Reducing my Lawn – One gardener’s perspective two years in

Ground level view of garden

By Derek Yarnell, Master Gardener

Two full growing seasons after having reduced the least ecologically productive part of my gardens – my front lawn – by about 50% or roughly 800 square feet, this is some of what I have taken from the adventure: three high level observations and three practical tips, should you consider moving in the same direction yourself.

The more books I read, webinars I watch and podcasts I listen to*, the more convinced I am of the power of gardeners at the household level to help repair and restore biodiversity. In ‘Half Earth’ the late biologist and Pulitzer prize-winning author E.O. Wilson makes clear we will not have enough nature to support the human race if private citizens don’t step up and join the movement to restore ecosystems. We can do this by making changes in our own yards. For me personally, the shift towards more ecological planting and management of my yard is an ethical imperative. A responsibility I feel to gardeners and nature lovers yet unborn.

I feel as though North Americans are on the cusp of change, ready to embrace ditching their lawns in favour of more ecological options the worse the visible impacts of our climate crisis become. For the sake of our planet, I hope you will consider it too.

So what did I replace my front lawn with? What I lovingly refer to as my “front habitat”. A space designed to help restore biodiversity while remaining recognizably a garden. One designed overwhelmingly using native plants, so that with any luck it may entice neighbours to adopt some of its plants or practices.

High Level Observations

Peace of mind. When even world climate conferences don’t yield results to prevent the worst effects of the climate crisis, it’s natural to ask oneself: “What can I do as one person to make a difference?”. The answer is garden. I feel I am an eco-warrior on the front lines, defending the earth in the war on our climate, and yes, the very future of our species. Like a doctor healing the planet with every native plant community I nurture until it can successfully take care of itself. You too can soothe your climate anxiety by following practices laid out by the Canadian Wildlife Federation in their “Wildlife Habitat” certification program.

Plant it and they will come. Nowhere else as eco-warriors can we find such a positively reinforcing feedback loop. The benefits of becoming an ecological gardener using mostly native plants are clear and immediate. Whereas you can recycle your plastic and see no personal benefit, if you plant Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum), you’ll very likely get butterflies. “Am I a gardener, or am I a butterfly farmer?” I asked myself this summer on more than one occasion. Build habitat for wildlife and wildlife will respond. Plants are the foundation of the food web. Provide a foundation with native plants and nature‘s response is breathtaking.

The proof is in the pudding. In my own yard I have seen an increase in wildlife the more native plants I’ve introduced. All kinds of birds, from songbirds to birds of prey and even occasional waterfowl. I’ve got rabbits, mice, turkey, deer, and I’ve recently seen a fox around our block. I’ve got aphids and ladybugs and grasshoppers and gorgeous black swallowtail butterflies and endangered monarch butterflies, along with bees, moths, and other pollinators of all stripes and sizes.

Plants have a mind of their own. Particularly those amongst our natives which have evolved to spread millions of their seeds on the evening prairie breeze. When designing my ‘front habitat’ I knew that over time it was bound to become less formal, thanks to my selection of reliable prairie seeders including bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis L.), New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), and Joe Pye weed. Nonetheless I’ve been surprised by the enthusiasm with which some of them are taking to their new surroundings: the Joe Pye pushing out to double its territory already. The bee balm taking quite a different approach, instead flitting about, inserting itself into any number of different plant combinations. I thought I would have more time to see the garden develop into exactly the planting I had designed before it would start asserting its own preferences.

Nonetheless, I will not be stifling the interplay between my plants and me, rather I am excited to see how the planting will change over time with only selective editing. (I admit it. I’m just not prepared to have the bright yellow false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides) migrate from my side yard to establish itself with the softer pinks, mauves and purples of the front yard.) Generally speaking though, if you are a native plant in my yard you are going to find you have relatively free range to move; my ‘front habitat’ is already becoming a collaboration with nature.

Practical Advice

1. Be knowledgeable about your conditions. Your best chances at achieving the gardener’s goal of “right plant, right place” begins with an accurate understanding of the conditions in your space. How much light is there, where is it more moist and where less so? How does moisture travel across your property? In what condition is your soil?

In my own experiment, lacklustre performance of giant hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) told me I had underestimated the amount of shade cast by the elms above my ‘front habitat’. Not to worry, the Joe Pye stepped up to fill the space.

2. Be a realist with plant selection. Rather than research native Manitoba plants and begin planning your garden habitat with delightful prairie plants that turn out to not be commercially available when it comes time to place your order, learn from my mistake. Start your plant selection journey on the websites of our local native plant nurseries. Focus your research on plants you can be certain will be available. For help in narrowing down choices, most sites have plants sorted into categories that reflect their preferred conditions. (See point 1 above.)

3. Be honest with yourself about your capacity. The most important part of this kind of project is that you enjoy yourself. Nature will require your support as an eco-warrior for years to come. Understand your capacity to not only build but also to maintain what you undertake, especially in the first two years when weeding requirements are greater.
Don’t be afraid to start small and learn as you go. Already have a perennial border? Extend it out into your lawn by just a few feet. Or remove the lawn between your sidewalk and the street.

However you decide to dip your toes in the water, by reducing your lawn you will be creating a more resilient landscape that not only looks great but one that makes a real difference for nature and for generations to come.

*Three ‘recommended reads’ to leave you feeling empowered by the difference you can make in your own yard and own community.

1. Book: Bringing Nature Home by Doug Tallamy
2. Podcast: Backyard Ecology with Shannon Trimboli
3. Webinars: 2021-22 CPPLA Public Lecture Series — Landscape Architecture and the Science of Climate Change

Outline of new garden bed – Fall 2020
Lawn covered with a thick layer of soil and mulch – Fall 2020
Newly planted beds – Spring 2021
Beds growing in – Summer 2021
Ground level view – Summer 2022

Photos by: Derek Yarnell
Published: January 2023