Lawn Replacement

Turf grass replacement with native ground covers or more complex, native plant mixes

There are many reasons to replace some or all of your lawn with native plants:

  • They require little or no fertilizer, pesticides, and water; that’s easier on the pocketbook and much better for the environment.

  • Once established, they take less time – little to no mowing required – meaning fewer mower emissions, less energy and noise.

  • They are an important resource for pollinators, other insects, and all the diverse life that they support.

  • They can be beautiful, and the wildlife they attract can be a constant source of pleasure.

Doug Tallamy offers an articulate and persuasive rationale for replacing lawn with native plants in his recent talk as part of The Ohio State University’s Pollinator Habitat 101 webinar series, Pollinators’ Best Hope: A New Approach to Pollinator Habitat That Starts in Your Yard.

Where to begin?

Key questions are:

(click the questions below for drop down info)

What part of the lawn should I keep, and what part might I convert to native plants?

Think about how you use your lawn. Is there an area where the kids play, or where you like to walk, or where for other reasons you need a fairly durable vegetated surface? Turf grasses are unexcelled at this. But if your yard is like most suburban yards, there’s a lot of grass that isn’t walked on much; some of those areas are good candidates for conversion.

Another area to consider is underneath trees. Grass growing right up to the trunk isn’t particularly good for the tree; one arborist we know has a saying, “healthy lawn = unhealthy tree” because of their differing needs for fertilizer, water, and pH. Many arborists suggest mulching out to the tree’s drip line. One concept that has been gaining traction, known as Soft Landings, is the planting of native plants underneath native trees, particularly those like oaks that support a lot of insect species. Many of the insects that feed on trees drop to the ground to complete their life cycles in the soil and leaf litter, and often perish on the compacted, mown surface of lawns. (It will be important to leave the leaves for them to survive).

How do I remove the grass?

There are multiple options: cutting and removing the sod by hand (which requires lots of time and effort, but is fast), using sheet mulching to smother the grass plants (easy, but not fast), pesticides (not preferred!), and using clear plastic during hot sunny weather to bake the grass (with collateral damage for soil microorganisms). To read more about your options, see this quick overview by the nonprofit Healthy Yards.

What should I plant in its place?

Do you want a low-growing ground cover, to recreate the lawn aesthetic? If so, good resources are Dan Wilder’s list of native lawn alternative species and the book, Native Ground Covers for Northeast Landscapes published in 2022 by the Wild Seed Project. Cornell Botanic Gardens undertook a native lawn demonstration project that they documented in text and video. It’s a little labor intensive but may give you ideas.

If you’re interested in a more complex landscape for part of your lawn, the sky is the limit (literally!). Consider starting with one or more native trees, particularly so-called “keystone species” that support large numbers of insect species and provide a host of other benefits. See the resources on our What to Plant page; in particular, try the National Wildlife Society’s Native Plant Finder, which quickly identifies keystone tree, shrub and perennial species in your area.

If you’re looking for a meadow-like appearance, get a copy of Lawns into Meadows by Owen Wormser, just out in a second edition in November 2022.

Need inspiration and more ideas?

Check out these helpful articles:

Skip the Rake and Leave the Leaves for a Healthier, Greener Lawn. Derek Markham, Tree Hugger, 2020.

How to Put Your Yard to Work for the Climate. Susannah Shmurak, Sierra, 2016. Some strategic changes to your landscaping can help reduce your impact on the planet.

Here’s a great excuse to stop mowing your lawn. Kate Baggaley, Popular Science, 2018. Introducing the lazy way to make your yard into a pollinator haven.

How to Fall Out of Love With Your Lawn. Video by Agnes Walton and Kirby Ferguson, New York Times, Aug. 2022.

Clover Lawns Are Blooming in Front Yards, and on TikTok. Anna Kode, New York Times, Sept. 10, 2022.

Lawns are in retreat. Is suburbia ready for the front-yard veggie garden? Adrian Higgins, Washington Post, 2019.