As the push towards more sustainable practices grows, one area coming under scrutiny is the ubiquitous American lawn. The nostalgic vista of a green lawn or the scent of freshly mowed grass on a summer day may seem idyllic. Still, the increasing interest in beneficial plantings as lawn replacements reflects a shift in our understanding of environmental stewardship.

The Wildlife and Heritage Service fields inquiries year-round on potential lawn substitutes that could serve the dual purpose of preserving the familiar feel of a lawn while promoting local biodiversity. Groundcovers, ornamental or warm-season grasses, wildflower meadows, and expanded garden beds are among the top contenders.

Eastern cottontail rabbit by Alec Haskard

A recent project by the Mt. Cuba Center has spotlighted Carex species, a type of perennial, grass-like plant. Their comprehensive four-year trial assessed the viability of 70 different Carex species and variants as potential lawn alternatives. The evaluation process was exhaustive, considering aesthetic appeal, survival capabilities, adaptability, and even comfort underfoot.

Like the rigorous testing applied to consumer goods, the Mt. Cuba Center assigned a numerical score to each Carex species. One vital factor still under examination is the plant’s resilience to frequent foot traffic, an essential feature of any potential lawn replacement. Future research at the center aims to address this question and provide a more complete assessment of Carex’s potential.

Replacing an entire lawn can seem a daunting task. Therefore, potential converts are advised to consider their soil and site’s specific conditions and start small. Observing native species in neighboring areas during the summer can offer valuable insights into potential lawn replacements. Planning and research during the warmer months can ensure readiness for the upcoming planting seasons.

Numerous resources are available for aspiring environmental gardeners. For instance, the University of Maryland Extension Office offers a wealth of information on lawn alternatives, including case studies and summary articles.

Many gardeners share a question about cultivars of native species – selectively bred variants – found in garden centers throughout Maryland. If the appearance or growth of these plants changes due to selective breeding, could it affect the native species that rely on them? Research at the Mt. Cuba Center and a 2016 study from the University of Vermont address this very concern.

For those with large properties, considering a native meadow as a lawn alternative is another sustainable option. However, bare soil could cause problems, so replacing existing plants should be done judiciously, using stabilization or cover crops when necessary. Besides their own resources for native wildflower meadows, the Wildlife and Heritage Service recommends UMD’s page on meadows and a paper from the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.

Lastly, resources such as the Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat and Conservation Landscaping booklet and a filterable listing from the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay offer valuable guidance for those seeking to choose the best native plants for their backyards.

The movement to replace traditional lawns with more beneficial plantings challenges the conventional idea of what a lawn should be. Yet, the growing acceptance of this change signifies a step toward a more sustainable future rooted in the beauty of local biodiversity.

David M. Higgins II is an award-winning journalist passionate about uncovering the truth and telling compelling stories. Born in Baltimore and raised in Southern Maryland, he has lived in several East...

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