Friday, June 16, 2006

How to Convert a Lawn to a Native Meadow or Woodland

An All-Native Meadow of Wildlife-Friendly Plants in North Carolina

photo by Sally Kneidel

Before yesterday, I'm not sure I'd ever seen a meadow of all native plants anywhere east of the Mississipppi. But I have now, and it was stunning! I interviewed Beth Henry and Mollie Brugh yesterday, about their conversion of a schoolyard to a native meadow and a native woodland in North Carolina. They've gained some local fame with their successful and lovely landscape restoration projects. I'd like to follow their example in my own bedraggled yard, which is neither lawn nor meadow, but a pathetic mixture of trampled invasives, sparse dehydrated grasses, and bare spots.

We took a tour of the schoolgrounds and Beth's property around her own house, which she also converted from lawn to native meadow and woodland. At both sites, home and school, most plants were selected for the seeds or fruit or nectar they provide for wildlife. Although the schoolyard is impressive, Beth's property at home is even more so, since she was able to follow her own whims entirely, and she has full sun for half of it. So I'm going to focus on that.

I was astonished at how beautiful Beth's meadow is. I expected it to be parched, because NC is hot and dry in summer. But it was lush and green. Being all native plants, they're adapted to this climate and need no watering, no fertilizing, no tending whatsoever. So many flowers! Purple coneflowers, lantana, pagoda dogwood, and many many more. She had passion flowers for frittilary butterflies, native grasses for skippers - she knew which plants are hosts for which caterpillars, which plants provide the best nectar, seeds, and fruit.

Beth has had her home meadow and woodland for 4 years now. She got a lot of her ideas from two books by Sara Stein - Noah's Garden and Planting Noah's Garden - which she said were a tremendous inspiration.

Replacing Lawn with Native Meadow
The first thing to do in converting a lawn, Beth said, is to lay down a thick layer of newspapers all over the lawn, and cover the layer heavily with mulch. She ordered two dumptrucks of mulch for her own yard, but she has a couple of acres. Beth said to leave the mulch-covered newspaper down all summer to kill the grass.

After she removed all the dead grass on her own property, Beth was ready to plant. No tilling or fertilizing needed for native plants. She put in plugs of small already-sprouted seedlings. Very young plants. She said there are a lot of good sources of native seedlings that have been propogated by growers rather than wild-dug. Avoid wild-dug plants, obviously. In North Carolina, she uses these sources: North Carolina Native Plants Society, Meadowbrook Nursery in Marion NC, Northcreek Nursery, Carolina Greenery, Winghaven. By googling "native plants" and then your state name, you should be able to find a native plant society in your own state or a nearby state. By asking around, you may find a seed-swapping group that meets periodically in your area to trade seeds. Your state's native plant society may have a list-serve to help find such a group.

To plant a plug of soil holding a young plant, Beth took a narrow shovel, plunged it into the soil and pushed it forward, creating a slit just wide enought to put in the plug. Then she tamped the soil around it with her foot. She put the plugs about a foot apart, watering them only until they were established. She mixed the species up overall. She started both meadows, at the school and her home, with 6 species of native grasses and 17 species of native wildflowers, planting 3 or so plants of one type together, but not all the plants of one type in the same spot. So her meadow looks like a heterogeneous mixture - a small group of coneflowers here, and another small group of coneflowers over there, with several other types of plants in between.

Planting the Woodland
Beth already had a woodland with native trees at her home, but the ground was covered with English ivy and Japanese honeysuckle - both invasive introduced species that spread aggressively. She had to pull all that out by hand first. Then she just started buying shade-loving native wildflowers and shrubs, and planting them, a few at a time, under the canopy of trees. Now they form a substantial underbrush of native plants with seeds that are edible for wildlife, such as "hearts a'bustin," which has gorgeous hot pink and orange seed pods. And delicate little "rue anemone" and "spring beauty."

Beth said that replacing lawn with woodland is more difficult, although it certainly can be done. The trees will self-establish as "volunteers" - from acorns buried by squirrels or maple seeds blown in on the wind. If you're willing to wait. Or if not, you can buy wildlife-friendly native trees from a local nursery, such as persimmon, dogwood, mulberry, blackgum.

The good thing about an already established woodland is that the weeds are suppressed by the ground cover of dead leaves. When you're making a woodland from lawn, there is no leaf cover, and the weeds, Beth said, are "outrageous." Why not just let the weeds go? Because many of them will be invasive "exotics." In this sense, "exotic" means not native, or introduced from another country.

The National Wildlife Federation has state-by-state listings of native plants that are beneficial to wildlife. Click on the red flower that says "Native Gardening." The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology has lists of bird-friendly trees although they don't appear to all be native trees. By googling "native trees" or "native plants" and your state, you can probably find other lists of native plants and trees that are beneficial to local wildlife.

Ken and I were walking last night, imagining our whole street converted to native meadows and woodlands instead of lawns. Every street a wildlife habitat! Instead of the pointless green lawn after chemically-sustained green lawn....such a pointless and energy-intensive use of space. Could it happen? We can make it happen. Every converted yard sets a precedent, making it easier for others to follow. Seeing Beth's yard was a revelation to me.

For more info about beneficial native landscaping, see my June 12 post, "Lawns Are 5th Largest "Crop" in Terms of Land Use."


tai haku said...

Nice post. I'm getting more and more interested in the little ways people who might not be so interested could help the environment. I think as they are pretty low maintenance once planted meadows could be attractive to people who don't want to mow their lawn every week etc etc.

Here in my bit of London, the council has seeded british meadow plants in the bits of public space grass that are hard to cut (cos they are next to fences etc). It looked awful for 3 months or so and then it burst into bloom and you can see everyone taking an interest.

LMaddy said...

I live in Charlotte and have moved into a new home (new to us) and would love to visit Beth's and Mary's gardens and woodland for ideas on how I might design and plant in our new backyard. How may I obtain their contact information to arrange a visit?
Thank you,
- Laura

Anonymous said...

Ohhhh, do I love this site; it gave me motivation to continue my miniscule battle against urban spraw. Please visit my CREATE A WILD-LIFE FRIENDLY YARD site and enjoy! Robert