say yes to native grass

 ( r e )think your yard with native grass landscaping

Native plants landscaping a front yard of a house curtesy of David Newsom

David Newsom/Wild Yards Project

Planting wild grass doesn’t just look good — native plants and wildflowers are essential for the health of the land. 

The benefits of native plants (and wildflowers) goes on forever. Seriously, we could have a whole blog about just the benefits but there are already plenty of those. 

  • They filter pollutants out of water
  • Prevent flooding
  • Support pollinators (that help keep us fed)
  • Clean the air
  • Reduce carbon emissions
  • Require less maintenance
  • And are beautiful and unique just like you

So why don’t we have tons of alternative options for grass lawns? 

Because the American lawn as we know it is a sham. Grass is an invasive species to the U.S. that was brought in by white colonizers settlers to mimic royalty living on a different continent. 

The concept of a yard is very American — look at communities in Mexico, or Chile, or even places in Europe. Just like most other things about the U.S., the whole concept of a yard is based on ownership, dominating (the land), and privilege. 

You can’t help it you were born here. But with all this space and nature we have access to, we could be more intentional about how we interact with the plants and wildflowers around us and how we position ourselves in the ecosystem. Hopefully, that’s why you’re here. 

Just like with anything sustainable it’s not all or nothing. Instead of centering the conversation around replacing everything, let’s talk about:

  • converting some of your yard to a natural area
  • planting wild grasses that work with your lifestyle
  • and thinking about what an alternative to a grass lawn looks like for you

Like our whole concept for replacing your old hangers with new, better, stronger, and more eco-friendly hangers — do the same with your plants! On an as needed basis, swap it out with local, native grasses and wildflowers instead of what’s on sale at Lowes. 

Paulina has a grass-free lawn full of native plants, we're enthusiasts, not experts! So we reached out to David Newson, founder of Wild Yard Project, former filmmaker, and current photographer to talk about how freaking cool native plants are, why they’re so important, and why we all need to rethink the concept of a yard in general. 

( r e )think & ( r e )learn the concept of a yard

Native plants landscaping a hillside. Image curtesy of David Newsom

Image from David Newsom/Wild Yards Project 

The American lawn doesn’t provide a safe habitat or support the local ecosystem and yet we spend $40 billion on lawn care every year.

Change is happening in the right direction. The LA County Waterworks District is offering a rebate program to remove grass while converting your home’s yard to a pollinator-friendly one that can come with a grant program (and more) in Minnesota.

To improve your mental health; increase biodiversity; engage the community; fascinate the children; use less water, fertilizer, pesticide; spend less time maintaining; and spend more time enjoying, you can start with 2 easy steps. 

  1. Rethink the concept of a yard/your yard
  2. Incorporate native and hyper-native plants WHEREVER YOU CAN! A perimeter, a window box, around the mailbox, along the walkway, surrounding the patio, whatever you can do — do it. It will make a difference.

plant wild grass because turf grass is problematic 

Native plants and flowers in landscaping a backyard. There is a raised garden bed in the centr growing vegetables, a triangle path around it, and a house in the background  - image curtesy of Paulina

Image from Paulina

What makes our lives possible are the things we cannot see — atoms, particles, air, and the delicate ecosystem of plants and animals working in harmony to create this perfectly livable planet. 

Turf grass supports none of that life and don’t even get us started on artificial turf (AKA plastic). Since it’s literally not even from here, it requires a ton of maintenance in the form of chemicals, water, and care. That maintenance contributes to carbon emissions, water pollution, and has been linked to a decline in insect populations. 

But after talking with David from the Wild Yards Project, I realized that while it’s important to know that grass is just out here living its life doing what we tell it to do, we should really be focused on a more nuanced conversation. 

  • what is a yard? 
  • what is its purpose? 
  • what is our relationship to it?
  • how can we be more intentional about that relationship?

alternative options to grass lawns are all around us

Looking way back into the past, people lived in harmony with nature. 

We had relationships with the plants around us, they served the community, we didn’t own them and they didn’t own us. The lawn you look out your front door and see has been cultivated over hundreds of years to be super durable. David called it “indoor-outdoor carpet” which I love because it’s so true! 

Our culture tells us to take care of our yard, make it perfectly green and short, so the kids can play in it but when the kids play it in they’re messing it up and they’re told to get off the grass. 

This is often one of the main arguments (besides money) against landscaping a yard with native grasses and wildflowers — where will the kids play? Where will we hang out? 

In truth, kids can still play and you can still hang out in a yard with native grasses and plants (surprise!). But it’s also worth exploring how often you use your lawn for those purposes. And again, reevaluating the needs of your space.

convert your lawn to a natural area and expand your connection to nature

A small hillside full of native grasses and flowers that could easily replace a lawn. There is a raised woodchip bed front and center that leads to a small path through the plants. Image curtesy of David Newsom

Image curtesy of David Newsom/Wild Yards Project

Are we going to solve climate change by incorporating more native grasses into our yards? Absolutely not. 

Is it still worth doing? Absolutely. 

David’s passion for native plants is contagious! I just started growing green onions in my condo so I can’t really call myself a plant person although I am anti-lawn. As I was talking to David I felt my excitement growing as we talked about the little things that often go underlooked when it comes to nature — literally the birds and the bees.

During this conversation I realized the concept of landscaping with native plants is like every other thing within sustainability. We want it to be big and we want it to solve the problem ASAP. 

But NOTHING works like that (maybe that’s why we haven’t been able to come to an agreement since fixing the ozone layer) — we need to stop thinking like that. 

  • if you want to mow less — consider more native grasses and wildflowers.
  • if you want to stop paying for fertilizer (or worrying about pets and littles in the yard) — consider more native grasses and wildflowers.
  • if you want to stop contributing to runoff water laced with chemicals — consider more native grasses and wildflowers.
  • if you want to support local pollinators, critters, and biodiversity — consider more native grasses and wildflowers.
  • if you want to create a gorgeous and unique outdoor living area that will provide a relaxing escape — consider native grasses and wildflowers. 
  • if you want you and your kids to have a stronger connection to nature — consider native grasses and wildflowers.
  • if you want to give your kids a place to explore and uncover new things — consider native grasses and wildflowers. 
  • if the only place you have to put plants is a firescape — consider native grasses and wildflowers.

(I think you get the point).

We obviously can’t tell you what kinds of plants to buy. And we encourage you to stay away from articles like “The best natives for *insert your state*”.  Plants have developed over millennia to support the local climate and ecosystem so you can get down to a regional or even hyper-local level. 

But we can help you think about all the different kinds of ways you can use native grasses and wildflowers to surround your property. (and that’s where David comes in).

what kind of native grass yard is right for you? 

Wild Yards Project photo at Toland Elementary. A woman is holding a plant, showing a small young girl how to plant it into the ground. Image curtesy of David Newsom

Image curtesy of David Newsom/Wild Yards Project

There are a couple of places you can go to find your native plants for your location. Also be sure to do a Google search around you for local nurseries and experts.  

Before you buy anything, take a good hard look at your life, time, and money to determine what you need. 

I talked to David about some of the initial questions you want to ask yourself: 

  • Do you want to grow food? 
  • How much time to have (or want to spend) mowing?
  • What’s your water situation like? Access, time, and money.
  • What’s the function of your yard?
  • What’s the foot traffic of your yard? 
  • Do you want a mixture of grasses, plants, and wildflowers? 

Please note, each of these responses has been edited for length but if you find any of this interesting I highly encourage you to follow @WildYardsProject on Instagram and keep up with the amazing work and education David is doing and sharing.

1.what is the function of your yard?

Many people skip this part but it’s probably the most important! Your lawn needs to work with you and your lifestyle otherwise, what’s the point? 

David says: First, try to have an honest conversation with yourself about what you actually need and what you think you need out of habit. 

  • Are you going to socialize in your yard?
  • Have barbecues?
  • Do the kids need a place to play? 
  • Do you want a space to be in nature with?

  • Then think about what your area really needs:

  • How much space needs to be set aside for the above activities?
  • How much are you going to use it? 
  • Do you want paths and privacy screens? 
  • Big paths or narrow paths?
  • Do you need the full size or could you pull inwards and put in native plants around the border?
  • What does the organization of it all look like — BTW organization is natural in nature, give the animals a cleared path and they’re going to take it. Your native yard doesn’t have to look chaotic. 

  • Then start to draw it out — literally with a pencil. 

    Start to imagine what it could be and what you would like. Many people have never seen a native yard because they’ve never walked through one (me!). Go on a native plant/yard tour — it helps you see what you can do. Begin to familiarize yourself with the possibilities and give yourself the opportunity to let go of what you know.

    Most importantly, always keep questioning the premise of the yard

  • How does this yard benefit your life? 
  • What would happen if it wasn’t there? 
  • 2. what is the foot traffic of your yard?

    Determining how much you want or need to be walking through your yard will help you choose shorter grasses and bushes and where you could put in some wildflowers. You’ll want to think about things like: 

    • how much time you spend outside?
    • do you entertain?
    • do you have barbecues?
    • do you have young kids who want to play in the yard?
    • do you have pets that want to play in the yard?
    • do you want walkways cut out or cleared to any areas?
    • can you make the perimeter smaller?
    • can you incorporate small (structured) patches of native grasses and wildflowers? 

    David says:  Pull in your radius a bit and plant native grasses and wildflowers in the external radius. It’s unlikely you’re using every inch of your yard. 

    You don’t have to convert your entire lawn to a natural outdoor unusable space. Think about installing intentional footpaths around a patio area, surrounding the mailbox with wildflowers, or creating patches of areas with native grasses. If you shrink your borders, create privacy screens with native plants. By doing this you’re amplifying your biodiversity but getting rid of the part of your lawn to mow and care for (and water), pesticide, fertilize. (movie)

    3. what’s your water situation like? 

    Because of all that time spent adapting to the local climate, native grasses need less water and are better at water management like preventing flooding and runoff. 

    You not only want to consider how much time you can put into watering, but what the local water climate is like (frequent droughts, access to groundwater, frequent rain, etc.).

    You don’t want to be watering thirsty plants when there’s a water shortage or water restrictions in place. 

    David says: Learn about where you are and prioritize plants over people. Instead of thinking about the plants you want, just think about what kinds of plants would be happy there with the natural climate and water situation. 

    Those wild grasses and plants are going to be water appropriate because that’s where they’re from. Stick with the locals, and hyper locals. 

    Many gardens David has worked on require no additional water other than what’s provided by Earth. Use the plants to make a more resilient space for you. They can be resource (water) intensive for the first year or two — but they shouldn’t need artificial intervention. 

    4. how much time do you have to mow or want to spend mowing?

    Native grasses and wildflowers require much less work because they tend to be heartier plants. Through thousands of years of evolution they developed in tandem with the climate and wildlife around them to provide the exact support the region needs. 

    All of that to say, they still require some maintenance.You can still find a native grass for your yard that suits your needs because they come in a variety of shapes and sizes. You’ll want to consider what kinds of grasses grow locally and how much work you want to put into them. 

    Besides, science recommends spending 120 minutes a week in nature for maximum happiness. Wouldn’t it be nice to spend that time in your yard that requires little to no maintenance? 

    David says: The average adult uses their lawn approximately 20 minutes a week. During that 20 minutes a week, they use a small portion of it. Kids use a greater percentage but it’s still small. 

    Try to understand the space you have, your goals with it, and what kinds of plants will thrive in your area. Learn about what plants naturally belong there and you’ll automatically decrease the resources they need to stay alive — that includes the mowing needed to keep them in shape. 

    5. do you want to grow food? 

    Have you seen an artichoke outside of a grocery story? This little artichoke is growing from Paulina's vegetable garden

    Real artichoke from Paulina’s yard! 

    The best way to grow food is through raised beds. Think about how much square footage you want to dedicate to raised beds and ensure you dedicate an area that gets plenty of sunlight. 

    David says: Growing food and herbs is profoundly important. If you create native plant diversity within a few yards of your vegetable beds you’re likely to draw more pollinators and increase your yield. 

    Because pollinators and plants have evolved together, the more hyper local you can get with your native plants the better. Get involved with nurseries who deal with this kind of thing and try to work as locally as possible. 

    a real life alternative to a grass lawn: 

    Paulina is living her best grass-free life in the Chevy Chase Canyon under 17 majestic oak trees. The previous owner lived here her WHOLE life here (all 92 years) and had ivy planted in the front yard under the oaks. 

    Paulina and her husband spent 3 years moving an ugly brown tarp every 3 months or so to kill off the ivy which housed rats and snakes (and is an invasive species). They have planted (besides artichoke, asparagus and lemongrass) a whole bunch of native plants from Hahamongna Nursery and Plant Material.

    While they definitely need more native plants to create an “ecosystem”, they are happy that the ivy is gone and most importantly that they can leave the oak leaves when they fall.

    a few things to consider when incorporating native grass and wildflowers into your sustainable yard + the no mow may of it all 

    A close up of a bee hanging on the outside of a purple flower pollinating.

    Image curtesy of David Newsom/Wild Yards Project

    There are a variety of experts that can help you get started using native plants whether it be a landscaper knowledgeable about native plants, your state’s native plant society, or the government website. 

    We know that converting your entire yard is a big deal so with the help of David, here are some things to think about. 

    start small

    • participate in small things like no mow may (then no mow june, july, august…)
    • reduce your lawn perimeter significantly, let it serve 4 seasons
    • cut back on chemical pesticides and fertilizers
    • let the dandelions come though (food for bees!)
    • mow less and leave the grass a little longer
    • incorporate native plants and wildflowers in flower or window boxes on the porch or close up to the house in specific areas.  

    lawn regeneration

    • what is the purpose of the space?
    • carve out a 5x5 foot area plant some shrubs, ground covers, wildflowers (when its the right season)
    • you don’t need much — add potted native plants to your porch, create a native habitat — do it in a box
    • reduce the coverage of your lawn

    location, location, location! 

    • can you start with a smaller area on the sides or in the back? 
    • if you want to make a habitat for any specific pollinators, where do you want it? 
    • do you want to be able to see wildflowers from any windows? 

    what neighborhood rules do you have? 

    • do you have nosy neighbors who enforce a certain aesthetic? 
    • do you have hoa rules you need to abide by? 
    • do you have city rules you need to abide by? 

    the 'No Mow May' of it all

    No Mow May is a great initiative to help you break the habit of mowing your lawn for the month of May. Having your grass a few inches longer isn’t going to hurt you but it can dramatically benefit the local wildlife. 

    The only thing is if you go back to mowing in June, you’re kind of undoing all that hard work and wiping out the animals who made a home there.

    If you’re restricted by HOAs or community rules, at the very least you can stop using chemical additives to care for your lawn and keep the animals and runoff water safe.

    final thoughts

    Remember, finding an alternative to a grass lawn or putting native grasses in your yard isn’t the key to sustainability, it’s not the solution to climate change but do it because you want to. Because you enjoy it. Because it means something to you. 

    And Davis says, be prepared to fail. Plants die. The idea is not to just plop something in but rather to begin to engage with the land. 

    • what does the land want?
    • what do the plants want?
    • what do you/your family want?

    You're creating a space for life to occur. Then it begins to teach you. There’s no right way to do it. Find the best plants for your region, find the best plants for your site. You have to learn about the site. And then you start slowly. 

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