Lawn grass may seem ubiquitous, but monocultures of turfgrass can have negative effects on regional biodiversity and require significant maintenance. Replacing all or part of your green space with native plants can help support pollinators, birds, and other desirable wildlife while reducing maintenance needs like fertilizing, watering, and mowing. Converting a traditional lawn to a native landscape requires planning and preparatory work, but the end result can greatly improve your local ecosystem.
Assessing Your Site Conditions
Before beginning the conversion process, you’ll need to assess your site to determine the best native plants for the conditions.
Site Sun Exposure
The amount of sun reaching different parts of your yard will affect what plants will thrive there. Full sun areas get at least 6 hours of direct sunlight daily. Part sun locations get 4-6 hours. Shade areas get less than 4 hours of sun. Observe sunlight patterns across your site at different times of day and seasons to categorize areas into full sun, part sun, and full shade.
Native plants are adapted to regional soil conditions, so understand your soil makeup. Here are key factors to assess:
- Texture – Clay, silt, sand, loam? A soil test can determine percentages.
- pH – Acidic, neutral, or alkaline? Use a soil pH test kit.
- Drainage – Does water pool after rains or drain freely? Dig a hole after heavy rain to observe.
This information will help select native plants suited to the soil. Consider amending problem soils to broaden options.
The typical inches of rainfall your area receives annually will guide appropriate native plant choices. Group plants by high, moderate, and low water needs.
Your USDA Hardiness Zone
Your zone indicates average coldest winter temperatures. Since natives are regional, choosing plants rated for your zone boosts survival. Find your zone here.
Developing a Native Plant Landscape Design
With site analysis complete, it’s time to design the new native landscape.
Decide on a Style
Do you envision a meadow, prairie, woodland, or cocktail garden feel? Groupings of grasses, wildflowers, ferns, shrubs, and trees can create diverse aesthetics. Visit public native gardens for inspiration.
Choose Suitable Native Plants
Select plants native to your region that suit your site’s sun, soil, and water conditions. Aim for varietal, height, and seasonal diversity. Include blooming wildflowers for pollinators. Local native plant nurseries are the best source.
Create a Layout Plan
Sketch shapes and zones for plant groupings. Use swaths and clusters rather than rigid rows. Place taller plants towards the back and low growers up front. Site plans evolve over time, so view the first iteration as flexible.
Unless you’re replanting a blank slate, it’s best to replace sections of lawn over multiple seasons. This allows you to propagate plants needed for future phases and make adjustments as you learn.
Removing Existing Lawn
With a plan in place, it’s time to remove the existing turfgrass.
Test for Herbicides
If lawn chemicals have been applied previously, have the soil tested for residual herbicides which can inhibit native plant growth. Follow expert recommendations for remediation.
Sheet mulching smothers grass and weeds under layers of cardboard and mulch. It avoids soil disruption and is suitable for phased conversions. The process:
- Mow lawn short and water thoroughly the day before.
- Cover with overlapping cardboard (avoid plastic). Weigh down.
- Top with 3-6 inches of mulch like wood chips or leaves.
- Leave for 2-4 months until dead and break down begins.
- Plant directly into mulched area by moving mulch aside and replacing around new plants.
For hot climates, solarizing kills lawn via heat under plastic sheeting. Follow the same initial mowing and watering steps, then:
- Cover area with clear UV-resistant plastic sheeting, anchoring tightly.
- Leave in place for 4-6 weeks through hottest weather.
- Remove plastic when grass is dead; roots will lift out easily.
- Dig beds and plant.
For blank slate replanting, remove everything:
- Mow, then till or use a sod cutter to strip surface grass.
- Dig up remaining roots and debris.
- Work soil amendments like compost into beds.
- Level and smooth finished beds.
- Install new plants.
Mulch well to prevent weeds while new plants establish.
Maintaining the Native Landscape
A newly planted native landscape needs some TLC as it establishes.
Plan for substantial weeding in early years. Mulch heavily around new plants to suppress weeds. Avoid synthetic herbicides which can damage native plants over time. Hand pull weeds or spot treat with natural options like vinegar or boiling water.
Provide extra water the first 1-2 years for new plantings lacking deep roots. Install temporary above ground micro-irrigation systems for water-wise weed-free saturation.
Replenish mulch as it decomposes to retain moisture and block weeds. Leave mulch-free zones around crowns of plants prone to rot.
Bolster Wildlife Habitat
Introduce elements like brush piles, water features, nesting boxes, and diverse food sources to attract more pollinators and wildlife over time.
The native landscape will take 2-3 years to fully establish and fill in. The long-term benefits for your local ecology and reduced maintenance needs make the initial work worthwhile!
Converting lawn to native plants provides invaluable habitat for birds, butterflies, and bees. The regional plants require less maintenance than turfgrass once established. Follow the steps here to successfully transform your yard into an eco-friendly native plant oasis that supports biodiversity and ecosystem health. What part of the process seems most daunting? Share your thoughts and advice in the comments to help others succeed!