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How To Rewild Your Lawn

Replacing even a little of your grass with native plants will lead to climate rewards.
How To Rewild Your Lawn

(Photograph: Courtesy of Owen Wormser, author of Lawns Into Meadows: Growing A Regenerative Landscape)

Let me tell you about the birds and the bees—and, no, that’s not a euphemism. Populations of these and many other wildlife species are plummeting at a frightful rate in what experts have dubbed a biodiversity crisis. Meanwhile, climate change is increasing the likelihood and severity of extreme weather events.

Sounds daunting, right? But there is hope, and it’s coming from the lowest-tech climate solution of all: tapping into the power of nature.

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The benefits of rewilding

Rewilding—the process of restoring healthy, self-sustaining ecosystems through the creation of wild spaces—is based on the three Cs: cores, corridors and carnivores. On a large scale, that might involve things like restoring and protecting forest or grassland, building road crossings to help native wildlife travel safely or reintroducing keystone species like wolves to areas where they no longer exist. It’s good for biodiversity and essential in the fight against climate change: Land that’s been re-wilded stores more carbon and is more resilient to natural disasters like wildfires and floods.

But rewilding needs to happen on a smaller scale, too. It’s a “misconception that biodiversity is nature outside of cities,” says Carly Ziter, assistant professor of biology at Concordia University. “We’re surrounded by a lot of life in our cities as well.”

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Attracting pollinators—and then supporting them—boosts their ability to help our vegetable gardens grow; trees, shrubs and other greenery provide cooling shade and help reduce flooding during storms. “A biodiverse city is a healthier, safer, more livable city,” Ziter says.

And that’s where lawns come in. “Most are really low in plant diversity,” she says. By replacing some or all of your grass with plants that are more closely integrated into your local ecosystem, you’re helping to support biodiversity and climate resilience. “One front yard at one house might seem really small,” Ziter says. “But if you take all of those small lawns together, they play a huge role collectively.”

Six steps to rewilding your lawn

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1. Pay attention “Have a period of observation to make sure there aren’t native species that you might not recognize but are actually present,” says Kristen Miskelly, a Victoria-based biologist who co-operates native-plant nursery Satinflower Nurseries. Also look at site conditions: Is the area sunny or shady? Is the soil dry or does it collect water?

2. Set goals Think about why you want to replace your lawn—whether it’s to support a specific type of bird, add shade or reduce water use—and what you want it to look like. Also think about how much lawn you want to remove. You can start small, Ziter points out, by converting just one patch, for example, or a border.

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3. Lose the lawn The most immediate (and labour-intensive) method is to simply dig it out. A slower approach is to lay black plastic on top of your grass and let the sun’s heat kill it. Or use the sheet mulching technique: Cover your lawn with cardboard topped with compost, soil or degraded bark mulch.

4. Make a shopping list Now that you’re familiar with your site conditions and goals, you can choose plants to match. Native plant species tend to be best suited to supporting local wildlife, Ziter says. But the key to biodiversity is variety. Aim for plants with flowers of different sizes and shapes that bloom at different times of the year.

5. Create a planting plan You can plant in spring, but it’s not the only option, Miskelly says. Autumn planting can be advantageous for some types of seeds and seedlings and may require less water than planting in summer. Also think about maintenance (will you have time to water when it’s hot?) and budget when choosing what to plant. Seeds are cheaper than seedlings, but they take more time to grow and are best sown in fall. (You could also try winter sowing to get a jump start on spring.)

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6. Brag and enjoy
“Talk to your neighbours so they understand it’s intentional,” says Ziter. She also emphasizes the importance of observing the biodiversity you’re supporting. “One of the biggest joys of converting our lawns is seeing all the new species and new life,” she says. “Take time to appreciate your success.” 

Three resources to help you on your rewilding journey

  1. This project by Birds Canada offers a handy plant-selector tool and tips on gardening to support our feathered friends.
  2. Pollinator Partnership, a pollinator-protecting charity, has a native-plant finder for North America that’s searchable by postal code.
  3. The David Suzuki Foundation's Butterflyway Project is a rewilding initiative that has been helping communities across Canada support bees and butterflies since 2017.

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