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© Lora Denis
How do you picture the perfect lawn? For most, an image of a well-manicured, freshly mowed yard comes to mind. With hot weather approaching, many Ontarians are starting to wake up to the sound of the neighbors’ mower and sprinkler systems. However, while lawns can be visually attractive, they are monoculture ecosystems that rarely support native biodiversity.
Known as an indication of a well-kept property, lawns are typically flat, grassy areas that need to be maintained. Though they are ecologically unproductive, lawns require significant amounts of water and chemical fertilizers to keep them looking green. Mowing requires fossil fuels and creates harmful emissions, while chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides harm pollinators and disrupt ecological cycles.
As climate change becomes more urgent, it is time Ontarians transform the “perfect lawn” into outdoor spaces that support diverse ecological systems.
Here are four ideas to create biodiversity-friendly lawns. This summer, challenge your concept of the ideal lawn and transform your yard into a living, thriving space.
Imagine if #NoMowMay lasted year-round. This means less carbon emissions from mowing, less fossil fuel use, and best of all—no need to wake up to the sound of the mower on weekends. In hot months, grass requires lots of water to maintain, making it not only a chore, but highly resource intensive.
Replacing grass with gardens composed of diverse native perennials reduces water and fertilizer usage while requiring less maintenance than traditional lawns. Additionally, native perennials add seasonal support to wildlife throughout the year. For example, the summer-fruiting shrub Canadian Serviceberry produces an abundance of berries enjoyed by birds including orioles, thrushes and waxwings, as well as small mammals, while the stems of raspberry bushes provide habitat for overwintering bees. Choose native plants based on your sun exposure and soil conditions and create a vibrant ecosystem on your property.
Maintaining garden design and visual interest can still be done in a wildlife-friendly way. By choosing native plants like common milkweed, cardinal flower, Canada goldenrod, or bee balm, your lawn can become a destination for pollinators, including at-risk native bee species. Migratory pollinators like the monarch butterfly can also use your lawn as a place to recharge on their journey.
There is nothing more satisfying than growing your own food. Transforming your lawn into a productive, edible space means eating as locally as it can get. Incorporating edible flowers like nasturtium and chamomile can help maintain visual appeal while reducing food miles. In addition, there are several edible wild plants that can be grown in the garden, like wild strawberry.
“Re-wilding,” or returning land back to its natural state in support of biodiversity and the climate is a growing movement worldwide. Embracing your weeds and letting your lawn naturalize supports native plants and creates habitat for animals. Re-wilding doesn’t have to mean neglecting your lawn completely, but it also can! You can even get your property officially certified as Wildlife Friendly Habitat.
Lawns do not exist in nature. Reimagining our lawns is a key step in battling biodiversity loss and climate change while restoring our connection to wild places. By turning towards more sustainable lawn practices, we are reimagining the “perfect lawn” as one that is truly green.
To learn more about how the re-wilding movement is unfolding in Ontario, read Going Wild by Daniel Israelson in the award-winning ON Nature Magazine.
Great article! This is such an important message to get out there.
I do however have concerns with the rewilding idea.
Firstly, most plants that will appear when you just let the lawn grow out are non- native species.
Secondly, if you are attempting this in a front yard in an urban area you are likely to attract the wrath of your neighbours and you will get slapped with a bylaw offence. Even people who have put in proper native plant gardens have issues with bylaws and often wind up in court fighting for the right to grow what they want or the town will often just come in and mow it down- see the two articles below and there are many more examples.
So for those two reasons, putting in an actual defined garden space planted with native species pollinators, insects, mammals and birds can use is really important. Putting in some signage showing what you are doing is also helpful so the neighbours understand that you are not just letting ‘weeds’ grow. Checking your town’s bylaws and either following their rules or being prepared to fight is something every home owner who wants to ditch the lawn needs to do.