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

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

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:

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

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

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: 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!