Unlawning fundamentals

You’ve heard about the benefits of natural landscaping, and you’re ready to turn your lawn into garden or habitat. While unlawning is a straightforward process, it can be intimidating to get started. Learn the fundamentals of unlawning to make natural landscaping easy, cheap, and effective!

Work with nature

Unlawning is all about transforming your traditional landscaping into a low maintenance landscape that benefits the environment. The easiest way to create this kind of landscape is to work with the natural characteristics of your land. What does this mean?

1. Choose native plants

Plants that are native to your area are the most likely to survive dry summers, long winters, or other climate conditions that your area may experience. Native plants also attract beneficial insects and local birds. Source your plants from local nurseries that specialize in native plants. To find native plants, check with local garden groups and organizations like wild ones.

native plants adorn a stairway
Landscaping with native plants saves water and mowing time, and benefits pollinators more than ornamental grasses and flowers

2. Pay attention to soil

Your soil pH and particle size (clay, sand, or loam) will have a large impact on which native plants will thrive in your lawn habitat. You can perform soil tests at home to find out more about your soil and how it may affect your plant choices. A healthy natural landscape begins with healthy soil! Some plants are able to improve your overall soil health. And reducing mowing will prevent soil compaction that impairs plant growth.

3. Natural aesthetic

Your natural landscape design should reflect the character of your land. For example, if your property is near a floodplain or stream, water features and wetland species make a lot of sense! Conversely, on a hilltop with lots of natural stone, native grasses mixed with a few shrubs will work better than tall trees with deep growing root systems. Your natural surroundings are often the best indicator of what kinds of landscape will work in your lawn.

A rain garden in Virginia planted with native wetland species
A rain garden can help with stormwater runoff and is a good example of natural landscaping

Start Small

While you may have grand ambitions of a pristine wildlife habitat in your backyard, it can take some time for your native perennials to get established. While it can be exciting to create as much habitat as possible in your lawn, keep in mind that the first year of your native species life they will require more water. Once they are established, your natural plant communities should be able to thrive in your yard without much help from you.

A beautiful landscape over time

When you start small by unlawning one or two areas of your yard at a time, you reduce the amount of time you’ll spend installing native plants. Frequently, these native species will spread on their own after a year or two.

One of the best ways to start unlawning is to plant a pollinator garden in your yard. Over time you can expand this garden. This will help you cut back on mowing without totally eliminating your grasses, and lets you introduce species native to the area a few at a time. By slowly converting your yard into a natural landscape, you can learn about gardening at your own pace while native wildlife starts to enjoy the benefits right away.

Consider water in the natural landscape

In the wild, plants survive on rainwater and groundwater. Rainwater is seasonal in most places, and many lawns do not have enough access to groundwater to stay green during a drought. Lawns also tend to flood during heavy rain. With careful plant selection and placement, you can alleviate both of these extreme water situations.

Landscaping for seasonal rainwater

In dry or steep areas of your lawn, stormwater runoff is likely to cause erosion, but not flooding. To preserve your soil and prevent water pollution, those areas need drought tolerant ground cover. Native grasses can be a good alternative to turf, and pair well with flowering perennials. A meadow like this can be maintained with minimal mowing – once or twice a year.

pocket prairie in Champagne, Illinois
Meadows are easy to establish and attract amazing wildlife! Truly the epitome of natural landscaping. Photo by Jeff Bryant on Flikr https://flickr.com/photos/jeff-m-bryant/

Landscaping for more water

Where your lawn tends to get muddy and is flatter, flooding is more of a concern than erosion, but drought can still strike. Trees and native shrubs with deep growing root systems tend to be the most resilient to these extremes. Because they provide shade, they can slow down evaporation during the hottest and driest times of year. And with their deep roots, they can help stormwater to infiltrate the ground. Once water is under the soil, the likelihood of both water pollution and surface flooding is greatly decreased.

Plan for native species of all kinds

While plant selection is the primary aspect of your natural landscaping under your control, you should spare some thought for the insects and wildlife that may take advantage of those plants. Flowers are good for attracting butterflies and bees, but the best pollinator habitats also include trees, shrubs, and water sources. Pollinator larvae (e.g. caterpillars) get their food from leaves. Oak and cherry trees can support hundreds of native species of pollinators, as well as the birds that eat them.

Animals in the garden

While it may seem counterintuitive to encourage predators and pollinators at the same time, the complex interactions of these communities are critical for a healthy natural landscape. If the butterflies in your garden had no natural predators, their larvae would decimate your plants!

So, encourage the birds in addition to bees. You can tailor your habitat to encourage or discourage all kinds of wildlife, including woodpeckers, raptors and ground dwelling animals. If you allow nature to take full advantage of your native landscaping, you will be rewarded with incredible photo opportunities, unique experiences, and plenty of other benefits.

close up photo of blue bird perched on branch
This gentleman may chow down on some of your caterpillars, but isn’t he cute? Photo by Andrew Mckie on Pexels.com

Incorporate layers

When you start installing native plants, you’ll be thinking in terms of square footage and placement. But your trees and shrubs will quickly reach much higher than your herbaceous plants. And if you have vines, they will happily spread horizontally and vertically. Traditional landscaping incorporates vertical elements to highlight or disguise certain areas. With natural landscaping, the same can be done – but those layers of vegetation can also serve a higher purpose.

Natural layers

The natural landscape contains an overstory, mid-story, understory, ground level, and a subterranean layer. By selecting a wide variety of local plants that includes trees, shrubs, and vines in addition to flowers, you’ll create an opportunity for a natural habitat to emerge in your yard. This is one area where unlawning differs from gardening. By mimicking nature, unlawning supports native wildlife including bees, butterflies, and birds.

Share your unlawning success with neighbors

One of the most overlooked aspects of natural landscaping is the way it benefits your entire neighborhood. Your neighbors may notice the increase in local birds, but they may not know all the ways that native habitats and natural landscaping can improve their lives.

Be sure to fill your neighbors in on how your native plants helps promote clean air and water. Stormwater runoff impacts everyone, and natural landscapes are one of the cheapest ways to mitigate floods.

A native landscape is a beautiful landscape

An easy way to promote your natural landscaping to your neighbors is to incorporate a small share garden. Everyone loves food! And by supplying free organic produce like tomatoes, peppers, and herbs, you can help your neighbors to associate your natural landscaping less with wild animals and more with food. Maybe they’ll come around and establish a native plant garden of their own!

a butterfly and bee check for nectar on a native flowering plant
Colorful native plants easily match and surpass the beauty of exotic species.

Choosing colorful native plants helps promote the beauty of nature and wild places. As you find out which native plants work for your landscape, you can share your knowledge and wisdom with neighbors and friends. You can teach others how to find native plants and how to design their natural landscaping to look intentional and beautiful.

Ask for help

Unlawning can be intimidating, no matter how much research you do. Luckily, the number of native gardening experts is on the rise. Unlawn.org offers planning services for natural landscapes. We can help you to select colorful native plants, map out your native landscaping plans, and provide technical advice on installing native plants.

an unlawning plan prepared by unlawn.org showing soil types and the forested wetland surrounding a property
An unlawning plan showing soil types on a property

Other groups around the country like wild ones, the national wildlife federation, and homegrown national park also offer technical advice, certifications, and signage.

Natural landscaping brings nature home

a monarch butterfly enjoys nectar while a dog watches from the porch
Natural landscaping gives you unique opportunities to see species like the monarch butterfly in your front or back yard.

One of the biggest benefits of natural landscaping is the connection to nature that it fosters. You will suddenly find yourself swapping knowledge with neighbors, paying extra attention to the seasons and weather, and thinking about your land’s role in the ecosystem.

As your native plants mature, you’ll find yourself with extras you can give away to friends. It’s an incredible feeling to help others connect to nature!

What is regenerative agriculture?

Have you heard about regenerative agriculture and want to learn more? Check out this short (3:53 min) video!

Thanks to Jimi Sol on Youtube for creating this wonderful video

Jimi Sol Youtube

Regenerative agriculture is a set of farming practices that increase biodiversity in soil organic matter.

Currently, most agricultural practices are devastating to biodiversity. Even organic agriculture, while not as bad, still does more harm than good. Regenerative agriculture is a way to reverse this trend, to actually make a positive impact on the land.

So what does regenerative agriculture actually involve?

Answering this question is actually pretty tricky, because the practices that work best largely depend on the land that’s being worked with, so the variety of different practices border on infinity, a bit more than this video can cover.

However, let’s look at three common forms that regenerative agriculture can take:

No-Till Farming

The soil is full of organisms which are helpful for plants. Some convert soil nitrogen into a plant-usable form. Some bring water to the plants that would otherwise be out of reach. Others loosen and aerate the soil, increasing water absorption and allowing plant roots to penetrate deeper.

When soil is turned over by a machine, most of these organisms are killed, so the crops must rely on chemical fertilizer which ends up leaching into the water. Central to no-till farming is to NOT DO THAT.

Instead of tilling, plant cover crops whose roots break up the soil. Let the worms aerate the soil and bring down nutrients. Keep the soil covered with an organic mulch which will break down over time, adding more organic matter to the soil.

Regenerative Grazing

From the release of methane, to clearing forests for pasture land, cattle raising is known for being very environmentally destructive. But this is not inherent to grazing animals!

If the right practices are put into place, enormous amounts of carbon can be sequestered into the ground, soil can be built, and even desertification can be reversed in a matter of years. Here’s how it works:

The growth of grass tends to start slow, accelerate, and slow down again. This middle area is where it accrues the most biomass the most efficiently. If it’s eaten before it gets to this point, its growth will never speed up.

This is what happens with traditional pastured animals: They eat all the grass, which doesn’t have the chance to grow back fast enough before getting eaten again, and we have overgrazing. This leads to soil erosion, drought, and desertification.

But if the animals are kept in a tightly packed herd, like they used to be in nature, the grass has time to grow before being eaten. All that biomass in the grass is carbon that comes from the air. Not all the grass gets eaten, however. Some of it gets pooped on and trampled, which ends up creating the perfect conditions for new topsoil to be built. This ends up happening incredibly quickly.


This is one of the most complex and location-dependent practices there are. I will therefore be over-generalizing.

It always starts with observing a local forest and the relationships between everything in it–the plants, the animals, the fungi, the landscape, the soil, the water–and then re-creating these relationships in a way that’s just as ecologically resilient, but produces more food.

Food forests are often thought of as comprising seven layers: The root layer, the ground cover layer, the herb layer, the shrub layer, the low tree layer, the high tree layer, and the vine layer. Every one of these layers either produces some sort of food or medicine, or is in some way helpful to the system as a whole. The plants are mostly perennials, and include as many native species as possible.


These three examples of regenerative agriculture, plus all the rest of them, all have something in common: whereas in conventional agriculture you seek to create as many of one thing as possible, in regenerative agriculture you seek to create as many relationships between things as possible. You are one of those things! What sort of relationship with the land do YOU want to foster?

Best Trees for Tennessee

Are you considering adding a tree or trees to your lawn or landscape in the volunteer state? This list of the best trees for Tennessee will help you add a vertical dimension to your vegetation. The best tree for your landscaping needs will depend on your soil conditions and where you are in the state.

Yellow Poplar

an ant climbs out of a tulip poplar flower
Tulip poplar is highly valued for wildlife and timber values

Also called Tulip tree or tulip poplar, Liriodendron tulipifera is the Tennessee State Tree, and it is easy to see why! It grows almost everywhere in the state. And while it is not a true poplar, it is one of the fastest growing trees for Tennessee. This is one of the tallest native hardwoods in the U.S. and is a fast growing tree. It performs best on sites that have deep, moist soil and full sun, but it is highly adaptable.

Eastern Red Cedar

eastern red cedar is one of the most common trees in Tennessee
Source: https://piedmontmastergardeners.org/article/the-pros-and-cons-of-the-eastern-redcedar/

Eastern Red Cedar is one of the most common trees found in Tennessee and across the Eastern U.S. It grows best in highly alkaline soils found in the Nashville Basin and on the Cumberland Plateau. It is an early successional species, so it is great for turning old fields into wildlife habitat. While it is not a true cedar, Juniperus virginiana is one of the best wildlife species in the Eastern U.S. This evergreen tree gets a bad reputation for showing up in unmowed lots and along fencerows, but this is due to its highly adaptable nature. This tree will grow almost anywhere, so it’s perfect for those without a green thumb who want to support wildlife habitat.

Black Willow

While weeping willow is valued for its unique aesthetic and dramatic foliage, black willow is a native willow species that doesn’t get enough credit. Unlike its short-lived Chinese cousin, the native black willow can survive for over 100 years. This tree requires very wet soil and prefers full sun, but can survive in shade. The black willow is a larval host to several species of butterfly, including viceroy and tiger swallowtail, making it ideal for rain gardens. Black willow trees have orange and red fall colors. Flowers grow only on the female trees.

White Oak

white oak is one of the best tennessee trees
Photo by K. Keel Blackman. Source: https://utianews.tennessee.edu/white-oak-trees-need-your-help/

White oak can refer to the species Quercus alba, or to a group of oaks that share some characteristics which are not found in the red oak group. While both red and white oaks are good choices to provide shade and support wildlife, white oaks tend to be preferred. When choosing trees from the oak genus Quercus, you are unlikely to find fast growing trees. What you will find is brilliant fall colors, drought tolerant trees with a heavy straight trunk. Oaks are some of the best trees in Tennessee for multiple land uses. And while they may take a few extra years to grow into their classic stately look, they pay it back with gorgeous yellow fall foliage and superb wildlife value. Other species in the white oak group include

  • Post Oak (Quercus stellata)
  • Chestnut Oak (Quercus montana – formerly Quercus prinus)
  • Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa)
  • Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor)

Southern Magnolia

southern magnolia is an interesting tree that grows well across the entire south, especially in Tennessee
The Spruce has a great growing guide for Southern Magnolia

One of the most prized native trees in the volunteer state and across the South, Magnolia grandiflora is part of the rare class of broadleaf evergreen trees (most evergreens have needles). Southern magnolia will survive as far north as Maryland, but only in areas that have relatively mild winters. It may need to be protected from frost, especially as a seedling. Magnolia grows best in lowlands and wet areas, and is happy in partial shade. It grows tall quickly and casts very deep shade. The bright white flowers give way to unique soft cones with large red seeds.

Red Maple

The most common maple species in the southeastern U.S., Acer rubrum provides some of the best fall color in the South. Red maple prefers full sun, but grows well as an understory or mid-story tree around other trees with an established canopy. They are relatively fast growing trees and are fairly disease resistant. The largest red maple in the country lives in Tennessee – in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. In addition to fall color, the red maple provides springtime interest with its bright red buds in early spring, as well as red flowers on male trees and red fruits, called samaras, on the females in April and May. Red maple is tolerant of moist or dry soils.

Best Trees Tennessee Considerations

If you’re planting trees in Tennessee, your choices will depend on where you are located. In the Mississippi gulf coastal plain and Nashville Basin, wetland species like bald cypress and river birch may be better suited. Alternately, on the Highland Rim and Cumberland Plateau with steep slopes and shallower soils, the best trees may be sweet gum and red mulberry. The secret is to put the right tree in the right spot. For more localized recommendations, get in touch with an unlawning expert.

Naturally fix your lawn

Are you wondering, how can I naturally fix my lawn without using chemicals like pesticides and herbicides? Did the previous owner leave you with dead grass or a lawn full of weeds? Is your existing lawn giving you anxiety? This guide will teach you how to fix your lawn naturally so you can enjoy an attractive lawn without using harmful chemicals.

storage room near the tree
Not the look you were going for. Photo by Dids on Pexels.com

Planning for your lawn’s future

Ultimately, you want your healthier lawn to exist in a low-maintenance state that looks nice. If you’re planning to hire a lawn service that offers organic lawn care or a similar specialty, you should watch out for greenwashing.

Greenwashing lawn care

Greenwashing is the practice of overemphasizing the “green” aspect of a business or product to mislead consumers. In the lawn care industry, there are companies that will try to greenwash their natural lawn care offerings. You may end up with a beautiful lawn, but that does not guarantee a healthy lawn or one that is good for the environment. Look for reputable companies that understand organic science.

Reduce the overall size of your lawn

If your lawn takes up most of your property, consider shrinking the size of it to areas that you will use. Even organic lawns are not as ecologically beneficial as native garden beds. Unlawn can help you plan what kind of replacement for your lawn is best for you. Grass is helpful to have in high foot traffic areas, but residential lawns tend to be much larger than they need to be.

a man standing on the grass
There’s still plenty of room for activities! Photo by Mikhail Nilov on Pexels.com

Natural lawn care techniques

For the areas of grass that you want to keep, use techniques that can improve the health of your existing lawn, or remove it and start with grass seed if needed. You can purchase grass seed mixes that will give you a diverse and healthy lawn containing both warm season grass and cool season grasses.

Your lawn’s natural conditions

When planning for the future of your green lawn, you should consider the natural conditions. Natural lawn care is only possible by working with nature. So, pay attention to things like whether you have sandy soils or clay soils. The soil texture can be a very important factor in determining what kinds of grass will thrive.

the soil texture triangle
The soil texture triangle. Start with one component and work your way counterclockwise.

Other important factors you should investigate include soil pH and other indicators of soil health. You can get a simple soil test kit online, and your local university extension office may offer soil testing.

You should make sure you know as many of the following items about your lawn as possible.

  • USDA Hardiness Zone
  • Region/ecoregion (especially if adding native plants)
  • Soil texture including soil compaction
  • Soil pH
  • Nutrient levels
  • Shade levels
  • Water levels
  • Soil depth and rockiness

Choose the right kind of grass

There are several alternatives when it comes to the actual species of grass that will make up your lawn. From Bermuda grass to Kikuyu grass, the correct choice of species will depend on your geographic location and your lawn’s conditions. In many parts of the country, Bermuda grass and Kikuyu grass are considered invasive, and you should not put them in your lawn. St. Augustine grass will not grow in most zones. Achieving a turf grass look in an organic lawn can be tricky.

Your lawn can also contain non-grass plants like clover. In fact, adding clover to your lawn is one of the best ways to improve soil health and support pollinators while keeping a traditional lawn appearance.

high angle view of lying down on grass
A diverse lawn has the added benefit of attracting some pollinators, like this homo sapiens sapiens. Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The best approach is to have a mix of grasses, or a grass seed blend, when establishing your lawn. Blends that contain both warm season grass and cool season grasses are best for year-round appeal in your lawn. Garden centers don’t always have mixes like this, but there are specialty providers online.

Best practices for a natural healthy lawn

Most lawns are managed with synthetic lawn fertilizers, lawn pesticides, and frequent mowing and watering. A natural lawn can be achieved through:

Organic fertilizers

Organic fertilizers are preferable to synthetic fertilizers, since they are less concentrated and break down slowly. This means there is a lower chance of runoff when they are properly applied, and they supply a more steady flow of nutrients to the grass roots.

Healthy soil

Focusing on developing healthy soil will pay off with green grass. Soil compaction is a major problem in most lawns and can create conditions favorable to weeds. Lawn soil naturally becomes compacted over time as people walk or drive on it, especially during home construction and maintenance. Aeration is one way to ameliorate compacted soil.

Mow at the right height

Many homeowners and lawn care companies set the mower blade close to the ground each week. This keeps grass clippings manageable and creates a very neat and tidy appearance. However, a healthy grass blade should be left at least three inches high after mowing. Grass blades are the leaves of the plant, and they produce the food that sustains your lawn.

Water responsibly

Watering lawns is a sore subject among environmentalists, especially in areas where water conservation rules have been put into effect during droughts. The fact is that your lawn should only need a moderate amount of water, applied in the morning and infrequently.

Ditch the pesticides and herbicides

If you have issues with weeds, it is probably due to soil issues or bad mowing practices. That said, weed seeds are aggressive, so you might find them even if you do everything right. Some organic lawn care experts suggest using corn gluten meal to prevent weed seeds from establishing a root system. But beware, corn gluten meal application needs to be timed correctly in early spring, or it will only help the weed infestations!

When the entire lawn needs to go

In some cases, a lawn is in such terrible condition that the area needs to be completely reevaluated. Maybe the problem is constantly wet grass. Or maybe it’s difficult to establish turf grass because of a shallow root system. In any case, you should be willing to adapt to the natural conditions.

If you need to kill your grass

Killing grass can be more challenging than you think. In those cases when it is already struggling to survive, it can be easier. Your lawn might be telling you that it can’t survive in the place where it’s been asked to grow.

sheet mulching naturally kills grass
sheet-mulching a lawn border

Whether it’s to re-seed the area or to replace the lawn with something else, if you need to kill your grass, you can do so naturally. There are three proven methods for killing grass naturally that work even if it has deep roots.

  1. Solarizing
  2. Sheet-mulching
  3. Natural chemical pesticide
Solarizing – bake it

Solarizing takes advantage of the Sun’s energy to basically bake the grass roots and blades. It usually takes a few weeks for this process to work, and it only works at certain times of year. Plus, it is limited in size to as much area as you can cover with a tarp or plastic.

Sheet mulching – smother it

Sheet mulching is a little more labor intensive than solarizing, but it works immediately. There are numerous ways to sheet mulch, but all of them smother grass to death.

Chemicals – poison it

Natural chemicals do not need to be synthesized. For example, lemon juice or vinegar. Organic agricultural and environmental sciences are largely focused on the various effects of natural chemicals. Some natural chemicals can be mixed together to form potent herbicides.

The flip side of natural chemical pesticides and herbicides

Organic science has also given us alternatives to synthetic fertilizers. Many are made at home, like compost tea. This technique can take advantage of yard waste that would otherwise need to be tidied up for a beautiful lawn.

Organic lawn care beyond chemical inputs

Establishing an organic lawn frequently requires alternatives to lawn chemicals. But the ultimate goal of a low-maintenance organic lawn has to be reached through the soil. Soil structure is important, as discussed above. And you should get a soil test. But soil particles are only part of the picture.

Your soil also contains microorganisms that play an important role in an organic lawn. Fungi and bacteria are essential to the movement of nutrients from plants, to soil, and back to plants. Without this living soil, your land will consistently lose nutrients. This is why composting is so widely considered an essential practice for organic lawn care and gardening.

crop woman with organic banana in hands standing in kitchen
Do they have the proper paperwork to call that waste organic? Photo by SHVETS production on Pexels.com

When you have a good soil biome, you improve the conditions for your grass seed to succeed. And continuing to add compost tea to established lawns can help to keep nutrient levels high. It’s a good idea to perform a soil test for nutrients before and after treatments, as well.

Organic lawn care can seem like a lot

If you feel overwhelmed at the idea of organic lawn care, don’t worry. It can seem like a lot! But it’s much easier than it seems. It all starts with your idea of what a lawn should look like. You can work hard and do the research required to maintain your lawn’s current appearance (or something close to it). Or, you can see how having a natural lawn feels.

Your lawn might end up looking a little messier, or more diverse – it’s true. If it’s important to you to have the best lawn on the street, I’m not able to offer you much advice. But your lawn could stand out for another reason – the amount of nature in it. That doesn’t mean it will look wild!

Having a eco-friendly lawn can be more than just organic lawn care practices. Your lawn doesn’t necessarily need to be a lawn. Part of it could just as easily be a prairie or meadow. Unlawning is even easier than going organic. You’ll be glad that you invited nature into your space when you enjoy your pollinator garden or pocket-prairie.

How to kill grass naturally

Looking for a natural way to remove turf from part of your property? Establishing a pollinator habitat or a garden bed means getting rid of the existing lawn. So, how can you kill grass permanently without using nasty chemicals?

Natural ways to kill grass

These three methods are sure to eliminate grass with no harsh chemicals. Which one is right depends on your situation, including how much grass you need to kill, how fast you want it to happen, and how much labor you’re willing to do.

1. Solarizing

Solarizing takes advantage of the sun’s energy to essentially cook your grass to death. In most of North America, this process takes about two weeks. In hot, sunny locations less time is needed.

How solarizing kills grass

Solarizing takes advantage of the sun’s energy, usually by covering the ground with a transparent tarp. The sun heats up the soil to extreme temperatures. This can kill turf roots, and can also be damaging to bacteria and fungi. In fact, solarizing can even destroy weed seeds and insects, leaving the area almost totally free of life for a clean-slate.

Solarizing produces steam in the soil, which can quickly reach high temperatures and damage most forms of life, killing your turf. Sandy soil can be difficult to solarize because the steam escapes more easily.

How to solarize your grass

solarizing to kill grass and nematodes in a test-plot
Source: https://www.aces.edu/blog/topics/lawn-garden/soil-solarization-for-control-of-nematodes-soilborne-diseases/

The first step of solarizing is to remove as much of the grass as you can. Mowing it very low is ok, but for the best results you should till and pull all the clumps you can get.

Next, water the soil deeply. Then apply the tarp or plastic. Clear painters’ plastic is the best option. Remember, you want sunlight to get in as much as possible!

The tarp should be buried along the edges to trap in heat and steam. This should also be done during the hottest part of the summer for the best effects.

Solarizing can take four weeks or longer, so be patient before removing the plastic. You may need to add water throughout the process if your area is in a dry spell.

This process will kill ALL seeds in the area. So, don’t count on an ecosystem springing to life when you pull away the plastic. You may need to add compost to replenish the biota in the soil.

2. Sheet composting

This approach takes the most labor of the three, but is also the fastest and most effective way to unturf. With this approach, your grass is smothered instead of being cooked.

How sheet composting kills grass

Sheet composting is sometimes called lasagna composting, because it is done in layers. Frequently, yard debris or tilled grass is considered the bottom layer of the lasagna, while topsoil or composted soil is added as a top layer. A barrier, such as a sheet of cardboard, is the lasagna noodle.

sheet composting used to kill grass for a landscaping project
Sheet composting a grass area.

To kill grass, sheet composting relies on the concept of smothering. Your grass should be covered by something that it cannot grow through or around. If it can’t get to sunlight, it will die. People sometimes attempt to smother grass with an opaque tarp on the soil surface, similar to solarizing. This is not effective and will not unturf your lawn.

To smother grass effectively, the barrier needs to be left in the soil. But leaving your tarp underground is probably not a great plan. Cardboard and newspaper make a decent biodegradable barrier. And that barrier will last long enough to establish new plants above it – especially with the addition of topsoil and compost.

It is also a good idea to till or disturb the grass before beginning. And you can add more soil in the second and third years.

How to sheet compost your grass

This process is fairly simple, with only three steps. For an in-depth explanation (with a video), check out How to Sheet Mulch Your Lawn.

3. Natural grass killer (liquid grass killer)

If you need a precise touch to kill grass showing up where it shouldn’t, this approach is best. Instead of using harsh chemicals to kill the unruly grass (or other weeds), use a mixture of natural products that damage the grass.

How natural chemicals work and how to use them

Different chemicals work in different ways, and some may be more potent than you expect. So, be careful and do some research before mixing anything too noxious in your lab (or kitchen).

Some common natural approaches to weed-control that you can consider include:

  • corn gluten
  • acidic natural compounds (like vinegar or citrus)
  • salt or dissolved minerals
  • extreme heat (boiling water or torches)

Organic science can get very complicated when it comes to chemical alternatives. Find something that works for you and your conditions. It can be very helpful to find local organic groups.

The best way to kill grass

Each of these three methods has its place in getting grass out of our landscape. Combine these three approaches to ensure success with any grass-removal project. The best way to kill grass is to replace it with a native ecosystem! Over time, grass will not survive where it is not competitive. So, create the conditions for native plants and they will thrive.

Native plants – ethical and sustainable gardening

For a garden that supports birds, wildlife, and the food web, choose plants that are native to your area. Science has shown us that these can support more life than ornamental species from other regions.

What are native plants?

Native plants are those which naturally occur in a region. The opposite of a native plant is one from a different part of the world. Many people garden with species that are ornamental, rather than using natives.

Why are native plants important?

Many people wonder why native plants are better for the environment. All kinds of plants can produce oxygen. And many are attractive to pollinators. So what makes natives so important?

native plant gardening in Tennessee
This native plants garden supports pollinators in middle Tennessee

The answer has to do with ecology. Native birds, wildlife, butterflies, and bees rely on your garden. And preserving these native animals requires gardening with plants that match their needs. Gardening with ornamental plants from other parts of the world can provide some food for local wildlife. But natives can support the most forms of life.

What plants are native to my area?

To find out what plants are native to your area, you can check these resources. Search the National Wildlife Federation’s native plant finder using your Zip Code in the U.S. While you’re there, you can join the Certified Wildlife Habitat program and get a sign to put in your yard. In Canada, search CanPlant to find natives.

native plants in a forest understory
Check out local forests for an idea of what plants are native to your area

You can also check with your state or local university extension office to connect with other gardeners. Join local garden groups and explore opportunities for education related to sustainable gardening.

Where can I get native plants?

If you’re ready to add natives to your garden, shop at a nursery that specializes in native plants. You can also shop online nurseries that serve your area. Choose natives has a list of nurseries that do mail-order as well.

Other sources

Your soil probably contains seeds from many native species. If you’re adventurous and can learn to identify seedlings, try letting a section of your lawn grow out. Chances are, many of the naturally occurring sprouts will be natives.

Another way to acquire natives is to grow them from seeds. You can collect seeds in the spring and fall from areas around your home. And your local library or university extension office may host a seed-exchange program.

Choosing the right plants for the right place

You’ll need to consider factors like light levels, wet and dry areas, and the pH of your soil when choosing what species of plants to buy. If you need help, unlawn experts can create a plan for you.

How to create a native plant garden

If you want photo opportunities and videos of nature in your own back yard, unlawn can help you turn your grass lawn into a habitat. Whether you want to support pollinators or grow a forest, we can help you plan your unlawn project from start to finish.

If you’re more of a do-it-yourselfer, read The Unlawning Guide to learn everything you need to know about native plant gardening.

Local biodiversity

Biodiversity supports our food systems, clean air, and clean water. Local biodiversity is key to protecting these resources in your community. Communities with plentiful and diverse natural areas enjoy a higher quality of life and a healthier environment.

What is local biodiversity

Local biodiversity is a measure of different types of life in an area. Ecosystems like rainforests are known for having very high levels of biodiversity. And deserts tend to have fewer species overall. However, within a desert ecosystem, biodiversity is higher in areas that are undisturbed or contain additional resources. And in the rainforest, areas closer to towns and roads will be less biologically diverse than average.

Species richness

Measuring biodiversity is difficult, because it includes plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, and all the kingdoms of life. To measure biodiversity, scientists use species richness. Species richness is the number of species that are found in an area. Scientists make a list of all the species that have been observed in the study area and count them.

Comparing species richness across ecosystem types doesn’t account for differences in resources. So, scientists will sometimes use a biodiversity index that can be applied across ecosystems.

Examples of local biodiversity

In different parts of the globe, biodiversity looks different. In the deep south, longleaf pine savannas are home to species that can only live in the sandy, sunny forests, like the gopher tortoise.

The Appalachian Mountains have numerous cold mountain streams that provide habitat for trout and hellbenders.

the eastern hellbender exemplifies local biodiversity
An eastern hellbender. Photo by: Ryan Wolfe/Flickr

Along the West Coast, redwood forests contain rare birds like the marbled murrelet.

What are the benefits of local and global biodiversity

Global biodiversity is important because many species play a role in natural processes that benefit humans. From clean air and water to the productivity of soil for agriculture, we rely on biological systems to support life on our planet – life that includes us!

waterfalls during day
Water is filtered by vegetation in forests. Photo by Kavindu Kaushalya on Pexels.com

When a species goes extinct, its role in the ecosystem is sometimes left empty. In some cases, another species can step in to do the same role, but not in the same way.

As the number of species on Earth drops each year, how much longer can the globe support life? Ecological systems and processes are threatened by every extinction.

Why is biodiversity important?

Biological diversity allows species to work together to increase the productivity of an area. In nature, competition and cooperation are the defining forces. Greater biological diversity increases the opportunities for both competition among similar species and cooperation between species that play different roles.

wolves on the grassland
Apex predators, like wolves, play an invaluable role in ecosystem health. Photo by Natalia García Prieto on Pexels.com

Greater cultural diversity can make a city more lively and productive. Similarly, greater biological diversity helps to maximize the productivity in an area. This productivity is measured in the form of ecosystem services.

Ecosystem services include things like food, clean water, clean air, flood prevention, recreation opportunities, and resistance to extreme weather events. One of the clearest examples of ecosystem services is the pollination of farm crops by native bees, butterflies, and other pollinators.

How to protect biodiversity

Unfortunately, Earth has now entered it’s 6th mass extinction event. Meaning we are losing species faster than at any other time in recorded history. Global biodiversity outlook analyses show a major decline. So, how can we protect biodiversity? Conservation groups and events like the convention on biological diversity are working to do just that.

University research findings on the subject show us that traditional knowledge and local communities can inform a multinational strategic plan. As we search for ways to improve the global biodiversity outlook, science and data are the key to a sustainable future.

Why does biodiversity need to be protected?

Species extinctions are happening at an unprecedented rate due to human activity. In many places, local biodiversity trends are not great. And in some of the most biologically diverse ecosystems, like the Amazon Rainforest, human activity is destroying the remaining habitat that species depend on. Species have fewer places to live because land is developed or converted to agricultural uses, like pasture.

farm fields reduce the amount of land available for native plants and animals
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Pexels.com

In many countries, indigenous peoples are fighting to protect both biological diversity and their way of life. Colonialist attitudes and markets change the use and extraction of biological resources. Competing interests, especially in the Global South, have led to a decrease in cultural diversity and biodiversity change. In addition to species loss, globalization has also introduced non native species. Many local communities are losing traditional knowledge while the sudden biodiversity change makes sustainability more difficult than ever.

According to time series data, the implications of biodiversity change are frightening. The global biodiversity outlook is not good. And the research indicates that as the abundance of species declines, so will the productivity of nature.

What does local biodiversity depend on?

The path forward is clear. To protect global biodiversity, ambitious conservation efforts are needed. Renowned conservationist E.O. Wilson proposed protecting at least half of the planet in his groundbreaking book, Half Earth. And the Aichi targets propose a similar, though less ambitious effort along with economic and political contributions into the future.

What is a protected area?

The definition of a protected areas varies by location. Protection can mean the designation of parks and forests, or the use of specific tools like conservation easements. Ultimately, the right kind of protection is up to local communities. Spatial comparisons show that the local biodiversity outlooks improve in protected areas.

parks are well known for protecting natural areas
Biological diversity is high in most protected areas. Photo by Lukas Kloeppel on Pexels.com

How to boost biological diversity

Protection is not always a viable strategy, because biodiversity may already be degraded on a site, especially in the Global North. Many areas need restoration efforts. University and NGO research has shown a positive response in species richness following restoration efforts.

Creating natural habitat at home

Native ecology is the key to making progress in protecting local biodiversity. Many government agencies and NGOs hope to meet goals like the aichi targets creating a strategic plan. But individual landowners are able to treat their property like protected areas today. Local communities and indigenous peoples are connected to the land. And these groups have a vested interest in protecting nature. Ethical stewardship of the land can provide contributions that go beyond political and economic forces.

Rewilding can have a greater impact on local biodiversity depending on the existing level of development. Rewilding is a way to bring nature into local communities and cities where it has been removed. Establishment of small pockets of nature is simple and cheap. Landowners should plant native plants on their land. Native plants evolved to be perfectly adapted to support the existing local biological diversity.

native plants in a garden contribute to local biodiversity
Native plants supporting biodiversity as home landscaping

Parks and protected areas

Much of the history of conservation in North America has been reactionary. The science surrounding species loss is mostly reactionary as well. In the United States, parks account for most public interest in conservation. Every state has a department of parks that provide protection for these recreation areas. Many states also have forestry, wildlife, and environmental agencies.

There seems to be a mismatch between the local demand for natural areas and their abundance. Most recreational natural spaces are in remote, rugged terrain. The accessibility of nature for the average American seems to be far below what is needed.

And any public recreation site that is easy to access for a large populated area tends to be overcrowded. As development increases in the future, access to additional recreational areas is desperately needed. Governments will struggle to acquire and manage additional land. Private landowners need access to resources that help them to protect and manage their land. And not just for recreational opportunities, but also to protect the ecological resources on private land.

Local biodiversity progress

Efforts by conservation groups and government agencies have sometimes been successful at saving individual species from extinction. But the implications of climate change on biological systems have not been tested. And we’ve been unable to slow down the Anthropocene extinction event.

We can’t predict the future. Additional time series data and summary analysis will help science to understand the potential futures of our environment. It has been difficult to predict the effects of climate change, but so far they have been very concerning.

Save local biodiversity now

We cannot wait for definitive science before we act to save our planet. Nor can we hope for a technological answer. Conservation of our remaining biological resources is critical, and restoration can boost depleted local biodiversity. Protected areas need additional funding and support, and every lawn is a potential restoration site.

The average homeowner has opportunities to boost their lawn’s biological value. And individuals can contribute to citizen science efforts to improve landscape-scale analyses by their state or local university. But the cultural pressure for development is immense.

We need to change

Housing, shopping, roads, farms, and warehouses are all in high demand in many places. Our priorities need to change. Market forces cannot continue to control how our land is used. Business as usual is no longer leading us toward progress, but rather toward a global ecological collapse. Nature must be front and center in our communities.

Indigenous peoples have largely been ignored in the conservation and restoration communities. And while many efforts are starting to seek contributions from local communities, both local conservation groups and the global community should look to indigenous peoples in their search for ways to live sustainably.

Bonsai nature

How to follow the principles of bonsai to bring nature closer to your life.

Bonsai is a tool for personal development

bonsai nature just like this tree
Photo by Quang Nguyen Vinh on Pexels.com

Keeping a bonsai tree teaches you to care for a living thing in strange circumstances. These tiny trees live outside of their normal habitat, and they rely on you for their every need. You have to learn to recognize signs of distress and regular seasonal changes. Being responsible for a living thing cultivates a sense of connection to the world and can help you to stay in sync with natural cycles.

Bonsai nature to cultivate a stewardship ethic

By using bonsai methods, you can bring nature into your life. Instead of a meadow, have a miniature meadow. Learn its needs and keep its growth slow and manageable. You can have a tiny version of an iconic American landscape that you get to care for and enjoy.

a traditional bonsai japanese garden. Use north american species instead to bonsai american nature
A classic Japanese garden could be replicated with North American landscapes. Photo by Enric Cruz López on Pexels.com

There will be challenges. You will make mistakes. But there are thousands of books, websites, forums, and gardening groups around the nation that can help you to learn and grow from your challenges and mistakes. Practicing how to deal with difficulty is the surest way to become more confident and compassionate.

Bonsai nature to beautify your neighborhood

Imagine how much a miniature wetland, forest, or prairie would add to the beauty of your neighborhood. You and all your neighbors would have a front row seat to the inner workings of American nature throughout the seasons. The kids in your neighborhood would get to learn about the cycles of nature and the science of ecology, just by playing nearby.

a bonsai cedar and rhododendron with logs behind
Bonsai nature by keeping plants small and manageable

Native ecosystems don’t have to be far away from your house in a park. Bring them home in miniature to keep them manageable, and enjoy full-size benefits. No matter what your yard looks like, there is a native ecosystem hiding underneath. You can bonsai nature as it emerges from under your grass. When you bonsai nature, you benefit from improving your mental health, enjoying better air quality, seeing birds and butterflies, and connecting to the Earth.

How to bonsai nature

I hope practitioners of bonsai will forgive me if I depart from traditional methods while applying the bonsai philosophy to this unorthodox situation. The steps to bonsai nature in your lawn are simple, but there is depth to each one. Let’s start with the basics:

Step 1: Determine what kind of ecosystem you can bonsai

The ecosystem that will thrive in your yard depends on the conditions where you live. And while it’s true that you can bonsai trees from California or Japan in Tennessee and New York, it’s a good idea to start with native species. You can safely assume whether you are creating a meadow, a wetland, or a forest, that native plants will have a better chance of success in your yard than those from other USDA hardiness zones, or even other continents. Plus, plants from other continents can sometimes escape into the natural landscape, becoming problematic for local ecology. It’s best to just stick with native plant species.

bonsai nature by starting things in pots before transferring them to a permanent spot in your yard
Native red maples make wonderful bonsai trees

So, look around your town or state and find what kind of ecosystems look good to you. If you have a very wet yard, look at wetlands or lake shores. Those with a dry yard should look at hillsides and ridges. And if your yard is shady, look underneath the forest canopy. But if it is sunny, look for open fields and meadows.

Step 2: Make a plan

Your bonsai ecosystem should sit on a specific part of your lawn. Determine where the boundaries should be, and how you will keep those boundaries. Mowing the edges of a mini-meadow works fine, but a tiny wetland may need a fence or pavers around it since it could become too muddy to mow.

Will your ecosystem mature in its first year? It could take two or three years for the plants to fill out and achieve the intended look. How will you keep weeds out while it matures? Some ecosystems will benefit from weeds that pop up, while others will need more guidance and protection.

You may need to remove the grass from your lawn to give your ecosystem the right look and the best conditions. What methods can you use, and how will you prevent erosion while waiting for your native plants to mature? Unlawn can help you make a plan if you aren’t sure how to get started.

Step 3: Start your ecosystem

You can finally get your hands dirty! Planting some native plants is quick and easy, but you need to know what species will work in your yard and will achieve the look you want. If you’ve already considered that in the planning stage, then you just need to buy seeds or seedlings and put them in the ground.

For most types of bonsai ecosystems, its best to remove all the grass before beginning. In the case of a mini-meadow, grass can sometimes be left alone. And in very shady areas, the grass will eventually die out if native shade-happy plants are added.

During the first year, your ecosystem is at its most vulnerable. You may need to water it until the plants are well established. And you’ll need to watch out for weeds, especially invasive plants.

Step 4: Maintain and enhance

As your plants reach maturity, you can borrow more heavily from real bonsai techniques. You should shape the ecosystem to your liking. Prune branches, stomp on ugly or misshapen plants to make more room for the healthier individuals. Your hand should guide the development of your ecosystem through small, surgical interventions.

tiny mushrooms grow on a decaying log
Some types of mushrooms can be cultivated in your backyard

As your ecosystem fills out, you can enhance its beauty and ecological value by adding new plant species and even smaller micro-habitats. Add a log or a stone. You can even grow mushrooms or add small pollinator hotels. The more diverse your bonsai ecosystem becomes, the more you’ll benefit from it (and nature will too)!

Bonsai nature for yourself, your neighbors, and your planet

It’s easier than you think to bring more nature into your yard and into your life. Supporting local biodiversity can help to heal the Earth, and can help kids understand the changing world that they will grow up in. Start small, and add more as you feel comfortable. Before long, your house may be known as the habitat house!

How to Sheet Mulch Your Lawn

Sheet mulching is one of the most efficient and popular techniques for getting rid of grass! It requires relatively little labor, a few basic tools, and some cardboard and soil (or mulch).

Sheet mulch with three easy steps

Sheet mulching is a simple process that anyone with a shovel and rake can complete. All you need is some cardboard and some soil or mulch. The process is so fast and so effective, you can convert hundreds of square feet in a day. Just be sure to use native plants in your new habitat to maximize the ecological benefit from unlawning!

Thanks to reddit user /u/WaxAndWaneDesign for this excellent video on the sheet mulching process.

Step 1: Prep the edges of your lawn for sheet mulching

Before you begin, you need to identify the section of your lawn that will be converted from grass to something else. Around the edges of this area, cut the turf in sections and flip them over. This will prevent grass near the edges of your project from popping up, and helps you have a clean-looking boundary.

For the best results, till or turn the grass throughout the entire area you want to convert. Breaking up the rootmat of the grass will result in healthier and more receptive soil.

a sheet mulching project underway. Cardboard lays on top of some tilled soil and grass.
Sheet mulching project. Source: https://www.reddit.com/r/landscaping/comments/nyxozb/lets_create_forests_to_replace_our_unused_lawns/

Step 2: Cover with cardboard or newspaper

Lay a “sheet” of cardboard or newspaper, being sure not to leave any gaps, on top of the grass. This layer will decompose naturally within a few months, but by then your grass will be gone.

Pro tip – if you’re planting perennials, shrubs, or trees with an existing root system you can cut through this layer and dig into the soil. Just be sure to fully remove any grass near the gap.

Once you are happy with your newspaper or cardboard layer, wet it thoroughly with a hose. This starts the decomposition process and helps keep everything in place.

Step 3: Mulch on top of your sheet

The last step is the most time-consuming and can be expensive. You’ll need enough mulch or soil to cover your whole sheet about 2 inches deep minimum. If you are spreading seeds of native plants, use topsoil so the roots have access to nutrients and water. If you’ve already planted seedlings or plugs, mulch is fine.

Mulch will help to keep weeds away for the first year or so. You can always clear it away and cut through the cardboard sheet to add plants. The mulch will also decompose within a year or two, adding an organic layer to your soil.

Sheet mulch like a pro

That’s all there is to it! Prep, sheet, and mulch. You can convert huge areas of your lawn with this method using minimal labor. And it takes a while for weeds to move in.

Never Cut Wet Grass Again

How to take the wet spot in your lawn from a muddy mess to a healthy habitat. Eliminate wet grass by embracing a different use for your soggy spots.

The wet grass headache

Mowing wet grass is a pain. And it’s bad for your grass and lawnmower. You’re more likely to stain your clothes and shoes when you mow wet grass. And it’s even worse if your grass is long overdue for a trim but it just keeps raining! Why do so many of us put up with the hassle of cutting wet grass? It seems like there’s no other option. But there is. Get rid of that section of grass! It’s easier than you think and it will look good. Plus, it can do some good for the Earth.

a wet grassy field
Grass grows in a wet field. Photo by Eva Elijas on Pexels.com

Replacements for grass in wet areas

If you want to keep that lawn appearance, or if HOA rules require you to keep the appearance of your lawn consistent(ly boring), then consider replacing the wet part of your lawn with a no-mow alternative. Grass alternatives let you continue to use your lawn in dry times and reduce the amount you need to mow.

Habitat types for wet areas

If you’re going to get rid of your wet grass for good, consider replacing it with something that will benefit wildlife and local ecology. By swapping your wet grass for wet habitat, you’ll turn your problem into a source of beauty.

Pollinator habitat

This wet grass replacement allows native bees and butterflies to take refuge in your lawn. You can create a mini-meadow or a pocket prairie to support a diverse array of native pollinators that are facing habitat loss and population decline.

a pocket prairie that has replaced grass lawn
Source: https://www.centraltexasgardener.org/2017/10/backyard-native-plant-pocket-prairie-hummingbird-love/

Converting your wet lawn to a pollinator habitat can be as simple as planting some bunches of Joe-pye weed, swamp milkweed, and bee balm. Plant your native plants together in groups a few feet apart. For less weeding, spread some cardboard or newspaper in between bunches, and cover it with mulch.

Rain garden

If your lawn gets wet enough to turn into a muddy mess, consider adding a rain garden. Adding a depression to collect water can help to mitigate flooding during wet seasons. And a water source on your property can support local bird and pollinator populations.

a rain garden with native perennials replaces a spot of wet grass
Source: https://xerces.org/blog/rain-gardens-are-winwin Photo credit: Capital Region Water District

A rain garden is a little more involved than a simple pollinator habitat. It involves some digging, which means you should call 811 before you dig. Rain gardens can be enhanced if shrubs or small trees, like witch-hazel, are planted on the banks. Use the pollinator plants from above for a bonus ecological benefit.

Forested wetland

If your wet spot stays wet for most of the year, it can support some unique and beautiful tree species. Cypress, black willow, and river birch only grow in the wettest spots. These trees act as a filtration system for groundwater, which benefits wildlife and your community. Plus, they all have medicinal uses.

wet forests make great wildlife corridors
Red cedars grow in a wet area with rivercane

Planting a grove of trees is the easiest option on this list, but can take up a weekend day or two. And trees can be expensive. But if you can get your hands on enough of these trees, you can plant them 8 to 12 feet apart. In between, add shrubs and native pollinator plants.

Say goodbye to clumping, staining, and squelching

If you’re ready to be done mowing wet grass forever, make a plan to unlawn that spot. Wet spots in your lawn are hard to use and a pain to maintain. Instead, switch to a lower-maintenance option that benefits nature locally. Unlawning is easy, cheap, and attractive!