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The Elephant in the Yard: Native Plants and Grass

Lawn with Violets - Maryland  & Virginia Native Plants and Grass

Two recent gardening projects prompted immediate questions from friends. First, we replaced our sod. Then, we planted the area between our sidewalk and street with plugs of grass. The questions were really good ones. “When you removed that sod, I thought you would plant it as a garden, but you put in new sod?” “Are you planting plugs of grass?”

I write enthusiastically about the possibilities of reducing our lawns because experts tells us a lawn provides so little ecological benefit and, depending on how you manage it, may be pretty intensive in terms of inputs (water, fertilizer, gas powered lawn mower emissions – yes, those actually are a measurable contributor to air pollution in our area).  While we reduced our lawn by about half, the other half remains.

Another family member loves the grass — the smell of the fresh cut, spending a late afternoon in summer exercising the lawnmower, the memories of a carefree childhood lying in the grass.  I did offer to create a snow angel of grass but I was assured you need to move around to different spots so you need lots of grass. I could never talk someone out of all of those simple pleasures.  A great garden is about home, connecting its inhabitants to the outdoors and embracing the nature in it.

Having added native trees, shrubs and perennials, we have a much busier garden – all sorts of pollinators, birds and small mammals, even on an urban 1/8 of an acre, visit often. Could we create more ecological benefit? Definitely. But we have a good start and I think that is ok.

I occasionally get e-mails from people who wonder if I realize I have shown a “nativar” in a photo or note that I list a nursery that still sells invasive ivy as a place to buy native plants. They rightfully point out the most ecologically aware choice is to plant the “straight species” of a native plant, not a hybrid. They advocate not to shop at nurseries that contribute to the problem of invasive plants by selling them.  While I greatly admire those stances, we all have to start somewhere.

If you go to your favorite nursery and can only find a nativar — the hybrid of a straight species native plant and a non-native plant — bred to make the plant perform better in some way, I think you should go for it.  In all likelihood, you will be so pleased with it, you will seek out more native plants.  Likewise, I really wish all of our local nurseries would stop selling plants like ivy and vinca that are invasive throughout our parks and wild areas, but if the only place convenient for you to buy your native plants is at one of those nurseries. I think you should. I certainly do. I also try to talk to the nurseries about why they are selling ivy, vinca and other invasives.

Back to that grass, I’d love a garden featuring paths of mowed grass winding through beds of short and tall perennials and shrubs and trees. Mostly, though, I want us all to enjoy gardens that are alive with native plants. So, for many of us, that may well involve some grass.  We plan to maintain ours by allowing native violets to pop up and bloom in spring providing food for the earliest foraging pollinators, aerating it manually, cutting the grass high and letting it lie, and fertilizing when needed with compost.  For us, this is where we are.  If you can do more, fantastic!

Maryland Native Grasses & Virginia Native Grasses: Carex Grass Plugs

As for those grass plugs, they are Pennsylvania sedge (Carex Pensylvanica). This native perennial grass is highly touted for its tolerance of dense dry shade and ability to survive, even beneath an oak tree.  Expert Doug Tallamy advises it is best to have soft landing spots beneath oaks for those 500 or so species of caterpillars that many oaks support.  This carex doesn’t need to be mowed and grows 8 to 12″ high. Once it fills in, it looks likes waves of grass.  So, I planted it as an experiment in a very tough place, beneath a very old red oak in the tree lawn.

Tree lawn is a term for the strip of land between the sidewalk and the street I learned from a visiting niece from Ohio who once told me “tree lawn” was so much nicer than “hell strip.”  Indeed. I have read so much about this carex I wanted to see whether, as an average gardener, I can get it to work as advertised.  I’ll add it to the list of things to keep you posted on.  In the meantime, I hope you are able to enjoy a bit of this early but welcome Chesapeake Spring.

For more info:

A stellar short post by the Mt. Cuba Center about the value of “nativars.” Bottom line – they are generally ok unless the hybridization changes the color of the leaf.

A great article by the Brooklyn Botanical Garden on all of the native sedges that can be used as a lawn substitute.

A wealth of information about organic lawn care from the University of Maryland Extension Service.


We want you to be as excited about planting Chesapeake natives as we are. “Plant This or That” gives you a native alternative to popular plants. Other posts highlight really fabulous fauna native to the Chesapeake.

Nuts for Natives, avid gardener, Baltimore City admirer, Chesapeake Bay Watershed restoration enthusiast, and public service fan.

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