rethinking the lawn, with ecological horticulturist dan wilder

THE LECTURE that he’s been giving for a number of years is not-so-subtly called “Kill Your Lawn.”

Ecological horticulturist Dan Jaffe Wilder knows that starting over and creating an entire native habitat instead of a lawn isn’t for everyone. But Dan just wants to grab our attention and get us to start to make some changes at least in the way we care for the turfgrass we do want in our landscapes. And maybe give up a little square footage of it to some other kind of more diverse planting, too, like the wild strawberries (Fragaria virginiana), above.

Alternative, more eco-focused styles of lawn care, along with some lawn alternatives is our topic today. Dan is Director of Applied Ecology at Norcross Wildlife Foundation in Wales, Massachusetts, and its 8,000-acre sanctuary. He’s also co-author with Mark Richardson of the book “Native Plants for New England Gardens.”

Read along as you listen to the June 27, 2022 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

a more ecological approach to lawn, with dan wilder



Margaret Roach: Well, Dan, so you win the prize. The recent article we did together on smarter lawn care and lawn alternative ideas for my garden column in “The New York Times,” last time I checked had close to 1,200 comments from readers. So apparently this is a hot button, which is interesting to me. You probably already know that it’s a hot button.

Dan Jaffe Wilder: Well, I’ve always been a little bit of a troublemaker, and this is one of those troubles that I really like to embrace. It’s a complicated topic and there’s plenty of people who are in it because that’s where they … they don’t know where else to be in terms of, “I’ve got this space, I think it’s supposed to be a lawn, I might as well make it a lawn.” Or maybe, “I inherited a lawn,” how many of us have. And then there’s lots of people who are starting to question that right now. And with these questions comes controversy and confusion and passion, and a touch of ecology hopefully as well.

Margaret: Yeah. So I mean, I guess, the elevator pitch for why one would want to reconsider either how we care for it or what we plant instead of our lawn is because the lawn is this monoculture of non-native grasses, that’s not diverse and doesn’t really serve the ecology. Is that the short pitch?

Dan: I think that’s definitely an important part of it. What I often tell people is that lawns are a whole lot of work, and they don’t give us anything in return. And when I say us, I mean the entire ecosystem, humans being a very important part of it. But the lawns from an ecological point of view are at the very least a waste of space, and in some cases are truly a detriment to the ecological function.

And in many cases they are a lot of work. When I’m willing to put a lot of work into a garden space or really any outdoor space, I want to either know that it’s doing a lot for the ecosystem, or maybe I’m directly benefiting from it. And I find that in most cases, lawns really just don’t fit that anymore.

Margaret: Right. So in the lecture you do [laughter], which is called “Kill Your Lawn,” and in the story we did together, you explained that you have what you call gradients of ecology, by which you rank various shifts, either in the way we care for our lawns or changes instead of lawns that we can make. So it did seem like a no-brainer that almost anyone could do the first gradient level. So tell us what that is, the intro to a more ecological situation.

Dan: Yeah. The gradients of ecology allow us to really look at this on a step-by-step process. And as much as I’ve really enjoyed the kill your lawn campaign–it’s really an eye-catcher–the base message is that you don’t have to go full swing into it if you’re not ready for it. And most people aren’t. And you can start very, very small.

If you simply look at the lawn you’ve got and say, “I’m going to treat this with more ecological sense in mind,” you can go so far as to mow it a bit less, let it get a little bit taller, cut off any fertilizer or irrigation that you might be adding to it. And even that tiny little step is a step in the right direction.

And then the gradients go from there into full scale, wild native ecosystem. With a lot of steps in between that really hopefully makes this something that anybody can tackle. It’s not something where you need to put in 10,000 hours worth of work. If you want to just actually frankly do less, that’s a really good first step.

Margaret: So, doing less… So lawns notoriously use a lot of water, and water’s a precious resource more and more, as we know on the planet. And people use chemicals of various kinds, including as you just mentioned fertilizers on them. So we could back off from watering, let it go dormant in the hot season of the year, things like that. We could just back off from watering.

We could say no to the pre-emergence herbicides, all the chemicals and the fertilizer, and we could mow less. But you’re not saying, just let my lawn grow if I’m in a traditional, suburban lot, because, I mean, that isn’t necessarily going to yield a great thing, is it? I mean, it’s tricky, “unmowing” as I call it [laughter].

Dan: There are a few very, very rare instances where if you simply stop mowing a lawn and stop caring for it, it will turn into something better. But in most cases, and I’m talking 99 percent of the cases out there, if you stop mowing your lawn, what you’re going to end up with is a tall lawn, likely with a few extra weeds mixed in. [Above, native violets, a desirable lawn “weed” to encourage.]

I jokingly call it the plight of the turfgrass in America, in that we’ve got a species or a mix of species that frankly are not well adapted to our environment. And so in order to get these to grow well, we need to water them because they’re used to a higher level of water than we naturally get here. And we get a lot of water. And they’re used to a different level of nutrients than our soils typically have.

So we water them, we fertilize them, we take care of them. And then the odd part is, if God forbid it actually works and the thing starts growing, we immediately break out the mowers and cut it down to size. And when we do that, it restricts the plant’s ability to produce a good root system, because there’s always going to be some balance between the amount of foliage and the amount of root space. And if you’ve got a nice deep root system, the plant can take care of itself. But with our constant mowing, it’s pretty much a plant on life support.

And that’s a whole lot of work, and it’s a whole lot of wasted time as far as I’m concerned.

Margaret: Yeah. So, if I’m going to back off on the water, back off on the chemicals and mow less, 4-inch mowing height, mow every two or three weeks, any ideas on that? And I guess it depends on where you live and the season of the year as well. But we’re talking about higher, not 2 feet high, but we’re talking about raising that deck and shifting that frequency, yes?

Dan: Yes. And I think going by the height is a really good way to go about it.

Margaret: O.K.

Dan: Because depending on where you are and your season and so forth, the height is a consistent thing that’s always going to, it might mean mowing every three weeks for me here this time of year and two weeks for you there, but we’re always aiming for that higher height.

I tell people, whenever possible, at least 3-1/2 inches, 4 is better, but getting up past that, we tend to start losing the benefits of it. And it’s an easy first step because frankly all it requires is doing less work. And that’s not a hard thing for most people to take on.

Margaret: O.K. And say I’m ready to go to the next step, if I’ve accomplished that, and I’m fascinated and getting seduced by this idea–not necessarily ready to kill my lawn completely, but on to the next step. What would be some next steps I could take in those gradients of ecology you described?

Dan: Sure. So you’ve got a few different options, but I think that the standard next step is to look at some of the ecologically sensitive lawn alternatives that are out there. Some of the common ones are things like white clover, or there’s a variety of different products that go under the name, eco-lawn, eco-grass, low-mow, or no-mow grass. You’ll find a variety of different options out there. And these are usually a mix of slow-growing fescues. There’s probably a few natives mixed in, but for the most part, these are non-native mixes.

And what these can provide for us is a lawn that can reduce that maintenance significantly more. To the point where once they’re established, you’re usually mowing this once, maybe twice a season. They do not need rich soil. So standard lawn practices, at least 6  inches of good top soil. In the case of all these low-mows or no-mows, you really just seed it into whatever your soils are, and it’ll be fine.

And then again, once established, there’s no need to fertilize ever, and mowing is very minimal. So it greatly reduces the inputs that would go into a traditional lawn.

And the added bonus to these, as compared to the natives that I think we’ll get to in a bit, is that they’re readily available. They tend to be inexpensive. And they all come with a good set of instructions. And if you follow that instructions, you will succeed. And there is definitely something to be said for that.

Margaret: But you said, “seeded into the soil.” And so I don’t over seed my existing lawn to accomplish this. Is that right?

Dan: That is correct. I’ve tried this many times, just throwing seed into lawn, and you will see some new plants coming up, but you’re not going to really, in a realistic timeframe and to a realistic level, you’re not going to convert a lawn without first zeroing out that lawn to one extent or another. And there’s a variety of different ways to go about doing that.

Margaret: O.K. And maybe we can talk about that, because I know you’re a smotherer [laughter], you’ll have to smother or tarp things, smother them with various things. And maybe we can talk about that. But first, just in terms of these no-mow, low-mow, eco-lawn, a couple of sources maybe for where I could look to see what those products are like that. Have you tried any?

Dan: Yes. I’ve tried a few. There’s a company up north of us in Canada called Wildflower Farm that has an eco-lawn mix. I’ve also worked with, I know that both Prairie Moon and Ernst Seeds carry eco-lawns or eco-grasses. They’re all used interchangeably. And then you can find your standard white clover at just about any organization. Fedco Seeds is where I tend to buy mine when I’ve worked with that.

There’s also a micro-clover out there, which I have not yet worked with myself, which is supposedly shorter and cuter and more dainty. I’ve heard mixed reviews on that one. But I’d love anyone to give it a try and tell me how it went for them.

Margaret: Right. And just important, we just named a few sources, and I can give links to those with the transcript of the show. But regionally appropriate is the other thing. And so if those don’t have mixes that are good for where you are. It can’t be all things to all places in the world in one catalog usually.

Dan: Certainly. I mean, I’m a Northeasterner and my sources tend to lean Northeast. My specific plant knowledge is Northeast-based. And so that means when you’re asking me about sources in California or Arizona, frankly I don’t have a good answer for you. And that’s when you want to reach out to your local experts and start getting a sense of … Local knowledge is extremely valuable for a variety of different purposes, but especially for this. [Native plant organizations are a good place to start. The North American Native Plant Society has links to ones in each state in the U.S. and Canadian province.]

Margaret: Right. And for instance, before you worked at Norcross, you worked a number of years at what was the former New England Wild Flower Society, now Native Plant Trust in New England. And I’ll give with the transcript, again, a link to where people can find organizations, entities, nonprofits like that all over the country and in all the Canadian provinces to research local… That you can get from a non-profit organization, the recommendations of sources in your area. So I’ll give all that.

So back to some of these possibilities. So I could zero out and consider one of these admittedly non-native, but easier to manage and more beneficial and less mowing required, etc., eco-lawns. And what else could I do as a next tier?

Dan: The eco-lawns, their real claim to fame is that the amount of damage that was done in the traditional lawn is now kind of negligent, we’re losing that high input level. But it’s still not really building a healthy ecosystem. It’s not really doing much specifically. And that’s where the next level really kicks in.

And that’s when you start working with the native species. And there’s a lot of different ways to do this, but I think the next transition would be to look at a native lawn alternative. So we’re not yet thinking about just a new forest or a meadow or some new garden. We’re actually thinking, I want a lawn of some sort that’s made out of native species.

And there’s some real standouts that work for this. My personal favorite has got to be the wild strawberries [above, in flower]. I love the idea of a strawberry lawn. I actually loved the idea of a strawberry lawn before I realized that we had a native strawberry that really works well for this. And the caveat being that the cultivated strawberry, frankly, it’s a lovely plant, but it’s not going to work for lawn purposes.

Our wild strawberry [Fragaria virginiana] has the advantage of being a very vigorous grower and being very abusable. This is a lawn that can be walked on, that can be dug in, that could be manipulated and that can handle no-mowing and no fertilizer and no watering once established.

And the great advantage when you get into the native spectrum is all of a sudden, you’re not only reducing all of those inputs of the previous lawns, but you’re now building an ecosystem. It may not be as rich as a diverse meadow with 40 species. A strawberry lawn is pretty much strawberries. But those strawberries provide a huge amount of habitat, much more than most people realize.

When you start looking at the list of species that provide large amounts of habitat, especially in my area, you realize that strawberries are Number 2 on the list when you’re specifically looking at the herbaceous plants. Goldenrods are top the list, and wild strawberries are number two. They support about 87 different species of Lepidoptera in the New England region. And that’s a very respectable number. That is more butterflies and moths than most plants that we call pollinator plants and put in pollinator gardens.

And it’s got the advantage of them feeding us, and other wildlife as well, with the strawberries that come later in the season. And who doesn’t love a strawberry.

Margaret: And so that’s like a groundcover. We say “native lawn,” but it’s not going to be exactly like our grass. This is a slightly different thing. But it’s low in a groundcover way. Any other plants that you’re experimenting with or particularly like?

Dan: Sure. Yeah. I mean, if you want a lawn that still looks more like a traditional lawn, as in a grass-like plant, my next go to is a plant called Pennsylvania sedge, it’s Carex pensylvanica [above]. This is a native sedge. It’s a grass relative. To my eye, and frankly everyone else’s eye, it just looks like a grass.

So if you’ve got the interest in some form of a native lawn, but still want it to look like that lawn, this is a really good option for you. And it’s got some similarities with wild strawberry. It’s not as fast of a spreader. So it’ll take an extra season to really fill in. But it spreads fast enough where it’ll do the job in usually about three seasons. And it also does not need any regular watering, fertilizing or mowing. Once you get it established, you can pretty much just let it be.

A lot of people like to mow this one once during the season, to keep it shorter than the probably 5 to 6 inches it’ll top out at. And the nice thing about it is it puts all of its growth in during the spring and into early summer. So if you hit this with the mower, I’m going to say sometime around mid-June, then it’ll stay that mowed height for the rest of the season. And so you can even keep it short with still a minimal amount of mowing.

Margaret: O.K. So, we could swap out, we could get rid of–again, we have to zero out the lawn to do this, because I assume this is not stuff I can do from seed, like those other eco-lawn suggestions you had, but that I still have to have a blank canvas. And then I’m using what? Plugs, landscape plugs, little small plants that I have to order to do this, and it’s going to take longer for them to grow in?

Dan: Yes, that is I think one of the current at least, I hope this changes, but it’s one of the current disadvantages of these natives that we’re discussing over the previous gradient in the non-natives. So with our natives, you can’t go to the hardware store and buy a big bag of Carex pensylvanica seed. That’s not available. And even if it were available, it probably wouldn’t work very well. It’s going to be a tough one to grow from seed.

So you’re looking to pick up plugs, or if you’re lucky enough to be around a place that can do bare-root divisions, you can purchase bare-root divisions.

But it also leads me to my next recommendation, which you’ve already alluded to, which is in many cases, trying to go whole hog and kill your entire lawn and start a whole new, say, Carex or strawberry lawn from scratch is a lot of work.

And the nice thing about these plants, specifically the Carex and the Fragaria that we’re talking about is these are colonizing plants. They’re rhizomatous spreaders. So if you start with say a small section and get that established, we’ll say with wild strawberries, the next season, when that area is established, you can then go zero out a new section of your lawn, and just pull some plants out of that previous section, move it over to the new section. The previous one will fill in. And the new one will start to fill in as well. And you can leapfrog along.

And this allows you to tackle things on a spot-by-spot-spot basis. It means that the job is much less daunting than trying to do the whole lawn at once. And it’s a great way to save some money and save some time. Buying plugs is always going to be more expensive than buying a bag of seed. It’s going to take more work. It’s going to take more time. And it’s going to take more cash. And so being able to leapfrog is a really nice way to go about this.

Margaret: Right. So, to prepare, and I know in the “New York Times story,” you discussed how you and your wife at your relatively new home project, you’re trying to zero out some vinca, not just some lawn but some vinca that came with the place. And you’re smothering it. And I know, as I’ve just mentioned a few times, smothering is your favorite preparatory method, as opposed to chemical herbicides or whatever. Just tell us quickly, what is that, if I want to make a small area of Pennsylvania sedge or Fragaria virginiana, if I want to do that, how do I get the prep done?

Dan: Sure. So what I do is if I’ve got an area that’s got tall plants, tall lawn, whatever, I’m going to get in there with the mower, and I’m going to mow it all down. And in this case, I mow as low as I possibly can, and I leave all that cut material right in place.

Then I cover all of that over with some cardboard. And you can go with just the random pieces of boxes and stuff that you pick up from the local hardware store, or wherever. Or if you want to streamline and don’t mind spending a little money, you can go purchase a product–the one that I get locally is called Ram Board. I know there’s a lot of other ones out there. And what it is a roll of cardboard that usually painters use to protect floor surfaces when they’re painting, say, ceilings or walls. And this is a fully biodegradable product that I will lay down in this now-mowed area. And then I’ll start covering it over with stuff. You notice the specificity there.

Margaret: Yes. Very. “Stuff.” [Laughter.]

Dan: Use whatever you’ve got available to you.

Margaret: Organic material.

Dan: Organic material. Often for me, it’s a combination of wood chips and compost. That’s what I have available. It works very well. But I know folks who have used leaf material, whether it be shredded or unshredded. In this case, you can use compost.

The only thing I really wouldn’t recommend is your typical bark mulch. It’s probably not going to work well for this. But the nice thing is that wood chips are frankly pretty easy to get your hands on. They tend to be pretty cheap. And they’re a lot easier to move than compost. Weight-wise, they’re much easier to work with. So wood chips is usually my recommended go-to for most people.

Margaret: O.K. And so you’re putting this on top of the barrier, the cardboard or the Ram Board, and this becomes then … Are you then right away plugging in your baby plants or what?

Dan: Yep. This is where you get to decide how you want to do it for yourself. In most cases, yes, I tend to plug right in. And in that case, I like to make sure that my topping layer, the wood-chip layer, is going to have, say, some compost mixed in. Or more often than not, if available, I’ll even throw a little layer of topsoil on top of my wood chips afterwards.

And I’ll plant in my baby wild strawberries. And by the time those fill into that topsoil and start rooting into the wood chips below, the cardboard underneath has started to decompose, the grass underneath has been smothered. And they can then just root down and kind of take off.

And you’ll find often that that first season, they fill in slowly, but they don’t do a ton just yet. And then by the next season, all of a sudden they take off. And what you’re seeing happening is you’re seeing them getting past that now-decomposed cardboard layer, and really rooting into the soil underneath.

The other option is to simply lay down your wood chips and leave it be. If you, say, do this in the spring, then you’re usually ready to plant in the fall. Or you can do this in the fall and plant the following spring, and give yourself time to work on this.

Margaret: All right. And so I have a million other questions, of course. One of the other things we can do when we’re in that first tier, with mowing at a higher height and so forth, and watering less and not using chemicals, we can also have more “weed” tolerance. And I’m using weeds in quotes because there’s lots of great things that may start to come in and flower. So we can have more tolerance of those. I just wanted to make sure we pointed that out. [Above, self-heal or Prunella vulgaris.]

And then I just wanted to take the last couple of minutes to ask about Norcross, because that’s what you’re doing. And I know you’re very excited about it. And I think people can come and visit. You have trails and all kinds of things going on, too, yes?

Dan: Oh yes. Please come visit us at Norcross. So we are centered in Wales, Massachusetts. We’ve got just over 8,000 acres to our name over the whole scale, including a 75-acre section that is open to the public six days a week, Monday through Saturday. [A trail at Norcross; Norcross Wildlife Foundation photo.]

And if you come on in, you’ll see a number of historic lawns on site that are all getting assessed right now in terms of, why are they there? What are they doing for us? What could or should they be? And each one of those is getting a little bit of a different treatment. You’ll see some strawberry lawns, you’ll see some self-heal lawns, Prunella vulgaris, that we don’t have time to talk about today.

Margaret: Self-heal, I love it. Yes.

Dan: Some Carex. And then you’ll see other areas that are still to one extent or another lawn with violets and bluets and various other lawn weeds that I frankly think are much nicer than lawns anyway, that are encouraged in these areas.

And then the full spectrum is other areas where the lawn is getting turned into something that really isn’t lawn anymore. Whether it become a meadow or a forest or you name. Sometimes the lawn doesn’t actually need to be a lawn. And then your options are really open.

Margaret: So you’re really pondering on a much larger scale, but the same thinking you’re applying that we were just talking about, these gradients of ecology, and what’s it meant to be? And what can I afford to do? And what’s manageable? And all of these factors on a larger scale there at Norcross.

Dan: Yes, exactly. We’ve got the, I guess, advantage and disadvantage of having a lot of lawn spaces to consider and work with. So, we’ve got the ability to really do a little bit of everything over there.

For most folks, you’ve got your front lawn and you can pick one of these and go with it. And it works well for you. But we’ve got a lot to work with. And we’ve also got a lot of old pastures, which are not quite the same as a lawn, but there’s a lot of similarities. And so the thinking is very similar. [Above, at Norcross; photo from Norcross Wildlife Foundation.]

Margaret: Well, it’s very exciting. And Dan Wilder, I hope that we’ll talk again soon. And I appreciate your helping me with that “New York Times” garden column. It has even more information about some of these particular aspects. But thank you. And like I said, I hope we’ll talk again soon.

Dan: Margaret, thank you so much. It’s always a pleasure to talk to you. I love watching the work that you do. And yes, let’s do this again, 10, 20, 30 more times. I’m happy to talk anytime.

(Photos except as noted by Dan Jaffe Wilder, used with permission.)

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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 11th year in March 2020. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the June 27, 2022 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

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