply swap out any invasive non-native shrubs or ornamental grasses for neat-and-tidy native ones, such as the ones listed on this page. (Common examples of non-native invasive plants include Chinese Silvergrass, Bradford Pear, Japanese Barberry, Nandina, Leatherleaf Mahonia, Privet, Bush Honeysuckle, Autumn Olive, Burning Bush, Butterfly Bush, Japanese Spiraea.)

  2. Adopt healthy lawn maintenance practices. For details on what you could tell a maintenance crew, see our annotated sample maintenance contract.

If you have room for more trees:

  1. Plant native tree seedlings, taking care that they will have enough room when fully grown to avoid overhead wires, nearby walls, etc. Ideally, plant a small grove of at least three trees, ten feet apart. See our page on native trees. 

  2. Surround the trees with native shrubs.

  3. Mow only to the drip line. Allow the leaves that fall to stay where they are.


When you are ready to replace some lawn area with native plants:

Decide where you really need lawn and where you don't. Good areas to start replacing include

  • Places where you don't actually walk or play

  • Places where it is unsafe or inconvenient to mow, such as on slopes and up against vertical surfaces

  • Places that are within 100 feet from a stream or wetland                     

  • Places that receive less than eight hours of direct sun per day

To kill the grass, lay down cardboard or layers of newspaper and cover them with wood mulch.


If you want to stick to low-growing plants:

Line your foundation, sidewalks and driveways with neat-and-tidy shrubs, native ornamental grasses (for sun), and ferns or sedges (for shade). See our lists here.

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Virginia Sweetspire (Itea virginica)

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Redbud (Cercis canadensis)

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Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)