Perhaps you have mowed or paid a service to clip your yard for the umpteenth time and wondered if there is a better way to keep your property green.
Have you read how artificially managed, manicured turf grass lawns support virtually no wildlife or pollinators and the fertilizers and weed killers that can run off, to the detriment of local waterways or the environment?
Do you realize that some of the flowers, shrubs and trees that landscape your property are likely not native and may be harming useful species that should be part of a healthy ecosystem?
Then perhaps you are ready to start converting your artificially kept, environmentally useless and money-draining manicured wasteland to native plant groupings, butterfly and pollinator gardens, and maybe with a raised-bed vegetable and herb garden mixed in.
Autumn is a good time to turn over a new leaf.
Now is the time to plan the makeover and discover which plants are beneficial to the environment and are appealing to your eyes. Perhaps, even, buy some of them and get them started in the ground before freezes come. Fall also is a good time to kill sections of your sterile turf so they will be ready for planting native next spring.
Don’t take my word for it. Listen to Christa Shoreman, the Master Gardener coordinator in Penn State Extension’s Lancaster County office. For 16 years, Shoreman has been slowly but steadily converting her front and back yards in her Millersville subdivision into an attractive and environmentally beneficial blend of native flowers, grasses, plants, shrubs, trees and gardens.
This past year she got her property certified as pollinator habitat and planted the sign in her yard, partly to reassure neighbors that there has been a purpose for her planting madness over the years.
“No matter where you live, I think you have the pressure of having your land looking neat and manicured,” she says while we walk through one of the five demonstration gardens for native plant themes kept to inspire the public into action at Penn State’s Southeast Agricultural Research & Extension Center near Landisville.
“People say it’s difficult to maintain a flower bed. Well, it’s difficult to maintain a lawn, too.”
To be sure, Shoreman says there is a place and time for unencumbered grass lawns, like when a family needs open space to let the toddlers run free. But after that, not so much. “A grass lawn exists because you’re basically keeping it artificially that way. It’s not really a shortcut to have a lawn,” she says.
Here are some tips passed on by Shoreman.
One of the most frequent false steps she sees are people trying to convert too much of their lawn too quickly.
“A common mistake is just leaping into it uninformed and then trying to plant too much space and then you feel overwhelmed and it just becomes a weed patch and becomes disappointing,” she says.
Instead, identify a small section, kill the grass, research and select plants and plant them. If you like the results, you can expand the area and keep going.
Shoreman suggests starting by planting any trees, shrubs and clumps of perennial grasses you desire in the first year. Then start filling in with native plants.
Keep in mind that though native plants are best, some popular landscaping specimens are non-native but not invasive, meaning they are not a threat to escape off the premises and crowd out desirable ones. Daffodils and lilacs are examples. On the other hand, invasive non-natives to avoid include burning bush, Japanese barberry and butterfly bush.
Shoreman has allowed a crepe myrtle and Japanese maple to continue to grow in her yard because she likes them and the crepe myrtle attracts pollinators. Before ripping everything out of your yard, do your research to see what can stay and what needs to go.
Similarly, spend time visiting nurseries and the many online sources that show if a plant blooms, how tall it gets — will it eventually block my window view? — whether it needs sun or shade, how much water, etc.
Shoreman cautions against jumping headlong into a meadow conversion unless you realize that it takes a good bit of maintenance and tinkering to keep the area from following a natural tendency to revert to forest. “You don’t just throw a pack of seeds out. We do live in Penns Woods,” she notes.
To get rid of the lawn, string-trim it as close to the soil as possible. Then place a layer of cardboard, paper or even newspaper over it and weigh it down a bit so it won’t blow away. Fall is an excellent time to do this. By spring, the grass will be dead and melted into the soil, along with the decomposed cover material.
Be mindful that perennial plants are slow to get started. There is an old adage among gardeners that perennials sleep the first year, creep the second and leap the third.
Also accept that, over time, you will be making changes to your layout. For example, as your trees grow, plants that did well at first may falter in the shade and have to be transplanted to another location.
Some plants will die — it does not mean you are not a green thumb. Some will be denuded by insects, but resist the urge to blast away with insecticides. I most cases, the plants will come back, even if devoured to a leafless state.
Above all, have patience in your yard makeover, and enjoy the slow unfolding, Shoreman advises.
“You’re not going to learn it all at one time. You’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to put things in and say, ‘Why did I do that, I hate that.’ It’s like anything you try for the first time. But it’s plants. You can easily dig them up.”
There is no better place to get a feel for native plants and their potential than a visit to the demonstration plots grown for the public by Lancaster County Master Gardeners at the Southeast Agricultural Research & Extension Center at 1446 Auction Road, Manheim. You will find separate gardens for ideas, blooms and butterflies, native plants, raised beds, potager garden, and vegetables and herbs. The gardens are open to the public from June until Aug. 31.
A handy primer, “Native Plants for the Small Yard” by Kate Brandes may be helpful.
The Wildflower Center has lots of information on native plants.
The Lancaster Conservancy maintains a website with descriptions of native plants suitable for our area.
Regional native plant lists and a searchable database of native plant nurseries in each state are available at Plant Native's website.
The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has a website about landscaping with native plants.
Penn State Master Gardeners of Lancaster County maintains a year-round hotline for answering questions. You can email a question to email@example.com or call 717-394-6851.
Big-box stores and many nurseries carry few native plants. Local nurseries that specialize or carry a large number of native plants include Butterfly Oasis, 2428 Bachman Road, Lancaster, butterflyoasis.net or 717-371-5004; Fernwey Nursery, Manheim, 215-847-7473; Go Native Tree Farm, 678 S. Chiques Road, Manheim, gonativetrees.com or 717-399-0195; Hungry Hook Farm, 26 Locust Grove Road, Bainbridge, hungryhookfarm.com or 717-951-2939; PlantNative.guru, 346 Walnut Hill Road, Millersville, firstname.lastname@example.org; Groff’s Plant Farm, 6128 Street Road, Kirkwood, groffsplantfarm.com or 717-529-3001.
Ad Crable is an LNP | LancasterOnline outdoors writer. Email him at email@example.com.