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The Incredible Shrinking Lawn: How to create a nature-friendly yard

Less grass and more wild plant life is good for the environment—and it can make your yard the envy of your neighbors

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The Incredible Shrinking Lawn: How to create a nature-friendly yard

Melanie Hollas and her husband agreed they wouldn’t water their lawn or try to kill the wild violets, clover and strawberries that dotted their grass. But, to make their quarter-acre prettier, the Stamford couple hired a landscape architect to help them remove about half of their front lawn and plant native trees, shrubs and perennials instead. 

She wanted it to look neat and orderly so her neighbors would see the benefit of natives and not think she was letting her lawn go, she says. They dug up rectangles of turf running perpendicular and horizontal to the street in an L-shape last April, began planting in May and hand-watered in the morning through June. Hollas added mulch to the beds for a clean, professional look. “By July, I didn’t have to water anymore. It flourished. It seemed to happen overnight. All of a sudden, there were a ton of bees — honey bees, native bees, wasps, butterflies,” she says. “We always got birds in our yard, but we never had goldfinches. All of a sudden there were goldfinches.”

Hollas discovered what a growing number of homeowners have learned: Replacing lawns with vegetables, fruit and native trees, shrubs and perennials requires less work with more reward. Growing food for people and wildlife lessens the monoculture of a lawn and adds life to neighborhood properties of any size.

The continental U.S. has an estimated 40 million acres of lawn, according to a report in Environmental Management. “If half of American lawns were replaced with native plants, we would create the equivalent of a 20-million-acre national park — nine times bigger than Yellowstone, or 100 times bigger than Shenandoah National Park,” entomologist and ecologist Doug Tallamy writes in his book, Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard (Timber Press, 2020).

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Kimberly Stoner converted her front yard, in New Haven’s Beaver Hills neighborhood, to meadow and garden using a combination of native plants. “My neighbors love it — especially the little kids walking down the sidewalk to the child care center two doors down,” Stoner says.

Tallamy, naturalists and homeowners advocate converting lawns to native gardens and avoiding pesticides and herbicides because wildlife needs the food and shelter for survival. Loss of habitat and herbicide and pesticide use has led to declines in songbird and bee populations nationwide. In Connecticut, 369 native bee species rely on native trees, shrubs and flowers for nectar, reports Tracy Zarrillo, a researcher with the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven. The native bee called Andrena violae “absolutely needs violet pollen to feed its young.”

Two bumblebee species, Bombus affinis and Bombus ashtoni, are likely extinct locally, says Kimberly Stoner, entomologist with the Agricultural Experiment Station. Bombus affinis, the rusty-patched bumblebee, is a federally listed endangered species that hasn’t been seen in Connecticut in more than a decade, she says, adding, “Another species that had a steep decline and hadn’t been seen in years, Bombus terricola, has now been found several times in northwest Connecticut and appears to have made a comeback regionally.”

Never a fan of lawns, Hollas decided to plant perennials in her front yard to take advantage of the sun while enjoying flowers and providing food for pollinators. Lawns have historically been a status symbol, but she hopes to change her neighbors’ minds. “People are programmed to think the greener the grass looks, the better the lawn is. But the greener the grass is, the more of a dead zone it is,” she says. “If you don’t have any weeds, the pollinators aren’t coming.”

It didn’t take long for the bees, wasps, dragonflies, butterflies and birds to begin feasting in her gardens, she says. “I don’t think my husband had bought fully into this. One day he said, ‘You have to come and see how many bees are on this mountain mint!’ ”

Soon, their neighbors complimented the gardens and began asking questions about which plants attract particular butterflies, birds or bees. “Other people in our neighborhood started planting natives,” she says. “They told me they loved seeing the garden from when it first started to how big it had grown.” Last fall, after raking fallen leaves into the garden beds, they noticed a lot more birds foraging in the leaves, she adds. New insects appeared, such as the spicebush swallowtail butterfly. 

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This home in Wilton makes good use of its ample yard space for meadow — enough to earn the property a designation as part of the Pollinator Pathway, a growing movement to establish habitats and food sources that are beneficial to bees, butterflies, hummingbirds and other pollinating insects and wildlife. 

Natives provide the right food at the right time for native wildlife, says Margery Winters, assistant director of the Roaring Brook Nature Center in Canton and a frequent speaker on gardening for wildlife. Native birds know by sight which plants will have the insects they need, she says. “That caterpillar becomes a nice little protein package. If you don’t have the right plant for the caterpillar to eat, you don’t have the food for the food chain.” A single pair of breeding chickadees need 6,000-9,000 caterpillars to feed one clutch of young, Tallamy reports. Monarch butterflies have declined for multiple reasons, including pesticide use and roadside mowing that cuts down the milkweed — the only plant on which monarchs will lay their eggs. Killing insects and the plants they eat disrupts the food chain. 

A couple of decades ago, a long drive in the summertime necessitated cleaning the windshield because of dead bugs. No more. Insects have declined so much because of widespread pesticide use that firefly and monarch sightings cause excitement. Ninety-five percent of insects are beneficial or neutral, yet homeowners apply pesticides that kill indiscriminately. If plants are planted in the right place for their sun, soil pH, soil texture and moisture-level needs, they require no soil amending, watering or special care once they’re established, Winters says. (Gardeners may want to hand-water new plants during a prolonged drought, but the roots of native perennials go much deeper than turf-grass roots, which are quite shallow.) Birds will dispatch most of the insects, and remaining pest insects can be removed by hand and left in a bowl for the birds.

“We garden too hard but we don’t garden smart,” Winters says. “If you put in native groundcover, you don’t have to do anything — nobody’s watering a forest or a shrubland or a meadow. If you’ve chosen the right plants, they’re pretty drought tolerant.” Lawn grasses are not native to New England, and as a result, they require a lot of work and expense to maintain, she says. Turf grass generally prefers a neutral pH, while the soils in Connecticut tend to be acidic. People are drawn to the woods and natural settings because they enjoy the variety of colors, textures, the dappled light through the trees and the sounds and sightings of wildlife, Winters says. 

“We garden too hard but we don’t garden smart. If you put in native groundcover, you don’t have to do anything — nobody’s watering a forest or a shrubland or a meadow.”

Some homeowners are shrinking their lawns by planting fruit bushes and trees as well as various gardens. Vegetable gardens are no longer relegated to the backyard, and some gardeners grow vegetables and fruit amid their perennials because that’s the sunniest spot on their property. The Keney Park Sustainability Project, launched by Executive Director Herb Virgo in 2016, uses the motto “Grow food, not lawns.” Last year, the organization gave out more than 100 home gardening kits — 8-foot-by-4-foot raised beds for homeowners and 5-gallon pots for renters — to grow herbs, fruits and vegetables, he says. 

“When done correctly, you can make a vegetable garden look like a flower garden,” Virgo says. Gardeners and wildlife can enjoy the blossoms that bloom before the fruit or vegetables grow. Some people have hesitated to grow vegetables, he says, because they fear they’ll look unruly. He teaches strategies to make vegetable gardens “presentable” for the front yard, and some people have replaced a large part of their backyards with vegetable gardens. 

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Louise Washer’s front yard last summer when the Norwalk resident participated in “No Mow May.” In May, the lawn was full of blooming violets. Washer only mowed the path until around mid-June and let the lawn on the right grow. At left is the corner of a small meadow that used to be lawn. About four years ago, Washer removed the grass and put down a native New England pollinator mix from American Meadows.

First-time homeowner Laura Suroviak and her wife bought a house on a corner in Hartford’s Asylum Hill neighborhood and soon learned that if they didn’t use a gas-powered mower and herbicides, their lawn wouldn’t look like that “ideal” lawn marketed by lawn care product companies. They opposed the use of chemicals and power tools, “but I don’t want it to look like a jungle either,” Suroviak says. When trying to figure out how to make their yard attractive and healthy on a budget, she learned about the Keney Park Sustainability Project. The organization’s team delivered a raised garden bed, built it, set it up and provided seeds. Given her location in a city, she wasn’t sure whether it would be safe to garden directly in the soil, so the raised garden bed was the ideal lawn alternative. The couple ended up buying a second raised bed and enjoyed blueberries, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and herbs. (Squirrels ate most of their corn.) 

Last fall, they placed cardboard over their grass and covered it with compost. This will kill the grass and keep the beneficial insects in the soil. They plan to plant hazelnuts on the side yard beside the sidewalk, Suroviak says, where passersby can enjoy them.

Meanwhile, Hollas, who works from her Stamford home, is looking forward to seeing how her gardens grow and what they’ll attract this spring. “It’s so amazing sitting at my desk all day. Last summer, I had quite a few monarchs,” she says. “They’re flitting around and they’re so pretty. This is the bonus that I didn’t even think about.”

This article appears in the March 2021 issue of Connecticut MagazineYou can subscribe to Connecticut Magazine here, or find the current issue on sale hereSign up for our newsletter to get our latest and greatest content delivered right to your inbox. Have a question or comment? Email editor@connecticutmag.com. And follow us on Facebook and Instagram @connecticutmagazine and Twitter @connecticutmag.