This is it – the comprehensive guide to unlawning. Whether you are a gardening expert or have yet to discover your green thumb, this guide will teach you everything you need to know to unlawn.
Warning: This is a long article that covers a lot of topics! Use the links below to jump to the section you’re most interested in.
Table of Contents
- Why we should all unlawn
- Objectives of this guide
- Approaches to unlawning
- Understanding your lawn
- Where to start with unlawning
- Plant selection and placement
- Maps and plans
- Executing the plan – Techniques
- Neighbors, HOAs, and future buyers
- Concluding thoughts
Introduction to unlawning
Why would we want to bring nature onto our front doorsteps?
Connecting to land
I’ve always loved wild places, far away from human hands and machines. I wanted to work outdoors, especially in a forest. But I, like most Americans, lived in the suburbs. Up close and personal with the mega-highways, strip malls, soccer fields, and lawns. Everywhere, lawns.
Since then, I’ve had jobs in state forests, wildland firefighting, and private forest conservation. And while I love getting out to wild places, I wish they were close enough to the city to be part of everyone’s average week. It’s hard to bring people to the forest. It takes time and money to go on an adventure, and it can be scary.
I knew that connecting with forests was important to a lot of people. And many people wish they could have a closer connection to nature. The evidence for this is obvious – just visit any popular park or hiking trail on a weekend when the weather is nice. You have to drive to a remote area with limited parking to get away from the crowds.
This is a problem! People want to visit nature, but the best version of it is hard to access. I was so upset over this disconnect that I thought about it night and day for years. Why is nature so far away from where I live? And how can people connect to the land in their daily life?
Bringing Nature Home
I first heard about rewilding around 2018. All around the globe, cities were setting aside places for mini-forests, meadows, and wildlife habitats. I thought, “this is great! Maybe my city will do this!” Then I opened Google Maps and looked for the best spots in town for a new micro-forest to suggest to the city council.
As it turns out, my city, like many others, is already covered in trees. The “urban forest,” according to the USDA Forest Service is made up of about 127 million acres of leaf area, nationally.
Some 5.5 billion trees exist in America’s urban spaces. Even in my own neighborhood, trees are in virtually every lawn. So why does nature feel so absent? What’s missing?
If you spend any time outdoors hiking, fishing, hunting, or birdwatching, you already know the main difference between an urban forest and a “real” forest. There are no manicured grass lawns in nature.
Instead, there are countless species of plants between the ground and the canopy. Each of these contributes to the overall health and function of the ecosystem. Without those layers of vegetation, the urban forest will always be a poor imitation of nature.
Filling the Gap
So, the answer was now clear. The missing link between the places I love and the place where I lived was in between the ground and the canopy. And my own lawn was nothing but air between the grass and the lowest branches of the maples and hickories planted there.
Luckily, I know a thing or two about managing land. And I’ve learned some hard lessons about acting rashly to control nature. I did some research and made a plan. It was time to unlawn.
Why we should all unlawn
Lawns may look green, but ecologically they are the equivalent of a wasteland. They’re boring monocultures (i.e. no diversity) that suck up resources like nobody’s business. And while they have some benefits like ease of maintenance and a tidy look, not to mention play areas for kids, they have become the default landscape for every business and home in the country.
I don’t think we should just accept the default.
Grass isn’t so Green
Lawns provide virtually no benefit to the insects, birds, and other animals that make up America’s many ecosystems. They are also responsible for 30 to 60 percent of our urban freshwater usage.
Thousands of pounds of fertilizer are added to lawns every year. Much of which is washed away by rain into our waterways. And the herbicides used to control “weeds” in our lawns are literally poison. Untrained homeowners are free apply these poisons to any plant that offends their eye. But frequently, they overapply or use sloppy techniques that damage the surrounding environment.
There are numerous other problems with lawns, but let’s talk instead about the benefits of an alternative.
Better than grass
By bordering your lawn with herbaceous plants and shrubs, you accentuate the tidiness and order of your clipped grass. In other words, you create contrast which makes your lawn even more beautiful. The added height and diversity improves your soil and stabilizes the water table under your lawn.
This means you have less erosion and flooding during storms, as well as some defense against droughts and extreme temperatures. Plus, you might catch a glimpse of some butterflies and birds crossing your lawn to their new food source.
Healing your part of the Earth
But unlawning isn’t just a benefit to you and your neighbors. If a lawn is an ecological wasteland, think of unlawning as nature’s healing process. We are all well aware of the terrifying trends caused by global climate change. And there’s little any of us can do as individuals to stop it.
But if climate change is a disease that the Earth is suffering from, unlawning is a way for each of us to help the Earth heal.
Think about this – your property is a small section of this ailing Earth. Will your section just be decoration for your house? Or could it be more than that?
It could be a refuge for species that rely on the dwindling wild places of the world. It could be a place where nature is allowed to thrive right alongside people!
Be part of the solution
You can transform your lawn into a lush and bountiful paradise. The ethical way forward for every homeowner is to unlawn at least a portion of their property.
Together, we can give nature a fighting chance in our neighborhoods. Not sure if unlawning is right for your lawn? Read on to find out everything you need to know to confidently unlawn part of your property.
Read our blog post on 5 surprising reasons you should unlawn
Objectives of the unlawning guide
You can do this. This guide will teach you everything you need to know to get started unlawning. Not only that, but you will feel confident that you will be able to adapt to any challenges that come up. You will be fully prepared to undertake an unlawning project on your property by the end of this guide.
My promises to you are that:
- You will feel confident unlawning a section of your property.
- You will know enough to adapt to unexpected challenges and changes
- You will be inspired to unlawn more of your property each year
- You will start to see and enjoy nature as part of your home
We got this. Now, how should we get started?
Approaches to unlawning
When I was in high school I ran a lawn mowing business for extra cash. One weekend in June, a homeowner called and asked me to come and give them a quote. Their lawn was a knee-high tangle of weeds and grass with a lopsided for-sale sign and an overflowing mailbox.
I gathered that they needed my services because the neighbors had complained. Plus, no buyers were interested in the abandoned-looking property.
Unlawning shouldn’t give your neighbors cause for concern. You shouldn’t need to call in a lawn service to get things back under control. To make sure this doesn’t happen to you, I’m going to ask you to consider three questions before you undertake an unlawning project.
1. Who’s invited?
Unlawning is an invitation for nature to come into your lawn. But “nature” has a lot of different elements and characters. Some parts of nature you might want to invite are things like:
- Edible plants
- Flowering trees and shrubs
- Birds and butterflies
- Small mammals
- Bees and other pollinators
But when you open the door, some of the less desirable parts of nature may come into your lawn, as well. These are things like:
- Toxic plants
- Invasive nonnative plants
- Debris and mud
- Wasps and hornets
- Skunks and rodents
While I don’t love to encounter any of these, sometimes we have to take the bad with the good. But, with good management techniques, we can minimize opportunities for the less desirable parts of nature to come into close contact with us, our pets, and our kids.
Unlawning can create opportunities for some of these undesirables to come into your space. But the degree of opportunity is up to you.
Tailoring your Invitation
By taking an active hand in the unlawning process, you can make your lawn less inviting to the undesirables. All while leaving plenty of space for the beneficial and beautiful aspects of nature. The core concepts here are vegetation density and disturbance frequency.
These two ideas are going to help you control what plants and animals come into your lawn. By controlling the vegetation density and disturbance frequency, you will change the conditions to be more or less agreeable for certain species.
Vegetation density is exactly what it sounds like – how much vegetation exists in the space. This includes vertical density or layering.
In general, denser vegetation is more inviting for birds, small mammals, and nocturnal animals that need cover. Less density is more inviting for plants that need sunlight.
Animals that carry ticks, like mice and deer, prefer to stay in areas that have lots of cover to protect them from predators.
So, you’ll want to keep vegetation density relatively low anywhere that people will frequently visit. There will be less cover, so animals will move through quickly instead of hanging around. And new plants sprouting under the existing vegetation are easier to see and remove if needed.
Your best tools for keeping vegetation density low are trampling and pruning. Trampling is simply stepping on plants that are taking up space that you would prefer to be clear. Pruning is removing branches or tops from plants that are getting too wide or too tall. We’ll talk more about this tools later in the guide.
Disturbance frequency refers to the average period of time in between major changes to the vegetation. For a typical lawn in summer this is about a week. For a commercial pine forest, this is more like 20 or 30 years. When you unlawn, you should plan your disturbance frequency.
You can encourage the parts of nature that you want to invite but discourage others by controlling disturbance frequency. For example, you may convert your lawn to a meadow of wildflowers. This can be mowed once or twice each year to keep out permanent residents.
Or, if you have a dense tree canopy, you may be able to reduce the frequency of disturbances to semi-annual (every other year). Then, you can focus more on debris and invasive plant removal. This allows birds to nest in the area.
More disturbances per year is less inviting for bigger things (e.g. shrubs, mammals). Recent disturbances tend to be more inviting for smaller things (e.g. insects, birds).
So, to discourage ticks and deer, keep the disturbance frequency relatively high. This means you will need to apply those tools to manage vegetation density with a set frequency.
For areas close to your home, this should be higher to discourage nuisance plants and animals. Further away, you can reduce the frequency so you still get to see the wildlife.
Disturbing the ecosystem and controlling the vegetation density are important ideas as you unlawn. You should use these concepts together to keep the undesirables away from your frequently used areas.
In other words, you want to keep vegetation near your house, walkways, and mailbox controlled. This is done through trampling, pruning, mowing, and weeding more frequently.
However, the vegetation near your borders or in steep or swampy areas can be allowed to grow denser. This brings us to the next question you should consider before unlawning.
2. How much am I going to have to work?
The term for the human efforts required to improve and maintain the health of an ecosystem is stewardship. What your version of stewardship looks like depends on your land, your goals, and your ability or resources.
Stewarding the land
If you have a grass lawn, your stewardship probably requires very little thought, but a fair amount of effort or money. You have to mow the lawn almost every week of the year, depending on where you live. Plus, you may have to fertilize, water, or weed your lawn. Or, you may pay someone to do some or all of these maintenance tasks for you.
When you unlawn, you may reduce the frequency of mowing that part of your lawn to once or twice a year. You may switch from primarily managing your land with a lawnmower to a weed-whacker or even a bush-hog.
You may find yourself spending more time with a pair of loppers cutting vines off your trees. Or simply kneeling in the dirt to pull grass and weeds back from your slower-growing plants.
Easing into it
It’s best to start small if you’re nervous about the time commitment. Frankly, mowing your lawn is more time-consuming than stewardship of almost any version of unlawning.
However, the process of unlawning can require some time and work upfront. The amount of work needed depends on which unlawning strategy works for your lawn and objectives. But most unlawning labor can be completed in a weekend.
We all know that time is money. So you may already be wondering about the last question you should consider.
3. How much am I willing to spend?
Maintenance costs can add up when it comes to lawn care. Unfortunately, maintenance doesn’t go away when you unlawn. However, the types and frequency of maintenance can seriously reduce your lawn budget. It all depends on your unlawning strategy and your land’s characteristics.
When you unlawn, you get to enjoy some savings on maintenance. Gas for the lawnmower, water to keep the grass green, and fertilizer and herbicide to maintain the grass all cost money. And they can all drop significantly by reducing the square footage of your lawn.
But unlawning comes with a few costs that you should consider. First, you may need to buy new tools or equipment for your new maintenance tasks. If you are planning to bush hog your lawn once a year, you need a bush hog! But you may be able to rent one if you’re only planning to use it one or two days each year.
Simplicity and Patience
Most unlawning can be maintained with simple, inexpensive hand tools like loppers, a shovel, and a machete. The real expense of unlawning isn’t in maintenance but in setup.
Depending on how you approach unlawning, you may end up shelling out some serious dough for plants, soil, mulch, and other supplies. Keep in mind, though that this is up to you.
Oftentimes, local gardeners are willing to give away extra plants or lend tools. And many of the expensive landscaping materials like weed barriers can be substituted by cardboard or newspaper. Some municipalities will even provide free mulch. Debris cleanup after storms needs to go somewhere (if you’re willing to accept a huge mound of it). The key to saving money on your unlawning project is patient opportunism.
But if you’re in a rush, you can always order up all the plants you want from a nursery. Bags of mulch or soil can be bought from the hardware store. You can even hire someone (like me, if you live close by) to do the labor for you.
Let me let you in on a secret of unlawning: you don’t actually need to spend ANY extra money. The soil in your lawn is chock full of native plant seeds just waiting for the right conditions to germinate.
Use a tiller, hoe, or shovel to break through the root mat created by your grass. Then, wait a few weeks and you’ll get native plants. The risk of this approach is that you may have to endure a season of messy grass. You’ll have to wait to see most of the benefits of unlawning.
If you have picky neighbors or if patience isn’t your strong suit, you may have a better experience with a different approach.
Before you begin
So, now that you’ve considered these three questions you can start to formulate a strategy. Your lawn won’t look like that abandoned house in need of emergency mowing. Instead, you can set the stage and guide the process as your lawn practically unlawns itself. All you need now is a little bit of knowledge about your lawn to help you decide how to begin.
Understanding your lawn
If you look at satellite imagery of Phoenix, in the middle of the Arizona desert, you find grass lawns. This is the hottest city in the nation. The average rainfall here is less than 10 inches a year. How are these homeowners keeping grass alive in an environment that is antithetical to green things?
The answer is that they spray their grass lawns with thousands of gallons of water every year in a place where water is already scarce. What a waste.
This is an extreme example, but Americans have put grass lawns in all kinds of places where they shouldn’t survive. We spend millions of dollars to create the conditions that let grass survive outside of its habitat. Why don’t we just stop?
Lawns by Default
Many of us don’t even think about the lawns adorning every building. The grass lawn was historically a sign of wealth as a landowner could afford to sacrifice farmable land. Now it just signifies that you have the same taste as all of your neighbors.
There’s no longer any justification for treating grass lawns as the go-to landscaping choice. Our planet is slowly choking on our sprawling civilization.
But what would happen if you got rid of your lawn? Well, that depends on where you are. If you’re in Phoenix, your lawn would naturally look like a desert. If you’re in Cincinatti, your lawn could look like a deciduous forest. In Topeka, you might get forest or prairie.
Unlawn with Characteristics of your Land
Every site is different. Small differences like how steep your land is or which direction it faces have an impact on what will grow . Some of the characteristics that you should consider, from most impactful to least are:
- Zone and region
- Proximity to water
- Light levels
- Soil type and depth
- Slope steepness
- Aspect (the direction your land faces)
Zone and Region
If you aren’t already familiar, find out your land’s hardiness zone. You can find out your hardiness zone here: https://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/
Hardiness zone is essentially a measure of how cold it is where you live. Most plant species thrive in one or two zones, but can survive in a few more. The plants that are native to your zone will do the best in your lawn.
But if you absolutely adore a plant from one zone north or south, you can make it work. You’ll need to have the right conditions and pay some special attention to it, though.
Ecology across regions
Ecoregions are another critical, though slightly more complex way of predicting which plants will like your lawn. Ecoregions in the U.S. are divided into levels. At level I there are 12 ecoregions in the continental U.S. At level IV there are 967 ecoregions.
You can find out your ecoregion and more about it here: https://www.epa.gov/eco-research/ecoregions
Or view level IV ecoregions on an interactive map here: https://databasin.org/datasets/6181cea678df4e7ebc61333fc071a4b3/
Ecoregions are all about native plant communities. For example, Nashville and Washington D.C. are in the same hardiness zone, but they are in completely different ecoregions. The Nashville Basin in Tennessee and the Chesapeake Rolling Coastal Plain have very different characteristics.
Ecoregions differ when it comes to water availability, soil type, and plant communities. The Nashville basin is largely well-drained limestone clay soils. These support eastern red cedar and sumac. The Chesapeake Rolling Coastal Plain is home to more loamy mica-schist soils with that support American Sweetgum and Tuliptree.
Of course, you can grow eastern red cedar in D.C. And you can grow sweetgum in Nashville. Many people do – and within every ecoregion are microhabitats that are suitable to less common species.
But understanding the dominant plant communities in your ecoregion can clue you in to what kinds of plants will naturally thrive in your lawn.
Proximity to Water
The characteristic that is most limiting to plant growth, provided your plant can survive the winter, is access to water. If you’re in Washington D.C., you may have noticed that the moniker “The Swamp” isn’t totally inaccurate. On the other hand, Nashville is home to rocky outcrops and steep slopes that move water along quickly.
Somewhere beneath the soil in your yard is a water table – groundwater. If you’re in the eastern U.S. it’s probably not too far below the surface. If you live west of the Mississippi river, it may be quite a long way down to your aquifer. For plants to survive, they need to be able to get the appropriate amount of water.
So, if your lawn is high on a rocky hill, select plants that can handle dry conditions. If you’re near a creek and you worry about flooding, select plants that can keep their feet wet.
Light level is the next characteristic that will impact which plants thrive on your property. If you live in the shadow of a mountain (or skyscraper), you won’t be able to grow sunflowers as easily as hostas. Conversely, if you have a bright sunny lawn, you might struggle to raise trillium.
Keep in mind that the light level of your yard changes throughout the year. And it may not be the same on different sides of your home. Your light levels will also change if you add or remove trees and shrubs.
Soil Type and Depth
Also important is your soil type and depth. Some plants, like magnolias, need deep soil to put down their long taproot. Others, like chestnut oak, are happy to spread their roots wide through shallow, rocky soil. The type of soil in your lawn depends on three other characteristics besides depth. Plants might express a preference one way or the other for each of these.
1. pH – soil acidity or alkanity
The pH of soil affects its ability to store and transfer nutrients to plants. And pH can affect which bacteria and fungi can survive to help plants access those nutrients.
2. Particle sizes – clay, silt, or sand
Particle size impacts nutrient availability, but also how quickly water will drain through the soil. Smaller clay particles will hold onto water, while larger sand lets it drain away quickly, and silt is in between.
Many plants prefer a texture called loam. Loam drains well enough to prevent drowning but ensures water availability in all but the most severe droughts.
3. Organic material
Organic matter is the living part of the soil, made up of decaying leaves, sticks, roots, and other life forms. This is usually the top layer of soil and tends to be the most nutrient-rich.
If you’ve heard of gardeners refer to “black gold” or gleefully brag about their compost, they are referring to soil organic matter. This is the type of soil that we can “grow” more of. And it generally follows the rule that more is better for almost all situations.
Slope Steepness and Aspect
Your soil is largely affected by the slope and aspect of your lawn. Steeper slopes tend to erode more quickly, resulting in shallower soil. Gentler slopes normally have deeper soil, unless it has been removed or compacted.
The direction of your slope, its aspect, will also impact light and water levels. Southwestern slopes tend to receive the most sunlight and therefore are hotter and drier than northeastern slopes. This can have a variable effect on soil depth. But it tends to be less pronounced than the effect of steepness.
Familiarity makes stewardship easy
Take some time to get familiar with your hardiness zone, ecoregion, and the other characteristics of your lawn. You will have a better idea of what to expect from the unlawning process. You’ll know which plants you can expect to thrive.
Work with the characteristics of your land. Don’t follow the example of those folks who planted grass in the desert only to have to water it constantly. With a better understanding of your lawn and its characteristics, let’s talk about how you might put your knowledge into practice with some unlawning strategies.
Where to start with unlawning
Let’s start to make your unlawning dreams a reality. This is the fun part!
Pick a Place to Unlawn
When you get started with unlawning it’s best to start small. You don’t want to shock your neighbors or find out the hard way that your lawn is the perfect habitat for poison ivy.
Plus, when you focus on an individual area, you only need to consider one set of conditions. That particular part of your lawn might be full shade, so you don’t need to learn about plants that like full sun right away. Or, it may be the wettest part of your lawn, so you can focus on plants that like a lot of moisture.
Start by thinking about which parts of your lawn are useful to you. Do you have kids who play in the middle of the lawn? Maybe you have a beautiful patio and grill where you can lounge with your friends. These are areas probably best left as grass lawn.
Ideal starting places
The best place to start your unlawning project is usually far from your house. It’s a bonus if your property borders a woodland, park, or waterway. Other good places to unlawn include steep slopes or swampy wet spots.
It may be a good idea to mark out the area you’ve identified so it has clear borders. Use lumber, rocks, logs or tree limbs to make a border that matches your aesthetic. This will make your project look intentional and make maintenance easier.
Inviting Nature in
All you need to do once you’ve identified where you’re going to unlawn first is invite nature to come and do her thing. This can be done by removing the grass from that section of lawn, or just letting it grow out.
You can supplement the native plants that will naturally appear by planting or spreading seeds. Then, when you mow the lawn, remember to check on your baby plants. Make sure they aren’t being smothered and are getting enough sunlight and water.
For a list of native plants in your zip code, check out the National Wildlife Federation’s native plant finder: https://www.nwf.org/NativePlantFinder/
Unlawn with Maximum Ecological Impact
If you want to maximize the ecological benefits of unlawning, you’ll want to plan ahead for vegetation layers. Understand that if you don’t mow or bush hog, your project is likely to eventually give way to shrubs and trees. In some places, lack of access to water or poor soil will prevent this.
Threats to your ecosystem
If you’ve removed your grass and planted native plants, you’ll need to watch out for invasive plants. They’ll try to fill in the space you’ve opened up before the native plants can spread out.
Your best defense against these invasive plants is to create shade and fill it with shade-happy native plants or ground cover. You should take a little time to familiarize yourself with the most common invasive weeds in your area.
The invasive plant atlas is a comprehensive database that has all the information you need: https://www.invasiveplantatlas.org/
It’s all about the plants
Now that you’ve decided where to unlawn I’m sure you’re ready to get your hands dirty. But even though you’ve researched some native and invasive plants in your area, there is always more to learn about plant selection and placement. Let’s deepen our understanding of planting to ensure the biggest ecological bang for your buck.
Plant selection and placement
Want to know the key to unlawning that will make your neighbors envious? Thoughtful plant selection and placement. By putting the right plants in the right places, your lawn will look effortlessly lush, rather than ragged and messy.
Landscapers can be a rip off
Landscape design has gotten pretty boring in the last few decades. A few popular shrubs, some showy flowers, and maybe a bulb bed adorn most structures. And a sea of grass extends out in all directions.
The key to landscaping seems to be making your landscape as boring as possible except a key feature or two. Shrubs and trees must be surrounded by dyed mulch. Flowerbeds should be thoroughly weeded, and borders should be perfectly straight.
Unlawn to Fill in the Gaps
When you unlawn, empty or open spaces will be short lived. Your design and plant selection needs to account for that age-old truism: nature abhors a vacuum. If you leave any horizontal or vertical space empty in your design and don’t enforce its emptiness, something will fill it in.
This tendency expresses itself in a few ways that can be used to your advantage, or else can create aesthetic mishmash.
The Highest Layer: Overstory
Overstory Trees: light level is critical to the development of a tree’s shape. Any light that reaches the trunk (or bole) of a tree will result in new branches. You probably don’t want new branches forming below the existing canopy.
You also want to prevent a tree from branching too low when it is young. The exceptions to this are species that like to have a split trunk. Pruning your tree’s lower branches in the fall or late winter encourages a good shape. Once your tree’s crown shades its bole, the tendency to branch lower on the stem is reduced.
Trees are usually best placed far enough from the house that they won’t damage it if they fall. It drives me crazy to see 80-foot tall oak trees leaning over a house! A tree that could have survived for hundreds of years with better placement has to go to waste for the safety of the structure.
However, trees can be stable and safe near a structure if there are enough of them to interlock roots like a redwood forest.
If you’re in an ecoregion where forests are common and you have the space, trees should be in your plan. But as trees reach maturity, they may start to bump up against one another. If this happens, they will begin to compete for resources and the slower-growing individual(s) may die.
Understory Trees and Shrubs: these species tend to be more tolerant of shade. They present a bush-like appearance in full sun. Bushes are great, but need to be pruned in spring or early summer. Otherwise they will look like a bramble.
If you have some shade, your understory species will resist their bushing-out tendencies. Instead, they’ll grow upward to reach as much light as they can.
Shrubs are best placed on the shady side of structures or under an established canopy. They can also be inter-planted with young trees to prevent excessive branching. Just be sure they don’t outcompete and smother the slower-growing trees.
Waist High and Below: Herbaceous Layer
Herbaceous Plants: here we start to get into the main vacuum-filling layer. You have to be careful and methodical when unlawning that the herbaceous layer looks intentional.
Shade is your best friend for this endeavor because it slows down the growth of your herbaceous plants. But if your trees and shrubs are still babies and don’t cast a large shadow, there are still a few tricks you can employ to keep everything looking intentional.
Controlling the herbaceous layer
Smother herbaceous plants that you don’t want or that are too tall. Smothering can be as simple as walking on the plants that stick out – trampling. You can also cover them with mulch, cardboard, soil, or if you really want them dead, a tarp.
If individual plants are growing out of control and throwing off your unlawn aesthetic, you can pull them or cut them back. Some native herbaceous plants prefer to spread horizontally rather than vertically. Many plants will die back each year after flowering.
Herbaceous plants are your bread-and-butter when it comes to unlawning and they can be grown anywhere. Spend some time learning about herbaceous plants that are native to your area and diversify as much as possible.
Growing on Structures: Vines
Vines: there aren’t many species of native vines in most lawns. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for invasive vine species. If you are lucky enough to have a lawn filled with Virginia Creeper or muscadine grapevine, great! You only have to worry about vines that are large enough to be damaging to trees or structures.
For invasive vines, your best bet is to tear them out to the root as often as you can. With a few seasons of sustained effort, the vacuum of space that this creates will fill with native plants instead.
Vines are typically grown on tree boles or steep banks of soil for stabilization. They vary in their light preference, but usually prefer more light. Vines are similar to parasites that take advantage of other plants’ structures to reach sunlight without expending much energy. They usually grow extraordinarily fast.
Underfoot: Ground Cover
Ground cover: ground cover is a subset of herbaceous plants which have a low-growing form even in direct sunlight. Think of clover, mint, and strawberries.
These are unlikely to offend anyone and they are often thought of as lawn replacements or grass substitutes. They can be a great tool for filling vacuums where herbaceous plants would block a view. But they usually need to be planted above a weed barrier and given time to spread out.
Ground cover plants are your go-to solution for spaces that you want to look manicured but have some ecological value. They also tend to do well underneath trees and on slopes in need of stabilization.
Unlawn Design Guidelines
Let’s sum up:
- Put trees far from the house.
- Inter-plant with some shrubs.
- And let the herbaceous plants fill in where they can under the canopy.
You may establish a native ground cover to keep a more manicured look. But this can take a little bit of work and investment upfront. Don’t let your vines take over and smother your trees. Lastly, let nature surprise you.
If you aren’t sure what a plant is or how big it will get, give it a month or two. It might turn out to be the perfect bit of variety for some color between your spring and summer blooms. All of these herbaceous plants are easily smothered or cut if they aren’t working with your aesthetic.
Plant choices matter
But plants can provide a lot more benefit than just adorning our homes. Many of the plants that work well for unlawning are edible or medicinal. Coneflower, also known as echinacea, is a beautiful native flower. It can also fight off colds and help heal cuts and rashes.
Trees like mulberry and persimmon produce delicious fruits. And passion vine, also called maypop, is a native citrus fruit that grows as far north as Pennsylvania and Ohio.
The plants aren’t just for you
While we’re on the topic of food, let’s not forget the importance of pollinators. Many of us understand the importance of native pollinators, but aren’t sure how to best support them.
While it’s true that every flowering plant will benefit some pollinators, many species of butterfly, like the monarch, are specialists that require a particular plant species. Monarch butterflies can drink nectar from many types of flowers. But their larvae must eat milkweed leaves before they can pupate into an adult.
White oak trees are largely touted as the most pollinator-friendly tree species even though they don’t produce impressive flowers. Why? Because their leaves can be digested by more species of caterpillar than basically any other tree species.
Research pollinator species in your area and their needs when it comes to plants. Keep in mind that many native bee species rely on plant stalks to overwinter and caterpillars can sometimes require a particular genus. Find out what those are in your area.
Plants to support other plants
Another consideration when selecting plants is their impact on your soil. Some plants can “fix” nitrogen. They pull nitrogen from the air and make it available for other plants to use.
Others are prolific mulchers. They add lots of organic matter to your soil, which improves soil quality and helps to store carbon. These are secondary considerations unless your soil really needs some help.
Pairing together certain plants is a great way to optimize soil and plant health. For example, lots of gardeners know that tomato and basil plants love to grow next to each other. Similarly, purple asters and goldenrod pair beautifully and the color combination they produce will attract hundreds of species of pollinators.
Thinking about the Future
Your final consideration in plant selection should be a concept called succession. Succession is the process by which land develops from bare rock to old growth forest.
Every piece of land is somewhere along in this process. But many places have natural barriers which prevent them from developing beyond a certain stage. For example, prairies generally don’t make it past the grass stage because of low rainfall and grazing by native animals. Cedar glades similarly won’t develop beyond an “early successional” cedar forest because the highly alkaline soil is too shallow.
To plan for succession, expect native trees and shrubs to overtake herbaceous plants unless you prevent it. Similarly, many early successional tree species like locusts, cedars, and redbuds are relatively short-lived.
If you moved into a house with a mature redbud, it may only have a few more decades to live. You certainly don’t need to go out and cut down every early successional tree in your yard. Just don’t expect them to hang around forever.
Have a plan for maintaining the canopy over the long term. And lean toward later successional species when planting to reduce maintenance.
Maintaining a successional stage
As your lawn grows up, you may encourage it to leave the grass stage and enter the “woody pioneer” stage. This is a stage of development that provides several types of habitat and can support a high level of biodiversity.
To maintain that stage of development, sunlight needs to continue to reach the soil surface. In other words, you will need to trim back some of the woody vegetation regularly. If not, the whole area will grow into a forest.
Forest is by far my favorite successional stage, but it may not be appropriate for your entire lawn. Keeping that in mind, select plants that prefer the level of sunlight you want to maintain.
Good plant choices should make it easy to maintain that light level. If you have a bright sunny lawn that you want to be a meadow, don’t plant a bunch of trees! Maybe your lawn gets mixed sunlight because your neighborhood has an established canopy. If so, aim for late successional tree species and understory plants.
Decades of Unlawning
By thinking about what you want your lawn to look like in 20 or 30 or even 60 years, you let your imagination start to work. Suddenly, your grass lawn is just the first step toward old-growth forest!
Some parts of your property might be more suited to different successional stages. So, it’s worthwhile to map out where exactly your meadow ends and your future forest begins. Your neighbors may think you’ve just added a few trees the first year. But before they know it, you’ll have a woodland full of birds and bees.
Maps and plans for unlawning
When you’re drawing the lines between the future segments of your lawn’s ecosystem, it’s exceptionally helpful to actually draw the lines. So, you need a piece of paper and a pencil, or some computer software if you’re so inclined.
Make a map of your property as it is today and add in your designated unlawning areas. Sketch in any plantings that you want to add this year. A sunlight map can be incredibly helpful as well.
Mapping the future plan
Think about how your light levels will change over time as your plantings grow in height and density. If you’ve put in a grove of trees, imagine how much shade they will cast when they are 15, 25, or 50 feet tall.
Your map doesn’t need to be a fixed plan. You can always redraw lines and move plantings (at least while they are small enough to move). Sometimes they don’t match up to your aesthetic or the conditions of the site.
Keep your plan flexible. If it turns out that your strawberry patch gets overtaken by invasive honeysuckle, you could alter course to a more competitive raspberry thicket.
Revisit your plan frequently and update your map during the two dormant times of year. During the hottest part of summer, you’re sheltering from the heat and the ticks. So stay in and work on the plan. And in the dead of winter when nothing is growing, make some updates for next year’s plantings and pruning.
Unlawning goes a lot smoother when you have a plan and a map. But turning your drawn landscape into reality takes a little bit of hands-on work.
Executing the plan – unlawning techniques
Unlawning shouldn’t break your back or the bank. It should be easy and natural. By using the right techniques in the right places, you can ensure the best outcome to your unlawning project.
Let’s look at the three main techniques to unlawning in order of least labor to most.
The unlawning technique that most municipalities choose to employ, especially along riparian areas, is to just stop mowing the grass. By creating no-mow zones, this technique lets nature steer the development of the ecosystem.
Ensuring success for no-mow
Be sure to create a clear boundary for your no-mow zone to keep it looking neat and intentional. This technique works best along waterways where the higher risk of flooding provides periodic natural disturbances to slow down succession, as well as on steep slopes and swampy spots.
These areas may benefit from periodic bush hogging and invasive plant removal, or they can be left alone.
Pros: virtually no labor required to establish. Increased soil retention near waterways or slopes.
Cons: can look messy. Prone to invasive plants. Less control over diversity of plants.
This technique requires the most patience to achieve the desired state, but is usually more acceptable to neighbors. Start by adding a few native plants and trees to your lawn. Add some cardboard or mulch to keep the grass from smothering your new native plants during their first season. You don’t need much. You certainly don’t want to create the “mulch volcanoes” that are ubiquitous under shade trees in parking lots.
Gradually reduce the frequency of your mowing around these plantings and be sure not to run them over.
Ensuring success for shading out/inter-planting
As your native plants spread out and cast more shade, the grass should start to give up space. It can take a few seasons for your native plants to spread out, especially if they don’t propagate by seed. This technique works best for unlawning front yards, steep slopes, and highly visible areas.
Pros: gradually shifts the plant composition of your lawn, making it less shocking to neighbors. Minimal labor and investment required.
Cons: slow progress. Mowing still required.
For those who are serious about establishing a native ecosystem as quickly as possible, removing your grass lawn and replacing it completely with native plants is the best option. There are a few ways to get rid of your grass, but they all have a few elements in common.
First, you need to break up the root mat that grass creates. This can be done by tilling, raking, hoeing, or turning the soil with a shovel.
Next, you need to prevent the grass from popping right back up. A weed barrier is useful, but you don’t need anything permanent. You just need to give your native plants a head start of a season or two.
The perfect biodegradable weed barrier is cardboard or newspaper. Once you’ve disrupted the root mat, cover your soil with a layer of cardboard or newspaper. Wet it thoroughly, and toss some mulch or soil on top to hold everything down.
Alternatively, solarizing your disturbed soil for a month or two will kill off the grass. This involves baking the roots by covering the area with a clear plastic sheet.
Lastly, you need to introduce some native plants. You can sow seeds directly in the soil or plant nursery stock, depending on the time of year. If you’ve added a cardboard or newspaper weed barrier, just cut a small hole to plant your nursery stock. If you’re starting from seeds, you can toss them straight on top of your weed barrier with a layer of topsoil.
Ensuring success for lawn removal
You will probably have several varieties of native plants that appear even though you didn’t plant them. You can use the smartphone app Seek or a field guide to find out what nature has gifted you. And, if it’s an invasive plant like siberian elm or amur honeysuckle, you can nip it in the bud. Or better yet, tear it out by the roots. This technique works close to your house, around mailboxes, and on flat areas.
Pros: quickest full conversion method. Full control over plant placement. Cleanest aesthetics.
Cons: Greatest effort and upfront cost. Prone to invasive plants and erosion.
Putting techniques into practice
If you’re willing to give up a weekend and spend a little bit of money on plants and soil, I highly recommend the grass removal approach anywhere near property boundaries, houses, or tree lines.
No-mow will work in these areas as well, but you run the risk of offending neighbors unless you carefully maintain boundaries. Inter-planting is a good compromise but must be accompanied by a long-term plan to phase out grasses. Remember to add plants in layers for both the inter-planting and grass removal techniques.
With any plantings, you’ll want to make sure they get adequate water in their first summer. After the hottest part of the first year, you can let survival of the fittest take over. The only interventions needed for most of these techniques is monitoring and removing invasive plants. You can usually get away with a weeding day once or twice a year. Nature will handle the rest!
Neighbors, HOAs, and future buyers
A few months into my first unlawning experiment, the city codes inspector appeared. He gave us a warning that the grass must be kept below 10 inches. Next time he would have to write a ticket. Don’t let this happen to you!
Thankfully, with a quick discussion, we found out the golden rule for getting away with unlawning: it must look intentional.
For us, a sign was sufficient to establish intent. If you live in an HOA, you may need to do a little more to maintain an intentional appearance. Keeping your remaining lawn neatly mowed shows your neighbors that you haven’t abandoned the property. Borders also help tremendously in establishing some aesthetic control over unlawned areas. Paths and benches also give the impression that the area is being used and maintained.
Keep your neighbors happy
The codes inspector didn’t just show up at our house, though. Someone called to complain about our lawn. In addition to informational signs, a conversation with your neighbors can go a long way in smoothing things over. It’s a good idea to chat with your neighbors about your plans to unlawn before you let things get wild. You may even be able to convince them to give it a try! If you live in an HOA, this is a must.
It may be worthwhile to attend an HOA meeting or two. Find out if the landscaping rules can be bent or even changed to accommodate thoughtful, beneficial native landscapes. I’m happy to Zoom or Skype into your HOA meeting to wax poetic about the benefits of unlawning, too. I’m serious!
You want to make a good impression on your neighbors. So, consider making part of your lawn into a share-garden. Sticking a tomato and basil plant near your curb will provide loads of fun for the neighborhood kids with minimal effort on your part. Your neighbors will start to experience the benefits of nature. Soon, they will be a lot more forgiving of some dead stalks and tall grass. Invite them to come and tour your unlawn project and spot some butterflies and birds.
Unlawning and future buyers
When it comes to future buyers, signage is the key. Communicate your intent to provide high-quality habitat with a sign. The National Wildlife Federation, Audobon Society, Homegrown National Park, or a local wildlife habitat program, can provide a sign so that future buyers will understand what they’re looking at. They may still choose to bulldoze your ecosystem and plant turfgrass – you can’t control what others will do. You can only control whether your land will benefit nature for as long as you are its steward.
When you unlawn part of your property, choose to include your neighbors in the conversation. This way, you’re helping to bring nature into their lives as well as yours. Who knows, you may inspire the next E.O. Wilson or Aldo Leopold! And who ever said that changing your HOA rules or even city codes isn’t an option? There’s plenty of room for improvement in how our society treats nature. And every step in the right direction is a win.
I hope you feel confident now in unlawning a small (or large) piece of your property. There’s more to learn about native ecosystems and land stewardship than any guide could hold, so immerse yourself in learning. The sea of knowledge covering ecology, landscaping, gardening, and land management is always growing. And it contains countless tips, tricks, and lessons learned. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes and don’t wait around to gather enough knowledge. Just start!
A few words of warning:
- Call 811 before you dig. Seriously, the last thing you want to do is sever a pipe or cable.
- Look before you touch. Many plants have thorns or barbs, and poison ivy isn’t a fun experience.
- Check for ticks. Ticks mostly live among the overgrown deer population, but they may find their way into your lawn in the summer. Check your skin thoroughly after spending time outdoors. Use disinfectant if you get a bite to reduce the risk of Lyme disease.