I Want A Native Lawn

Native Lawn

My search for a “native lawn” has begun! The closer I have looked at my “lawn,” the more I see, and the more I see, the more I see weeds, invasive weeds. It has led me to this somber conclusion — it all must go, all of it. I have come to see the lawn as a weed collector. It’s hairy bittercress and purple dead nettle, chickweed, horsebane, dandelions, and grasses from every continent, little native. There is no “lawn” but a UN of ugly that we mow flat or try to poison into submission.

The Non-Native Lawn: Kentucky Bluegrass

One can even take things a step further and deem the lawn, in it’s typical “Kentucky Blue Grass” form, as invasive. (See The Lawn Is An Invasive Species). In the Great Plains, this grass, eurasian in origin, is deemed invasive, as it drives out our native grasses. You can read about the damage it is causing here: The Invasive Kentucky Bluegrass.

Lawns are meant to behave like weeds, pushing out other plants like the aggressive mono-crop it is. That is what you want in a lawn — uniformity. But despite all irate fake Scotsman yelling at us on TV, or our unfailing and constant watering, fertilizing, mowing and blowing, the perfect lawn never seems to arrive. The weeds come because the lawn is already disturbed habitat, and the lawn cannot defend against them in all seasons.

The Non- Native Lawn is Meant To Feed Nothing

With Kentucky Blue Grass, your lawn will be practically insect free and thus bird free. Little to eat for them. It takes eons for insects to develop the chemical means to thwart the toxins that plants put out in their defense. Plants that are not from here provide little sustenance for our insects, and so they vanish along with the birds that feed on them.

The lawn, an aesthetic created by the landed gentry, was meant to say this: “I am so wealthy I don’t have to grow anything here.” Throw in privet and English Ivy for further pedigree, and voila! the suburban yard’s historic antecedent. Except here in The New World, lawn, privet and English Ivy are all invasive. People need to start to know this.

The Non-Native Lawn Is An Invasive Lawn

It makes sense that in the search for the perfect lawn, we went non-native, or even created our own hybrids. A native grass would be subject to insect predation of some sort. It wouldn’t look as “nice,” probably taking on shades other than phosphorescent green over the seasons. In this mindset, Nature must be tamed. A messy yard brings shame on the neighborhood, makes people nervous.

Along with the transplanted lawn grass, over the centuries we also imported ornamentals from around the world. These exotics have as a major selling point that they are left untouched by our insects. They didn’t evolve to eat them. If these pristine, unchanging ornamentals look artificial, that is the point.

All this replanting as globally we have built the suburbs along with agribusiness has had profound environmental effects. Insect populations have plummeted. According to the late biologist E.O. Wilson, in Half-Earth, his final book, we have lost 45% of our insects globally since 1974, and 1% of our song birds each year since 1964. That is not a coincidence. If the insects go, we go, along with countless other species.

Creating The Native Lawn And Choosing Habitat

So what can we do? How can we each stave off this future? Simply speaking, we go native, planting our yards and public spaces with the aim of building habitat. The person who most inspired me to explore what in fact was growing in my yard — and the vast implications of that — was Professor Douglas Tallamy, a Professor of Etymology (insects) at The University of Delaware, author of several best sellers on the importance of creating native habitat in our yards and communities, including most recently Nature’s Best Hope, which I strongly recommend, and Founder of Homegrown National Park, a community that tracks and encourages the conversion of lawn into native habitat.

70% or 2/3rds for the birds needs to be native plantings for there to be enough habitat for our local wildlife. We here on suburban Long Island are woefully below those numbers, a legacy of generations of landscaping and habitat destruction from development.

An App Will Tell You: The Non-Native Lawn Predominates

A plant identifier app — iNaturalist, PictureThis! — will reveal the ugly truth. The typical suburban lot is planted with what was gotten at the garden store, or a big box store, mostly non-native so as to assure that plastic artificial look. It’s a strange aesthetic when you consider that otherwise people go out at seek beauty in Nature, but people’s tastes can change. They always have. We need for all sorts of reasons to say goodbye to the suburban lawn. It is just too destructive.

Expensive Upkeep For Something You Are Never Seen On

The lawn, put briefly, is an act of conspicuous consumption. Weekly manicures, daily watering, regularly (over)fed, it takes a small army to keep these non-native plants green and tidy, to no particular discernible end.

It was because of Prof. Tallamy that I was out diligently identifying the strange amalgam of plants that was nominally my lawn. We interviewed him November 2021 as he was on his book tour for Nature’s Best Hope.

It was also because of my brilliant colleague Frank Piccininni who had all this planted and who continues to teach me about habitat restoration.

Plant a Native Lawn

What grasses are native to you? Little Bluestem? Big Bluestem? Switchgrass? Red Fescue? Indian grass? What would be growing here if we never came? Not to be melodramatic, but if we don’t replant native and at scale, we have doomed local wildlife. We are all now trying to reach people to tell them how important it is that we all start choosing native — our open spaces, our municipalities, and in our yards. We are watching Nature vanish before our eyes here on Long Island, and with that, the very reason we live here in the first place.

Here is a short film on our planting this native yard back in 2020. This year is the year we replace a jumble of weeds with a native lawn.

Creating a Native Yard and Lawn

The good news is that we are seeing “Little Green Shoots,” people increasingly choosing native plantings, knowing why they are doing it. We even see businesses beginning to understand the virtues of native planting: Corporate Landscaping Opts For Native Plants Over Manicured Lawns (NY Times 04/07/2023).

Planning Your Native Lawn

Recognizing that the biggest impediment to taking action in your yard is not knowing what is in it, The Long Island Conservancy will come to your property to inventory the plants growing there, and produce a summary report for you detailing what is native, or non-native, or invasive, and how to manage each. So long as you are in Nassau or Suffolk County, the fee is $250, well worth it since knowing what you have is essential if you are to have a plan for your plants.

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