Native Gardening with Jimmy: Before and after native garden transformation
By Jimmy Rogers
About a year ago, I had a strange, early-morning visitor. I heard a midsized dump truck idling in front of my house and ran out in my bathrobe. I waved and pointed right to the middle of my pristine grass lawn and the driver gave me a nod. Shortly thereafter, I was the proud owner of 20 cubic yards of arborist wood chips and on my way to a new native garden.
I expected resistance to this bold gardening choice. Prior to the big day, I had written letters to both of my nextdoor neighbors, explaining what I was going to do, why I was going to do it, and offered to answer any questions or concerns they might have. I also designed a garden path and discreet beds, so that my new garden would look intentional and attractive to passersby.
Once the wood chips were delivered, I spread them evenly across my front yard. This made quite a visual statement, and I did receive some questions. Folks often asked “What are you doing over there?” and “What will you be planting?” To my surprise, though, no one ever asked me why.
Residential turf grass does have a few advantages, after all. People of all ages can run around on it with little or no visible damage. When mowed, it looks orderly and empty in a way that appeals to the eyes of an African savanna hominid scanning for threats. This is likely why the castles of European nobles are surrounded by mowed turf, and we Americans have sought to emulate those lavish estates.
However, most folks I have met see their lawn as a puzzling chore. Weeds encroach, lawn care companies advertise constantly about pesticides, fertilizers, amendments and seeds, and the mowing never ends. It should be no surprise, then, that according to research funded by the National Science Foundation, the plurality of Americans have passive lawns, meaning their owners mow them but do little else.
We know that grass is bad for our soil, too. Walk by most any lawn with a slope, and you’ll see bare red clay showing through in patches. A shallow-rooted turf grass monoculture leads to soil compaction, nutrient depletion and, eventually, erosion. While the grass often dies without repeated soil amendment, it creates a perfect environment for weeds, which love poor, compacted soil.
The question remains whether to have a lawn at all. If you have children or pets who play in your yard, then perhaps we can call it a productive use of land. If you want to take on a new hobby, there are valid organic practices that will keep a lawn, and the soil under it, healthy and weed-free. I recommend Paul Tukey’s The Organic Lawn Care Manual to learn these intricacies. The grounds of Potomac’s Glenstone Museum use Tukey’s methods, and the results are remarkable. However, if you lack the time to maintain your lawn to this level (or only set foot on your lawn when mowing it), then it might be time to consider lawn reduction.
Fortunately, turf grass is extremely easy to kill. I recommend smothering grass with arborist wood chips, which are generated when a tree service grinds up limbs. The resulting chips mainly consist of the hydrophilic interior wood, rather than the hydrophobic bark that is sold for annual mulching. Even better, they aren’t expensive; the amount you see in the picture only cost me $20 on getchipdrop.com. The app connects residents who want chips for gardening with arborists who need to get rid of theirs. It’s a win-win.
Once you have your wood chips, spread them out 8 to 12 inches deep on the area you want to smother. Make sure you put them all down at once, or some grasses will work their way up through the mulch. You’ll know it’s working when mushrooms sprout from the mulch. In the heat of summer, it takes about five weeks to not only kill the grass, but also compost it back into nutritious mud.
Once your grass is cooked, you can pull back as much of the mulch as you like. I intended to keep a close eye on my new garden bed, so I opted to remove all of the mulch, plant densely in the fall and then cover everything with fall leaves. However, if your new bed won’t receive as much upkeep or attention, you can leave up to four inches of wood chips in place to help keep weeds at bay. If you do remove some mulch, you can immediately shift it to the next patch of lawn and start the process all over again.
As with all changes, start small. While I chose the all-at-once method, I would recommend beginners start with a space no larger than 100 square feet. This will limit the number of plants (1-1.5 per square foot) that you need to plant in order to reclaim the space.
Your lawn can be so much more than an ecological dead zone. ! Imagine the birds, bees, butterflies and other animal visitors you’ll see when you replace it with a vibrant habitat!