how to convert lawn to natural area

How to Convert Your Lawn to a Natural Area

In Lawn & Garden by Jamie

You know that lawns are an ecological disaster. The synthetic fertilizers (especially synthetic nitrogen) dumped on lawns to turn them green contribute to global warming and continue to destroy the environment. An hour with a gas mower is equivalent to driving 350 miles, if all that exhaust stayed in your backyard. And mono-cropping, keeping just one species over acres, is failing beneficial insects. The ones we need to, you know, fertilize food and eat other pests.

But what other choice do you have? Tons, it turns out, and they’re gorgeous and low-maintenance to boot.

What Options Do You Have to Convert to a Natural Lawn?

You have a wide range of options when you’re converting to a natural lawn, but before we jump into options, you need a good idea of what you want to achieve.

First, consider how much lawn you want to keep. Yes, you can keep your lawn and still be environmentally friendly! Do you or your family or pets play on the lawn? Or maybe it’s been five years since anyone used the lawn for anything but mowing? Are you utterly convinced but your spouse isn’t ready to commit? Do you have local bylaws that you must keep your front yard a trimmed lawn?

Alternatively, how much time and effort can you realistically put into converting your lawn this year? When we get really excited about things like this, we often want to transform our whole ½ acre lawn into an incredible natural wildlife sanctuary right now.

But patience pays off! When you start with a small section of your yard:

  • You’re more likely to actually do it,
  • You’ll feel less overwhelmed,
  • You can observe what works and what doesn’t, soil and weather conditions, and local wildlife, and
  • You end up with a much better designed landscape in the long run, saving yourself from many costly mistakes.

Once you know where you’re starting and how much space you’re working with, decide what kind of space you want and works in the space:

  • Keeping your lawn? Transition to an organic lawn care routine.
  • Open sunny area? Meadow or prairie gardens are calling your name.
  • Shaded area with steady rain? Take advantage and grow a native woodland garden.
  • Garden or that weed-filled spot you’ve never been able to tame? Create a wildlife sanctuary.
  • Want to reduce food insecurity? Grow a food forest or vegetable garden. (Contact your local food insecurity organisations to see if they’ll take fresh food. Even if you’re growing mainly for yourself, planting a few extra plants can provide a nice basket of fresh food for those in need.)

None of these are mutually exclusive! A woodland stretch can open up onto a meadow. A wildlife sanctuary can encircle an organic lawn. You can keep a clipped lawn and garden out front to satisfy local regulations, and party in the back with a wild meadow.

How to Grow a Chemical-Free Grass Lawn?

chemical free lawn

You don’t have to get rid of your lawn entirely to transform it from an ecological disaster to a boon. Grass lawns in themselves are not terrible, it’s all the stuff we do to them. If you and your family use your lawn, or maybe it’s legally required to have a short-cut lawn out front, then you can transition your lawn to organic (and create one section of wild for a wildlife habitat).

Let “weeds” grow or hand weed when necessary. There’s actually no such thing as weeds. They’re things that grow where we humans don’t want them to grow or plants that we don’t know how to use. Some “weeds” like clover and dandelions actually help your soil by adding nitrogen to deficient soil. Others, like plantain, can provide relief for itchy mosquito bites. If you do need to remove them, then pull them out by hand. It’s the most effective natural weeding technique.

Overseed with native grasses. Native grasses are amazing! They’re already adapted to where you live, so they need less water and fertilizer to look their amazing selves. And bonus — because their root systems are so dense, they crowd out weeds and can go longer without water.

Stop using synthetic fertilizers and switch to compost. You don’t need synthetic fertilizer to have an amazing lawn. In fact, synthetic fertilizers are hurting your lawn by destroying the natural beneficial microbes found in healthy soil and polluting local groundwater. Compost once or twice a year can provide all the nutrients your lawn needs while encouraging healthy soil.

Still not quite sure? Here’s the pros and cons of letting your lawn go natural.

How To Create A Wildlife Sanctuary In Your Yard?

The next step up is to create a wildlife sanctuary in your yard. This doesn’t have to be an enormous garden to matter. Just convert a corner of your garden to help support beneficial insects and wildlife. (This is a brilliant use for that corner where you just for the life of you cannot get those weeds under control.)

Your wildlife sanctuary needs 5 things:

  1. Food. Without food, nothing can survive. Plant native species to provide the best sources of food for native insects and wildlife. You can also use feeders to supplement these natural food sources.
  2. Water. Even birds and insects need to drink water. Some need water for breeding, and birds need to bathe in it to cool off in the summer. Water sources should be dumped and cleaned regularly to avoid spreading disease or getting too many mosquitoes.
  3. Cover. Wildlife needs to feel safe from predators, shelter from poor weather, or shade from hot weather. This could be bushes for birds or leaf cover for insects.
  4. Places to raise young. If the wildlife can’t raise their young here, they will go to other places or die off. Some species have different needs as a juvenile than as an adult.
  5. Sustainable practices. You cannot use pesticides in this area, not even natural ones like neem oil, which will kill all caterpillars, including the ones you were hoping would grow into butterflies. Your first instinct might be to make sure “pests” can’t live in your yard, but pests are part of an ecosystem. Pests provide food to other creatures.

Plant native species. Native beneficial insects and wildlife have pretty narrow food sources. While planting any flowers is better than no flowers, native species (like milkweed) provide the best food sources for attracting and benefiting local wildlife. As a bonus, native species are already adapted to living in your climate, so they need less watering and special amendments. If you live in a place that often faces drought and water restrictions, you will save yourself so much headache!

Not sure what to plant? Contact your local chapter of a native species association. I did this with my last garden, and they gave me a top 5 list of native species suited to my light and soil conditions, then sold them to me for $2 a seed packet.

Want to learn more? Homestead and Chill has an excellent guide to how to grow a certified wildlife habitat in your backyard.

How to Convert Your Lawn to a Meadow?

meadow lawn

So you’ve created a wildlife sanctuary in your backyard, and you’re ready to say goodbye to your lawn forever in favour of a meadow or grassland.

Depending on where you live and your climate conditions, you’ll either want to cultivate a meadow or grasslands.

A meadow is an uncultivated area with herbaceous plants with less than 50% grass cover. Most are wildflowers but can also include non-flowering plants like ferns. Grasslands have over 50% grass cover.

Don’t pick up a “wildflower” or meadow mix (unless it guarantees native species). We’ve all seen the seed packets that promise to turn your backyard into a beautiful wildflower meadow. Except wildflower only means flowers that grow without cultivation. These species typically originate from European gardens, not those in Canada and the US. One popular seed in these mixes is purple loosestrife, which is classified as an invasive weed as it overtakes wetlands and out-competes native plants.

In addition, they’re often annual varieties which die each year (although annuals may reseed themselves), when meadow and grasslands benefit from a mix of both native perennial and reseeding annuals.

Show signs that your meadow is intentional. People still tend to think of lawns as the result of hard work, and natural spaces as unkempt, lazy, and weed-filled, which may get you into problems with your neighbours and local bylaws. Instead of trying to cultivate an entirely wild meadow, show some intentionality by:

  • sowing short plants so they don’t get too tall and mismatched,
  • creating well-defined edges with fences, rocks, and gravel paths,
  • using garden ornaments, and
  • putting up a sign that shares that this is a native meadow garden and explains the benefits (who knows, you might convert passersby).

Rideau 1000 Islands Master Gardeners has a thorough guide to meadowscaping.

How To Convert Your Lawn To Woodlands?

Have you been struggling to grow a lawn under the shade of large trees or even larger buildings? Have you been dreaming of growing a garden but can’t find anything that will tolerate that shade? A native woodland garden is for you!

Native species that grow in the woodlands have evolved to get around or take advantage of growing up with a ton of shade.

If you also have bright sunny spots, don’t worry, you can still do a woodland garden, either designing them like the border around a forest or as an open spot in the canopy. These sunny spots are perfect for native berry-producing plants and flowers to support birds and pollinators.

The key to a woodland garden is layers. You have the top canopy layer of the tallest trees (or surrounding buildings), a mid-canopy of smaller shade-loving trees, then a layer of shrubbery, then a brush layer of perennial flowers, and the ground-cover layer.

Worried this sounds like a lot of work? Don’t be. Woodland is the state that nature is always trying to reach. In fact, prairies and meadows have to have outside factors (like fires or heavy bison foot traffic) or they’ll start turning into woodlands. Take a subtle approach and allow nature to take its course. (There’s also a lot less weeding than in a conventional garden.)

Ferns Feathers Woodland Gardening has an excellent intro guide to woodland gardening.

How To Remove Your Lawn Naturally?

Whether you’re converting your lawn to a wildlife sanctuary, grasslands, meadow, or woodlands, you need to first remove the grass so your new plants have access to the soil.

You have two options for removing grass, the hard but fast way, and the slow but easy way.

The hard but fast way. With a sharp shovel, cut the sod into strips to a depth of 1 to 1.5 inches and remove them. This is backbreaking work, as anyone who’s ever dug up sod can tell you, but if you want to start work in a matter of hours or days (depending on the size of sod you’re removing), this is the fastest option.

The slow but easy way. If you’ve got time, then go with this method! Cover the area with a clear plastic, a tarp, or cardboard (whatever you have on hand). The heat will cook everything under the covering. The dead plants will become compost.

Final Thoughts

As you can see, there are a ton of options for converting your lawn from an environmental “no, no” into an environmental “yes, please!”

Whatever you decide to do, start small. Read up on your chosen option for best practices and things to avoid. And whenever possible, plant native species.