replacing a portion of lawn with biodiversity

A resident of Harford County replaced portions of the lawn with native plants to increase native habitat and beauty in the landscape.

Updated: July 20, 2022

Growing and maintaining turf in Maryland is challenging and resource-intensive. Replacing grass areas with climate-friendly native plants and landscaping is an effective way to make your property beautiful and better for the environment.

Take a look at the examples below of Maryland residents who reduced their lawns, solved water runoff problems, increased enjoyment of their property, and reduced the negative impact of lawn maintenance on climate change.

Converting lawn strip into a pollinator garden

Lawn before it was removed

Early spring this year - one year after the garden was planted

Summer view of garden showing native bee balm in bloom. The bees loved it. Also showing the certification signs for the garden.

Garden in September with asters about to bloom. Phlox and goldenrod in bloom.

View of the garden from the other direction with goldenrod in bloom to provide nectar for migrating butterflies as well as other pollinators.

Landscape design sketch

The main plants used in this garden:

  • Asclepias tuberosa (butterfly weed)
  • Asclepias syriaca (common milkweed)
  • Aster 'October Skies'
  • Solidago 'Fireworks' (goldenrod)
  • Nepeta 'Walker's low' (catmint)
  • Allium Millennium
  • Monarda 'Bradburiana' (bee balm)'
  • Caryopteris 'Golden Sunshine'
  • Echinacea (purple coneflowers)
  • Sisyrinchium angustifolium (Blue eyed grass)
  • Oenthera (evening primrose) for ground cover
  • Phlox subulata

Lessons learned:

"We did the entire garden ourselves. I bought plugs of many of the plants to reduce the cost. I planted in drifts so the pollinators would have easy access to them. The bees love the catmint and allium millennium although neither are native. The garden has required little maintenance. However, it has been a struggle to resist the temptation to deadhead taller plants like the coneflowers and milkweed to make the garden look better. I have to tell myself the goldfinches love the coneflower seeds and the monarch caterpillars are still on the milkweed. You have to view the garden from the insects’ point of view rather than the humans’ point of view."

- Diane Mitchell, Harford County

Townhouse property converted to native and edible plantings

Front yard before

Backyard before

Front yard after

Backyard after

Backyard after

"Once only turf, mulch, and non-native plants, I converted my small townhouse front and back yards to native and edible plantings over three years. The garden is a Certified Wildlife Habitat and was featured as a stop on the first annual Green Team Urbana garden tour (a group I co-founded to help restore the land in our heavily developed area). I'm an enthusiastic amateur gardener and currently a Certified Master Naturalist intern in Frederick County."

Plant list:

"Black- and brown-eyed Susans, tall phlox, rattlesnake master, bee balm, blanket flower, goldenrod, aster, coral honeysuckle, American wisteria, purple coneflower, anise hyssop, sunflowers, mountain mint, false sunflower. Various herbs, vegetables, and berries. I used marigolds, catmint, and alliums as low-profile "edging" around taller native plants and transplanted violets into my garden beds as ground cover."

Lessons learned:

"This was a DIY project. I started by marking out garden beds and layering them with cardboard and compost, then cutting holes in the cardboard and planting plugs. I found gardens or pieces of gardens I liked on Pinterest and then recreated them with native plants. (I'm a particular fan of English cottage gardens, and the look is easy to recreate with the lush, organic, slightly messy look of native plants.) I tried and failed a lot, but I dug in and got my hands dirty and wasn't afraid to fail. Some plants will surprise you; let them. Don't be afraid to start. You can always dig up or move plants later on."

-Bethany Adams, Frederick County

Increasing plant diversity along the sidewalk

Beginning of project: using a pickaxe, shovel and rake, I physically removed zoysia grass, being sure to remove all roots, but retaining soil.

Using a flexible hose to define the curving shape of the new garden, I finalized the design and edged the border with the remaining lawn. Remember to call Miss Utility about underground utilities!

Using leftover bricks from previous projects, I installed brick edging along the sidewalk. This will help retain water, soil, and mulch until the new garden is well established.

After enriching the new plot with compost, it was time for transplanting. I moved creeping phlox (Phlox stolonoifera), Siberian iris (Iris sibirica), a rose bush, black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta), and a large mangave (Mangave Macho Mocha).

The final steps included installing new plants (mostly native) and shrubs, and mulching. The new plants included asters (Aster laevis ‘Bluebird’), dogwood (Cornus stolonoifera Farrow), yarrow (Achillea Summer Sangria), and beardtongue (Penstemon Husker red). Mulching and watering sufficiently to get plants established are the final steps.

"In 2021, I decided to reduce the lawn area and increase plant diversity in our front yard bordering the sidewalk, mirroring the shape of the garden on the south side of the walkway. Considerations included reducing runoff from hard surfaces, introducing more native plants and shrubs, and diversity of color, foliage, and blooming season of transplanted and newly-purchased plants."

Lessons Learned:

"This was a DIY project, and it was labor-intensive. Removing all grass and roots was strenuous work. Half of the plants installed were transplants from other locations on the property. Purchased plants and mulch cost approximately $225."

-Larry Clements, Prince George's County

Rain garden solved a runoff problem

Before

August 2015 Rain Garden “Before”

September 2015 Rain Garden

October 2015 (downspout through berm and the rain garden planted)

May 2021 “After” (Spring bloom in the rain garden)

July 2021 “After” (Summer bloom in the rain garden)

Debbie Sheppard from Prince George's County comments:

We were looking to solve the problem of rainwater runoff coming from the direction of our neighbor's yard. The water would sit against our home's foundation and puddle for days making it impossible to walk around two sides of the house. We decided to install a deep rain garden to catch the runoff.

With a simple phone call to the Prince George’s County Rain Check Rebate, they quickly had someone come visit our property and go over any questions about the program. By doing all of the digging (my husband with a small backhoe and me with a shovel and wheelbarrow) and completing the install, we were able to accomplish the project at a low cost.

It was a great "excuse" to make a fun design and shop for the appropriate plants! We now enjoy the ability to walk around our yard after a rain. We have a swing right next to the rain garden where we drink our coffee. It is a delight to take in the beauty of the flowers, plants, birds, and pollinators!

Plants that worked best over the years:

  • Golden ragwort (Packera aurea) - fantastic, quick, and dense ground cover in center of rain garden

  • Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) - tremendous self sower, really throws up plants everywhere

  • Creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera) - absolutely beautiful on the berm 

  • Bowma’s root (Gillenia trifoliata) - Always looks tidy, no pest or disease problems 

  • Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius) - beautiful and healthy 

  • Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) - flowers

  • Blazing star (Liatris spicata ‘Kobold’) - beautiful texture and bloom

  • White Wood Aster (Eurybia divaricata) - dry shade

Tips for others who want to do a similar project?

Be ready to weed for a few years to allow for plants to grow in. Stay on top of weeding, otherwise you will have a field and not a planned garden. Did I mention that you will need to love weeding?! Wow - what a learning opportunity! So fulfilling!

Turning lawn into a meadow

Backyard original: I dug out dozens of cinder blocks and pavers, put in trenches with hugelkultur backfill. The area to the left is an old garage pad of concrete with 6-8” of soil on top… hopefully will remove this over the winter. I have many photos of the before, during, and after. When we moved in there was almost entirely grass. Now we have native plants everywhere!

I installed sections from a mature cherry tree to add some terracing to slow down runoff. I’ve planted with 90% native plants and a few high value non-natives. I have a toddler and dog so the yard has to be “play friendly.”

Front yard has Honeyvine milkweed, blueberries, little bluestem, joe pye, my iron weed, helianthus Maximilian, giant yellow hyssop, winterberry, echinacea, and other natives. I’ve been cultivating violets, native plantain, and other walkable green mulches to use as edging around the fence. I’ve documented the “hell strip” next to the side wall and noted what grows well and what requires lots of maintenance. Next spring I plan to start removing all the plants and replacing them with native carex, lyreleaf sage, and native plantain.

Front yard has a child’s playhouse and several enormous cherry logs that act as a stage. This side has aromatic asters, Solidago altissima, and other native plants. I’ve trained a native clematis to grow up the side and over the roof of the little house to provide summer shade. On the back corner (behind the non native magnolia), is an enormous pokeweed I’ve pruned to grow along with native plants and tithonia… they’re over 6’ now.

Still working on eliminating non-native, invasive honeysuckle, mulberry, and others, but this area has a log “fence” over a swale and then is planted with yarrow, liatris, and blue lobelia. The logs are gorgeous in cooler weather when the moss and fungi come out. We’ve seen two new species of woodpecker, had Orioles fledge two chicks, and a resident group of bluebirds visit the enormous American holly in the back.

"I have over 100 native plants including 7 varieties of asters, 4 goldenrod, and 2 perennial sunflowers. My plantings are based on Dr. Tallamy’s research into keystone plants plus additional shrubs, understory trees, and perennials that are host plants. I’ve kept detailed lists of all the plants I’ve put in."

- Amy Sawyer, Prince George's County

Calvert County meadow added along driveway area

Beginning of meadow garden with solarization

We put in an extension to our driveway in order to have the driveway be circular. This created a "lawn" from a previous hayfield. In the Fall of 2020 I started a narrow, curved meadow garden down the middle of the circular driveway with native grasses and forbs. Photo shows a small patch with solarization. This Fall I am filling in either side of that narrow meadow so that it fills up nearly the whole space created with a circular driveway.

First season with planted meadow

This is the view of the meadow in the Fall of 2021. I used Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium "MinnBlueA" and Hairawn muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris) for the grasses as they don't get very tall (2'-3').

Meadow island

This photo shows a border (planted 2018) created to reduce lawn. I initially used Canadian Wild Rye and Big Bluestem (Andropogan gerardii) and various forbs. The Canadian Wild Rye started to take over the forbs and I removed it after two years.

The main plants used in this design:

"I used perennial black-eyed Susans, butterfly weed, native grasses as discussed in photos, goldenrod, bee balm, liatris and many other natives. I used zinnias for continuous color."

Lessons learned:

"I learned that I really need to cut my tall grasses down early in the season as they get so tall that they fall over and must be staked."

Sidewalk strip grass replacement

Before

Master Gardener Beth Blum Spiker got tired of mowing the strip along the sidewalk.

Lawn replaced between sidewalk and street

A large portion of the lawn was replaced. Now the entire yard can be mowed in 17 minutes! 

In bloom

The new plants look great in bloom.

Landscaping adjacent to the house

The landscaping in front of the house was also expanded.

Master Gardener Beth Spiker got tired of mowing the strip along the sidewalk. She replaced everything she didn’t like when she mowed, and now she can mow the entire yard in 17 minutes!

Lawn replacement along the waterfront

A section of lawn around the stairway was replaced with new plants.

A second view of the newly-planted feature looking towards the water.

As the plants mature, they fill in the space.

Gardens like this with native plants should reduce runoff into our waterways.

When we bought our house there were three trees, one rhododendron, three camellias, a dozen or so azaleas, and a similar number of boxwood. After 5 years of owning the house, I converted a portion of it to a nice collection of all types of plants. We had Adkins Arboretum help us with a garden design using native plants, and the non-natives were mostly given to us by friends from their yards.” - Dora Jean Hanna, Master Gardener

Desert area to native plant meadow

The backyard was a desert after the installation of the ground loop system. The ground was hard, dry, full of clay and rocks - just right for native plants!

I bought very few plants. I was able to transplant coneflowers and black-eyed-Susans from other gardens. Friends also gave me many plants. I knew I wanted grasses and movement in the garden so I sowed little bluestem and prairie dropseed grasses in jiffy cups and tended them very carefully. If I had sown seeds directly in the ground, they would have been lost among the emerging weeds.

Because the grass plugs were small, I put chicken wire cages around each one for protection from rabbits, groundhogs, and deer. I found a few plants with teeth marks, but for the most part, the animals left the meadow alone. I had plenty of other food that probably interested them.

Each time I planted a grass or perennial, I mulched the surrounding area. After a native garden is established, watering is not necessary. When starting a meadow, the gardener has to baby the plants. I watered a great deal last summer. There were some very hot, dry days. This year I did not water the meadow at all.

It was unbelievable to me that I was able to establish this mini meadow in one season. It is true that using native plants in hostile territory is the path to take. I did not amend the soil, but I did put a little compost from my compost pile into each planting hole. This meadow is the first thing I look at every morning when I walk onto the back patio. It is my last view every evening. On windy days the grasses dance just as I had hoped they would do.

"After my husband and I put in a ground loop heating and air conditioning system, the backyard was a desert. Because I had read Doug Tallamy's book Nature's Best Hope, I envisioned a small meadow. I consulted friends, researched online, read books, and visited Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania and Mt. Cuba in Delaware. I knew what I wanted to do."

-Harford County gardener

Bay-Wise landscape

From above, you can see the property is almost surrounded by plants other than turf.

The only turf George kept on his property, other than pathways through his landscapes, is this small maintained "lawn room" close to his home and pool.

A narrow turf pathway winds between native plant landscaping.

The landscape looks great at sunset.

Curved lines in the landscape create interest. They pull you through the garden to see what's around the corner or the curve.

George's property is an official Bay-Wise demonstration landscape.

Maryland Master Gardener George Yurek kept a small “lawn room” close to his home and pool. Around the rest of the property, he created a Bay-Wise landscape by adding a variety of trees, grasses, shrubs, and perennials. Minimal lawn strips are used as walkways throughout the landscape.

Sod to native plant conversion

Before adding garden landscaping the yard contained mostly grass.

Newspaper was laid down in areas to smother the grass.

Mulch is laid over newspaper and new plants are planted.

This is the yard as it is now.

Howard County Master Gardener Molly McElwee laid sod at her new home in 2006. Then she started adding gardens, continuing with an expansion in 2016 using the “lasagna method” to smother grass and prepare the planting areas. “We have a very heavy emphasis on natives, especially host plants and plants beneficial to all sorts of wildlife. We are leaving some grass for pathways through the garden!”

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