Grow Beyond No Mow May: Options for Reducing Your Lawn

An easy guide for replacing your lawn with native species

Lawns are often thought of as a staple of an American home, but what role do they play in the future of gardening? Read our related blogs in this series, Why We Have Lawns and Why We Shouldn’t Have Lawns, to catch up on the history and impacts of turf-grass landscapes as we now dive into ways to reduce and replace lawn.

Some blooms that flourish in unmown lawns can actually pose a threat to our local ecosystems, including the invasive species pictured here, lesser celandine. Photo credit: Tess Renusch

Going Beyond No-Mow May

No-Mow May is a trend that has been gaining steam among gardeners, encouraging those with lawn space to opt for low or no mowing practices throughout the month. Reducing mowing during this time can provide a few benefits for wildlife if the lawn includes a large number of noninvasive wildflowers to benefit pollinators. Unfortunately, most lawns are comprised only of non-native turf grasses which provide very little benefit to wildlife.

However, it is noteworthy that carbon emissions can be heavily reduced by keeping the mowers across the country turned off for a month, considering that running a lawn mower for just one hour can create the same amount of pollution as a 100-mile car trip!

While reducing the amount that you mow can be a great first step, to really help wildlife including bees, butterflies, and birds, we recommend opting for replacing lawn with native species and managing any remaining lawn intentionally. Luckily, this process of lawn reduction and intentional management is much easier than you may think, and there is no need to sacrifice aesthetics in the process!

Plus, you are in great company as the percentage of people planning to transform a portion of lawn to wildflower native landscaping more than doubled from 9% in 2019 to 19% in 2021. (National Garden Association and National Wildlife Federation)

Replacing lawn with native plants can create a beautiful and welcoming landscape for people and wildlife alike. Photo credit: David Mizejewski

How To Replace Your Lawn with Native Species

One of the best things you can do for wildlife is replace turf grass with a variety of native plant species. Native plants have formed symbiotic relationships with native wildlife over thousands of years, meaning that many wildlife species cannot survive without them. By replacing your lawn with native plants, you enter into a community of cutting-edge gardeners who are on the front lines of fighting the biodiversity crisis.

Follow these steps to begin the process:

  • Remove turfgrasses to create new garden beds of native species. Admittedly, one of the toughest parts of reducing your lawn will be the actual removal of turf grass. The method you use will be a personal choice. Manually digging up grass can be physically demanding, but will allow you to very effectively remove grass down to the root. You can even rent a sod cutter to make the process easier!
    Another option is to smother grass by covering it with a tarp or other material after thoroughly wetting it. Ensure that if you use cardboard for this process, it is not treated with any harmful chemicals. Remember, you don’t have to remove all of your grass at once, take it step by step!
  • Plant a variety of native species that benefit wildlife. Now comes the fun part. Where once there was a sea of grass, you can now select and plant a wide variety of native species that will provide colorful blooms and visual interest. Find species native to you through our Native Plant Finder which will show you known host plants for butterfly and moth caterpillars. Many local nurseries now sell native species and you can even purchase native plants online.
  • Consider native turf-grass alternatives when possible. Replacing non-native turf doesn’t always mean you have to get rid of green ‘lawn’ space. Native mosses can provide a lush green alternative and, depending on where you live, there may be some grasses native to your region that can be mown to function similarly to a traditional ‘lawn’.
Spring beauties (pictured here) and native violets are great examples of native flowers that actually do very well in lawns and have great wildlife benefits. Photo credit: Tess Renusch

Managing Your Remaining Lawn Intentionally

While reducing the space devoted to turf grass is ideal, many people will find that they still want to have some amount of lawn space present. For any remaining lawn space, you can practice the following intentional lawn management approaches to pose the least amount of harm to local wildlife:

  • Approach mowing sparingly and intentionally, but don’t let it go ‘unmanaged’. Simply not mowing likely isn’t the best way to support wildlife and is frequently the quickest path to neighbor complaints. Instead, take a more intentional approach to how you mow.
    Aim to cut grass a bit longer, aiming for three inches or higher to reduce how much watering is needed while still maintaining a ‘tidy’ appearance. Additionally, consider switching out a gas-powered mower for one that’s electric or hand-powered to reduce emissions. Finally, ensure that any grass clippings do not get carted off to the landfill and instead use them as a natural mulch or compost! You may even consider planting a no-mow grass mix to reduce the need for mowing in the first place.
  • Allow blooms to flourish in your lawn, but be selective about which. The blooms you find in your lawn can run the gamut. While some are native species, others can be invasive and deeply detrimental to native wildlife. Use a plant-ID app to figure out which is which and aim to remove any invasive species taking root in your lawn. Encourage the growth of native species in your lawn, or even add their seeds in yourself.
  • Avoid pesticides and fertilizers. One of the biggest downsides to turf-grass lawns is that they depend so heavily on chemical pesticides and fertilizers to appear homogenous. Avoid these applications unless entirely necessary (as may be the case when you are removing invasive species that have taken root in your lawn).

Become a Wildlife Gardener

Shifting our perspective from viewing yards as human-centric spaces to sharing them with wildlife can be one of the biggest changes we make to our gardening approach. When you opt for native plants over turf grass, you’re providing a host of benefits to people and to the hundreds of native wildlife species that need your help.