By: Dylan McFarland
Removing a portion or all of your turf is an excellent way to not only save water and money but also to provide a more biodiverse and habitable space for the local wildlife.
Here in the plains of Colorado gardening and landscaping can be a challenge. We have hard, clay soil that is difficult to drain and you can pretty much count on any day as being sunny, often hot and we get very little moisture through the year. That is why if you are considering replacing your turf, plant choices are going to make your life a lot easier, and why, as a general rule, choosing native plants is a good idea.
So, if you are looking to remove a current lawn, here are some different ways to go about it and some pointers too!
1) Tear it out! Simple, effective, but not usually easy. The roots of sod-growing are on average about four inches deep, so if you remove the turf to that depth, you’ve effectively removed the grass. This can be a great option for a number of reasons, such as if your area is small and therefore not too difficult or if you need to convert it to a native area right away and can’t wait.
2) Cover it and dry it out. If you can wait, covering the lawn can be easiest way to eliminate the grass. Anything that blocks out the sunlight will work to cover it – painters tarps, cardboard, etc. Just remember that the material will be outside in the rain, snow and wind and make sure it is secured with bricks or rocks, especially if you are using a plastic sheet of some sort. Make sure during this time that the area stays dry, because the roots can survive a very long time if they are wet. This process will take at least a month, and depending on how wet the soil is and how good the cover is for blocking out the sun, it could take two or even three months.
Plants to Choose From!
Even though we live in harsh conditions for plants, there are still many native plants that are different shapes, sizes, blooming seasons, types of pollinators they attract, and, not unimportantly, beauty.
Here is a list of native plants which are a great option for converting a lawn space. Since this list is far from comprehensive, I also suggest doing some internet searches for native plants to help you on your journey. If you plan to do your own research, keep in mind elevation – some native plants will only thrive in specific elevations.
(1) Shrubs. Shrubs are a great choice for filling a large area and adding a sense of height to your area. It will have more interest (and more biological diversity) with various plants of differing heights. And if you really have space, there are dozens of native trees which mature at about 12 feet or so and can be an exciting addition! Here is a small list of a few of my favorites: Serviceberry, leadplant, Apache plume, three-leaf sumac, golden currant, rabbitbrush, western sand cherry, boulder raspberry.
(2) Perennials. Perennials are smaller, non-woody plants whose roots survive the winter and re-grow in the Springtime. There are many excellent native species and I suggest to get at least a few varieties that provide food for insect pollinators (like native bees) as well as birds! How fun it will be to see such a variety of visitors! Here is a list of a few of my favorites: Rocky Mountain Columbine (state flower!), silver sage, butterfly weed, poppy mallow, purple prairie clover, sulphurflower, native blanket flower, dunes sunflower, bee balm, Rocky Mountain Penstemon.
(3) Annuals. There are so many beautiful and native annuals to choose from, this can be very exciting to pick your most favorite! Just keep in mind that annuals must be re-planted every year so this is a great option for perhaps just a small portion of the area you want to experiment with and keep fresh from year to year. Here is a list of a few of my favorites: hollyhock, blanket of gold, chocolate flower, California poppy (native here too).
That’s a lot to choose from! If you are feeling overwhelmed and not sure what to do, just buy some wildflower seed packets and spread them in your new area! It will be a nice surprise to see what comes up and where. Also, you can always seed later on with something more specific later on. Lastly, most of us do live in the prairie, so you should consider some native grasses as well. You may wish to sprinkle in some native grasses for accent, such as big bluestem, side oats grama, prairie drop seed or blue grama.
Even though the plants we went over earlier are xeric and therefore low-water, that doesn’t mean they don’t need some sort of extra water until they establish. If you are planting by seed, the key is to use only a bit of water but to ensure the soil never dries out. Once the plants have completely established (usually about a season) they will not need any regular watering and prefer only a drink if it’s been unusually hot and dry. Here we’ll talk briefly about the various options you have for getting water to your plants.
(1) Watering can: First and most obvious, is to simply water your new plants by a garden hose or a watering can. This is a great solution especially since there is virtually no expense or set up. Just remember the goal is to keep the plants slightly damp and make sure to let the soil dry almost completely before watering again.
2) Automatic irrigation: One of the most reliable and easy-to-manage options is irrigation. I recommend using drip irrigation with emitters, as pop-up sprinkler heads and soaker hoses are very wasteful with water. This option does have an initial cost for material, and a good amount of elbow grease to get everything working properly. But, if you have the will to trudge through, this can be one of the easiest ways to ensure your plants are getting enough water. One word of caution though is to not become complacent and rely on the irrigation system without at least periodically checking that the plants are not getting an excess amount of water (the Number 1 reason new plants die) or not enough water.
Okay what do you think?! Exciting right?! I hope you find as much satisfaction and joy from creating and maintaining native spaces as we do! Please feel free to reach out with any questions – we are always happy to provide advice!