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Lawn Care for Earth Renewal


Why have some lawn?

  1. You can walk on it and play on it.

  2. The solid green makes a pleasing contrast next to more complex plantings.

  3. You can see over it, which can be important for security purposes. (Other low plantings have the same advantage.)

  4. Healthy turf grass is certainly better than a paved surface at protecting our natural areas from run-off, and better than bare soil at preventing erosion. (Established native plantings are better still at both jobs.)

  5. Lawns where all you do is mow are easy to care for.


Why not keep the benefits and mitigate the downsides by only having lawn where you actually need it? 

Why reduce lawn?

  1. Turf grass is non-native from Europe. In Virginia, it creates a barren environment that offers little to birds and other wildlife. Occupying 40 million acres of the continental United States, lawns constitute the largest irrigated “crop” in the country.

  2. Chemical inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides damage the soil and get into our water.

  3. Lawns waste billions of gallons every day of our most precious resource: fresh water.

  4. Turf grass struggles in shade, making it a poor choice for those locations.

  5. Lawn mowers create air pollution and noise pollution.

  6. Compacted lawns add to the hard surfaces of Northern Virginia such as roads and roofs that do not absorb rainwater. An excess of impervious surfaces leads to massive stormwater runoff that erodes our streams, toppling trees, and carrying sediment from scoured stream beds down to the Chesapeake Bay where it buries the sea grasses that are the basis of that ecosystem. For example, in Fairfax County, 15.9% of the land is covered by lawn (23.1% is covered by buildings and pavement). That's a lot more run-off, not to mention 15.9% fewer birds, frogs, butterflies, etc.

Lawns can include other plants besides turf grass
These native plants may creep into your lawn (assuming you are not using broad leaf herbicides) and are short enough to mow over. They may even bloom as they adapt to being mowed. You can encourage spread of the spring bloomers by holding off on mowing until June.
Plants that mix in with grass
  • Carolina Petunia (Ruellia caroliniensis)
  • Pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia)
  • Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginiana)
  • Bluets (Houstonia caerulea)
  • Carex species
  • Wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana)
  • Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens)
  • Dwarf cinquefoil (Potentilla canadensis)
  • Narrow-leaved Blue-eyed-grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium)
Plants that displace grass
  • Lyre-leaf sage (Salvia lyrata)
  • Philadelphia Fleabane (Eigeron philadelphicus)
  • Violets
Healthy lawn maintenance
These practices will usually give you a conventional-looking lawn without using chemicals, assuming the area gets enough sun amd that you can tolerate the occasional bare patch. If you require that only turfgrass grow in your lawn, though, you will need to do a lot of weeding.
  • Mow high: keep it between 3-4.5 inches
  • Apply compost such as biosolids in the spring (you can repeat in the fall)
  • Use lime when needed (do a soil test)
  • Aerate twice a year
  • Overseed after aerating.
  • Water new seedlings
  • Leave clippings in place to feed the soil.
  • Mow the leaves and leave them in place. Some leaves break down so fast there is no need to chop them up. Maple, Cherry, Ash, Willow and Elm species are examples. Oak and beech leaves are very slow to decompose and are more likely to smother the grass if not chopped up.
Turf grass does best in full sun.

Note: athletic fields are a different matter. An even playing surface is required for player safety. 

Various ways to reduce lawn

Nibble away at the tough places

The first place to consider eliminating lawn is wherever it is difficult or dangerous to mow, such as next to vertical surfaces or on steep slopes. Creating curved borders reduces mowing time.  Shady spaces that must be reseeded annually offer opportunities to reconsider alternatives to grass. And definitely stop mowing within 100 feet of a stream or wetland - buffer zones are needed to protect water quality.


Expand your garden borders

Add a 2-4 feet wide ribbon of exapnded, cleared out bed space every year along existing beds that border on lawn, or allow the woods to encroach. It can be overwhelming to be faced with a large expanse of dead lawn and have to manage the weeding and establishment of new plantings over the entire space at once. This approach also allows you to get a handle on the very specific conditions of light and soil hydrology that exist in different parts of your landscape. 

Help out your trees

Turf grass does not thrive in the shade, and the compacted soil of lawns is bad for tree roots. Mowers and string trimmers can cause serious damage to the bark of trees. Tree experts recommend that grass be eliminated all the way out to the drip line, which can be done simply by allowing the fallen leaves to form a natural floor. Native groundcovers are another good option. Picture is Wild Ginger (Asarum canadensis) and Appalachian Sedge (Carex appalachica).

Add more trees

No landscaping project could be easier than simply planting trees that will gradually shade out the lawn. Because many trees require full sun to grow, this can be a good location for them, and native trees provide enormous ecological services. They are the primary source of food for baby birds (caterpillars, which require the plants with which they evolved).


Use native shrubs to cover ground quickly

In some instances, shrubs can shade out grass faster than trees, and fit better in smaller yards. Shrubs also provide food and an essential layer of habitat for birds.

Create islands of native plants

Pollinator gardens appreciate full sun.


Plant around the edges to capture run-off

Planting beds that stop stormwater from leaving the property are referred to as conservation landscaping” or “bayscaping.” The effect can be magnified by sinking the planting bed in a shallow depression and using the extra soil to create a short berm along the edge of the walkway, driveway, or road.


Go for broke - take out all your lawn at once!

If you don’t need space for kids or dogs to run and play, it is extremely gratifying to convert your entire yard. If the task seems too daunting, any of the local native-only landscaping companies would be happy to do it for you!


Put in a “no-mow” lawn

We save this idea for last, because it is a more complicated subject. No one has come up with a NOVA native that can behave  exactly like turf grass. Some of the possible substitutes might tolerate some very light foot traffic. Any low-growing monoculture in full sun will soon become a maintenance nightmare as grass and other weeds invade. In  shady areas without foot traffic, however, a spread of sedges can look very nice and will require less weeding than in sun.  Pictured is Carex pensylvanica. In a study by Mount Cuba, Carex woodii performed the best. Real-life results can be very variable, so we would not recommend you try this in a wide area without trying it in a small area first. And keep in mind that it will essentially be a large garden that needs weeding, as opposed to what may be a simpler task for you of just mowing. Alternatively, it is possible to mimic a woodland glade with a mixture of native grasses, moss and flower, as described in this handout.

septic field

How to kill grass

Landscapers do this by cutting it out, either with hand tools or with a sod cutter which can be rented. If that sounds like too much work, simply deprive it of light for a few months. An easy way to do this is to use cardboard or a few layers of dampened newspaper topped with mulch. This will all break down and add organic material to the soil. To create a more enriched soil, layer a variety of materials, working from coarser (straw, wood chips, shredded paper) to finer, topping w leaf mulch or compost. You can actually plant or seed the newly created bed right away, thus suppressing weeds/grass blowing into the bare bed and taking over.


Snow and salt

Consider where the ice and snow will be piled during the winter. SInce snow is an insulator, it actually protects garden beds. But will it break the branches of any short shrubs? Will salt from the road be affecting your plants, either via spray or run-off? Some plants are very tolerant of salt, others much less so. We have made a note whenever we had the information on our plant search app. You can also find lists online. A good place to start is the list compiled by our friends in the Plant Northern Neck Natives campaign.


Save on raking

One of the many charms of having less grass is that it means less raking. You can just leave the fallen leaves in place under trees and shrubs and in garden beds. Assuming you have not piled on an extra thick layer, the plants will poke their way up through them in the spring, and the decomposing leaves will create a natural mulch and eventually feed the soil. Soft leaves such as maple leaves can disappear so fast that they can be left intact on lawns without injuring turf grass. Oak leaves are slower to decompose, so if there is an extra thick layer, you might need to mow over them to break them up a bit, after which they also disappear quickly.


This shady lawn is about as low-input as you can get. Over time most of the turfgraass disappeared, leaving moss in the winter, Spring Beauty and small native wood rushes in the spring, and mostly common violets the rest of the year. Much of it never needs mowing, the rest only a couple times a year. 

Healthy soil ...
  • Resists drought
  • Resists disease, salt, heat
  • Increases nutrient availability
  • protects water quality
  • controls stormwater the key to healthy plants

Yet another approach to lawn reduction

Lawn-less yard Deanne Eversmeyer.jpg

No mowing needed in this yard!

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