Replacing lawn with native grasses

Asked May 21, 2018, 9:52 AM EDT

The read this article "Lawns are an ecological disaster" (https://earther.com/lawns-are-an-ecological-disaster-1826070720) and was wondering what I could do here in Frederick County about replacing my lawn with native grasses and plants.

Frederick County Maryland

1 Response

Adding native plants gradually into a portion your yard to create a wildflower garden would be a good way to get started. One of the best resources for selecting Maryland native plants that are suitable for specific light/soil conditions is the free publication, Native Plants for Wildlife and Conservation Landscaping: https://www.fws.gov/Chesapeakebay/pdf/NativePlantsforWildlifeHabitatandConservationLandscaping.pdf

Another great resource is the Chesapeake Bay Native Plants searchable database:
http://www.nativeplantcenter.net/
I recommend that you spend some time getting familiar with these resources. Look for plants ideal for the "Piedmont" region of Maryland. You will see that there are many good choices for ornamental grasses and other types of plants.
When it comes time to look for sources of native plants, the Maryland Native Plant Society keeps a good list of native plant sales and nurseries that specialize in native plants: https://www.mdflora.org/gardening

You didn't mention the size of the area you want to convert from lawn to native plants. Some people express interest in creating a native meadow, which is a bit more complicated than a native plants garden. One of our University of Maryland faculty has been visiting meadow plantings around the state, and she has learned that the vast majority of Marylanders who start a meadow planting invest a lot of time and money only to experience disappointment and failure in the end. Two of the challenges that Marylanders in particular face are:

1. A prevalence of bad meadow making instructions

2. Locally native seeds are not commercially available

Until these problems can be addressed, we’re recommending that people try smaller meadow projects using the following, modular approach:

1. In late winter, select a small lawn area of only a few hundred square feet for your initial meadow module.

2. Remove the turf and the topsoil underneath it. This eliminates weeds and the weed seeds that would compete with your meadow. Native meadow plants are generally happier growing on the poor soil beneath your topsoil anyhow.

3. Have a long-term plan for keeping the lawn grasses out of your meadow. Most lawn grasses cannot be stopped by a simple mulched path. Lawnmowers must always side-cast clippings away from the meadow.

4. Order plugs from a nursery that specializes in locally native plants. If your nursery cannot tell you which ecoregion you are in and which ecoregion their plants were sourced from, look for one that can. Such a nursery will be able to advise you as to the species appropriate for a meadow given your location and site conditions, including deer pressure.

5. The desire to plant flowers is strong, however stable meadows are composed of 50 to 70% grasses. Order more grass plugs than flower plugs.

6. Expect to pay somewhere around $1 per plug, depending on size and species, and toplant one plug per square foot. This high density provides for quick canopy closure by the natives, thus reducing weed competition.

7. When your plugs arrive, plant them. Water the plugs as needed over the next few weeks, until they are established, but do not fertilize. Mulch is not appropriate for dry sunny meadows, but can be useful for shade meadows. Imported mulch often contains weed seeds.

8. Keep a close eye on your meadow during the first year. Learn to distinguish the native plants from the weed species that will try to invade the meadow.

9. Don’t be surprised if your young meadow doesn’t flower much. Many native meadow species do not bloom the first year.

10. When your meadow produces seeds, and they shatter on the ground, watch to see when the seedlings germinate and what they look like. For many species, seeds shatter in late summer or fall, and germinate in spring. It will help you to know your native seedlings so you don’t pull them. These seeds are building up the soil-seed- bank. In future years, when there is a disturbance in your meadow, the seeds that germinate will be those of desirable meadow species.

11. When your first meadow module is blooming, producing seed, and you are comfortable that you have the resources to add a new module, begin harvesting stems with the seeds on them. Place the stems upside down in paper bags, and store the bags in a dry, place safe from breezes and mice. Over the next few weeks, seeds will fall from the stems into the bags.

12. In the fall, remove the turf and topsoil to create the next module. If you think you might also like to plug the next module, fall is the ideal time to order your plugs.

13. In late fall or early winter, sprinkle your seeds over the soil. Scratch them into the soil very shallowly, 1/8” or less. Then tamp the soil gently with your feet and water. A light covering of clean straw can be beneficial, but make sure only to purchase straw that is weed-seed free.

14. In the spring, monitor the germination of the seeds you have sown, and plant any additional plugs you may have ordered. This brings you full circle!

15. By repeating this cycle, you can successfully add new modules to your meadow each year.

This publication is a good reference for instructions on creating a meadow. https://www.csu.edu/cerc/researchreports/documents/PlantingTheSeedGuideEstablishingPrairieMeadowComm...

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources also has information on creating meadows -- including a list of recommended plants. http://dnr.maryland.gov/wildlife/Pages/habitat/wawildflowers.aspx

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