Variety is the spice of life: creating a new garden with native plants

Nothing like starting out a blog with a cliché, right? But this perfectly sums up one reason to change from a monotypic lawn to a mix of native plants. Instead of looking out at a sea of sameness, the diversity of colors, sizes, and shapes of plants offer a more pleasing landscape to view. And, bonus points, more and different kinds of plants attract more and different kinds of butterflies, birds, and beneficial wildlife!

butterfly milkweed with monarch caterpillar
Butterflyweed planted in spring 2020 provides food for Monarch caterpillars later in the summertime.

A do-it-yourself garden is harder but more fulfilling

Once you figure out that you do want more variety of plants instead of lawn in your yard, the real planning begins. But, it can be hard to know where to start – do you just chop up the lawn and start planting? How much will it cost? What’s the maintenance on these plants? What about soil conditions? Don’t worry! There are some really good online tips for beginners. To sum mine up: start small, don’t overthink it, and stick to things you like looking at.

For example, my sister moved into a small house with a fenced backyard. She knew she wanted to avoid the pain of mowing. She knew she wanted low-maintenance, flowering plants. And since she’s a redhead, she knew what colors she liked (hint: little to no red flowers). The first thing we did was start tracking the sun, in both the front and back yards. Each month over the winter, we took a picture in the morning, at noon, and in the evening. We also got started on the paths needed through the garden areas.

backyard lawn and starting a new garden plot
The backyard was deceptively sunny in the spring before all the trees leafed out.
view of a backyard in partial shade
In the summer, the backyard has shade to partial sun throughout the day, but definitely not full sun.

Use existing flow patterns to design your garden

The backyard already had an established deck and path from the deck to the shed. That created two smaller areas in the backyard, both of which only had grass and weeds – no trees or shrubs. The one side was bigger, so we knew we still needed a path through there. We decided to start on that side.

I sketched out a complete design for the entire area to the left of the path, but still only started with about one-third of that area for the actual work. One way to decide the size of the area is to find out how much cardboard you have! We really only had enough cardboard to smother one-third of the area. Another way was to think about how much you can afford to spend. The initial cardboard was free, obviously, but the bulk mulch, wood chips, and initial plants totaled $300-$500. We could have used seeds or tried to find free plants, but we had a specific design in mind and specific planting conditions. I used online resources, like the Home and Garden Information Center’s native plants page and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Native Plants for Conservation Landscaping booklet to determine which plants to plant, but there are tons of resources like the local library, online native plant groups, and discussion forums to figure out what works best. 

We used mulch on top of the cardboard, knowing that we planned to just cut through and plant plugs. Because my sister was pretty new at gardening, she just wanted something easy to put in and not worry about. Hence, plugs.

a portion of the backyard is covered with cardboard and mulch
The first area was covered with cardboard and mulch. Black plastic extended the area that was smothered, but we pulled that up to plant 4 months later. Note the amount of sun in the springtime before the trees leaf out.
a portion of the backyard covered with mulch
Having an existing path (bottom left) helped us decide what area to focus on. Three sides were already contained by the path, the fence, and the deck.

Smother, plant, water, repeat

We smothered the area over the early spring and started buying plants in late spring/early summer. We stuck with hardy grasses that we knew would work around the edges, which were extremely sandy because of the deck and shed construction.

planting native grasses
Plugs of native grasses that do well in sandy soil. We left the area next to the deck fairly bare in case my sister needed access to water and electrical lines.
tall grasses planted near a house
We wanted to plant some tall grasses that will eventually fill in this area. There’s no need to access that back corner in the future. And no watering is needed for these hardy grasses.

Once we had smothered the area in spring, we used black plastic edging to create a path through it, then added wood chips for the path (left). Extra obedient plant plugs (right) from another project were intermixed with bluestem grass (not shown).

As we saw those plants grow, we figured we were headed in the right direction. We did not do a soil test because it was so obviously sandy. It kept our choices pretty straightforward. We also knew we wanted to concentrate some of the flowering plants that would need amendments in the center of the yard where the soil was more suited for them. Additionally, my sister’s view would naturally go to that area, not the edges of the yard.

During summer, we watered when needed and smothered more areas (try not to plant new, small plants in the hot weather!). When it came time for fall native plant sales, we were ready with our list! We planted the remainder of the area in October 2021. The weather stayed relatively mild in October and November, so this helped the plants get established before they went dormant for the winter.

planting a new garden
The grasses in the upper right of the photo were growing well by the time we planted the flowering perennials in fall. We mixed in purple coneflower, black-eyed Susans, and coreopsis, then lined the path with green-and-gold plugs.
newly planted garden
We lined the path in the bottom of the photo with green-and-gold and Heuchera, then mixed black-eyed Susans with obedient plants, little bluestem (grass), and butterfly weed in the middle. We plan to add blazing star in spring 2022.
new garden in progress
Completed plantings in the foreground and other areas that are currently being smothered. These areas will be planted in spring 2022, leaving a small grass area for lounging.

By the end of 2021, the area of lawn was reduced to a small, sunny grass area that the dogs could lounge on. We had used all live plants and the second round of buying plants was approximately $100. I would say overall the project cost more than $500 but less than $1000. And we could have adjusted downward by using seeds and adjusted upwards by not getting deals from plant sales.

Overall, I think it was a very good-sized project for the level of expertise I had from being a Master Gardener and experience with my own yard and garden. I think breaking it off into smaller pieces and realizing that it was going to be spread over the entire growing season, from spring to fall, also helped manage our expectations. In other words, this definitely wasn’t an insta-garden!

We’re excited to see what it will look like in the future. Converting the lawn to native plants makes my sister happy, brings in more wildlife (like insects and birds), and decreases the need for water, fertilizer, and mowing, which is better for the planet. 

By Caroline Donovan, University of Maryland Extension Master Gardener

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