I was recently asked how we can use various approaches to lawn replacement or diversification that are usually described for the northeastern United States and Canada. This is a rough draft of what I’d like to share, so I welcome any comments below OR text/email me comments if you have my info. 🙂
I’ve started modifying my spreadsheet to include a view for naturally short ground covers and ground covers you can mow. I’m open to suggestions for additional species that should be included! There are plenty of online resources for creating more naturalistic plantings and meadows, so I will focus on the species one can use to still have a “lawn” type open area while increasing biodiversity (all methods) and decreasing maintenance (going to no-mow ground covers).
A more biodiverse lawn with less work
First, you can just not herbicide your lawn. Stuff will come up. Remove the invasives (white and yellow trifolium, prickly lettuce, etc) by hand if desired. Depending on how near you are to natural areas (seed sources) and how new your house is and how much the soil was scraped off, you may or may not get native plants coming up. My parents don’t mow their yard anymore and have lots of native stuff. It’s magnificent. They also live in the country and are surrounded by seeds and probably had a great seed bank already in the soil. On the other hand, yards I see around the neighborhood that have been herbicided into oblivion (and an unnaturally green lawn), when they aren’t mowed, are quickly colonized by lots of invasive prickly lettuce and invasive dandelions. Yards I see that are mowed but otherwise have been left alone often end up with some nice native species popping up like Texas/false dandelions, spring beauty, showy evening primrose, asters, annual violets, and those tiny spring bluets. The section of our yard that has not been converted away from traditional lawn has non-native clovers, but also annual and perennial native violets and bluets up in the spring, as well as some native grasses like Setaria and silver bluestem that can survive mowing.
The microclover people have a low-effort way to get more biodiversity in your lawn. Microclovers aren’t native, but they are easy to obtain and will provide more support than just a plain Bermudagrass or other non-native turf grass lawn. However, there are various native plants that do well being grazed by the lawnmower with easily obtainable seeds. Winecups, frogfruit, yellowpuff, groundplum, buffalograss, spring beauty, lyre leaf sage, annual and perennial native violets, and more. None of these will outcompete most existing lawns, but I see them coexist fine around town and in other places I know get mowed regularly. Apparently “tapestry lawns” are a thing now, so you can tell any concerned citizens that it’s trendy. (The article linked only has non-native species included, incorrectly identified as native, but the idea is the same.) I am going to start seeding some winecups in our yard and see what happens next year, so I’ll let you know.
A grass-type lawn: replacing what you have
If you want a traditional-esque lawn that contains grasses and is in the sun, then Native American Seed sells “Native Sun Turf” which seems to be similar to Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s Habiturf mix. They also have a mix with blue grama and buffalograss only called Thunder Turf. With the grama in the mixes, it needs mowing, but not nearly as much as bermudagrass or the invasive pasalpum grass (there are native ones but it isn’t in our yard). We’ve had good luck with the Sundancer cultivar of buffalograss that Prairie Moon Nursery sells as seeds and have never mowed ours.
For shade and a grassy look, you’ll probably want native sedges. I haven’t tried this yet, but many sedges of varying heights are available. Plugs are supposed to be the fastest and easiest way to go with sedges (versus seeds like one can do for the native grasses). Izel Plant Nursery does a lot of plugs and you can narrow by height, state, moisture, and sun, plus other filters. Here’s a sample search done for Oklahoma for sedges under 2 feet tall. They try to match the geographically nearest source to you. Missouri Wildflower Nursery has different species and small, inexpensive pots but not the big sheets of plugs. The volunteer sedges in our backyard under the oak tree do seem to be spreading relatively well by seeds on their own, so if you’re not in a hurry it may be good to get a few of each and see what likes your site. The extension service has a great report on sedges in Oklahoma as ground covers in dry shade!
Neither of these options will usually outcompete an existing bermudagrass lawn. (I’m not sure how aggressive St. Augustine and fescue are, and whether shade may give the native sedges an advantage.) Bermudagrass is tough and clings to life. So, for these you’ll want to find out what your favorite way of killing the existing turf is and then seeding, sodding, or plugging in the chosen lawn species. Do an internet search for “replace your lawn” and the common methods will usually be herbicide, solarizing, and smothering with cardboard and mulch.
Reducing your mowed area
Out west, gravel and rock landscapes make more sense to replace a lawn and bans on grass lawns in some Arizona cities have been making the news this summer. Here in Norman, it’s really still quite wet and plants WILL grow in any empty spaces you leave for them! This is why we’re going the groundcover route – it reduces weeding by filling that vacuum with native species we’ve chosen or have volunteered. The gravel mulch I’ve seen in our neighborhood definitely gets a lot of plants (both native and not) colonizing it. I assume they are spraying to keep it down.
In our yard, we’ve gone with a combination of reducing the mowing area by replacing sections at a time with buffalograss and adding more planting beds. Originally the area around the vegetable raised beds was going to be mulch. However, I got tired of how quickly various invasive sedges and bermudagrass were colonizing that, so we’ve started to put as many low groundcovers there as possible. It seems to generally be lowering the weeding upon establishment. (We’re definitely doing lots of weeding in year 1, but the year 2 area is looking good. Mulch may be exacerbating our earwig problem too, so that’s another reason to avoid it for us.)
This does not have to happen all at once. I have a chronic illness. I cannot do it all at once. Our household is carefully budgeting our time and energy to do complete obvious sections at once. The goal I make when picking sections is by how much or little edge will be left for bermudagrass to invade as that’s where most of the trouble comes from for us.
We have received drive-by compliments on the yard so apparently the piece by piece is looking acceptable!
HOAs: I don’t even know
Prairie Up has some great info on how to deal with Home Owner’s Associations for naturalistic larger plantings but doesn’t really address modifying lawns. That author has some older versions of this on a forum post on houzz.com and one on “How to pass a weed inspection” on his blog. If anyone has insight into how or if HOAs get uppity about mowed but non-typical lawns, feel free to comment with info. The City of Norman’s ordinance says no weeds above 12″.