Why reduce lawn?
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.
Chemical inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides get into our water.
Lawns waste billions of gallons every day of our most precious resource: fresh water.
Turf grass struggles in shade, making it a poor choice for those locations.
Lawn mowers create air pollution and noise pollution.
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.
Why have any lawn?
You can walk on it and play on it.
The solid green makes a pleasing contrast next to more complex plantings.
You can see over it, which can be important for security purposes. (Low native plantings have the same advantage.)
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. But established native plantings are better still at both jobs.
Why not keep the benefits and mitigate the downsides by only having lawn where you actually need it?
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.
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. Pictured is Carex pensylvanica. Alternatively, it is possible to mimic a woodland glade with a mixture of native grasses, moss and flower, as described in this handout.
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. 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.