Healthy Beginnings

Adding Biodiversity to Your Garden: Convert that Lawn into a Habitat

Every year, there is an exodus of spiders, birds and bees from our neighbor’s yard to ours. That’s because pest control companies spray their bushes with pesticides to control the bugs and mow-and-blow landscapers spray herbicides and synthetic fertilizers to make the grass greener. Not us. We use nature to keep our pests under control and make our plants grow healthy. Biodiversity is a top priority in our yard, and our goal is to grow as many plants as possible to encourage bees, butterflies, birds and, yes, arachnids to our garden.

Face it, lawns are biological deserts. The monoculture of grass species in our green outdoor carpet does not support wildlife. In fact, we tend to spend a lot of time and effort trying to make it grow as well as keep weeds and pests out. When we blanket the lawn with these artificial fertilizers and bug killers, we shock the grass into growth spurts and destroy insect, worm and microbe communities that help our plants grow. We end up having to water more and use more chemicals over and over again. That said, our lawn does have some useful functions in the landscape. A lawn is a great extension of your patio or deck and a wonderful place for kids to play. However, your entire landscape does not have to be covered with a sea of bluegrass or fescue.

When taking on the project of reducing your lawn size, there are several things to think about before you start. First, determine the size of lawn you wish to keep. Often, it is most functional to have a patch of lawn with rounded curves as an extension of your outdoor seating area. Second, determine what you would like to convert your lawn into. Can it become a seating space? Will the new area become a garden space for growing some of your favorite vegetables or fruits? Or create a meadow for bees, butterflies and lady bugs.

The process of converting lawn starts with intention. Give yourself some time to ponder what exactly you like to do in the space around your house and then make a list of goals and objectives for your yard. Get some books from the library with ideas. It is always helpful to have a site plan with the footprint of the house and your property outlined on it to scale. Go out and note where existing trees, structures, paths and other permanent items are on the plan. Think of where you would like shade, which views you treasure, where you could use screening and where you could use a windbreak. Also, think of what you will be doing in your garden space and what you would like it to feel like. To give you some ideas of the possibilities for your lawn conversion space, use this list as a guideline:

  1. Build hard surfaces, such as decks, patios, pathways and structures (shed, garage, addition, hot tub).
  1. Provide a utility area such as a gravel drive for boat/car storage.
  1. Create garden spaces, such as a:
  • Meadow of native and drought-tolerant grasses and wildflowers
  • Orchard or vineyard
  • Vegetable and herb garden or strawberry patch
  • Wildlife and bird garden with food plants, nesting areas and a water source
  • Native garden that uses plants that are grow naturally in our area
  • Kid’s garden with sand, edible plants and herbs, a swing and boulders to climb on
  • Rock garden with many drought-tolerant flowering perennials
  • Chicken coop and run for fresh eggs
  1. Don’t forget a spot for a compost and brush pile.

Then take your list of goals and start drawing your ideas on paper. Have your gardener friend over for consultation, or hire a professional to help you with this. Some people like to take flags out into the yard and stake out the ideas spatially. Either way, you will have, at this point, created a master plan for your yard to help you go to the next step – converting your lawn.

There are several ways to convert your lawn. Steer away from using chemicals to kill your lawn, because it poisons your soil and leaves behind an even more desolate situation. Converting your lawn is hard work, but a very rewarding effort: Think of all the water, time, money and chemical exposure savings! Here are some suggestions to get rid of your sod in an eco-friendly way:

  1. Remove the actual sod with a sod-cutter:
    1. Dispose of sod in your compost pile
    2. Flip the sod upside down to decompose in place
    3. Donate it to someone who needs it
  2. Mulch over your existing lawn lasagna-style:
    1. Water lawn well
    2. Cover with nitrogen-rich material, such as manure or alfalfa pellets
    3. Layer with overlapping pieces of soaked cardboard or several layers of newspaper
    4. Continue adding layers of mulch, compost, leaves, and other organic material to a depth of between 10-18”
    5. Add drip irrigation on top to keep it hydrated
    6. The final layer will be a thick layer of the mulch of your choice (pine needles, wood chips, bark, straw)
  3. Rototill the sod in situ:
    1. Rent or borrow a rototiller
    2. Till the turf passing it in two opposite directions
    3. Let the loose sod dry for a few weeks
    4. Add organic fertilizer, compost, and beneficial soil microbes called mychorrizae (available at local nurseries)
    5. Water well
    6. Place drip irrigation
    7. Plant with your favorite plants
    8. Mulch well (at least 4” thick)

So this year, why not invite nature into your yard by turning to organic gardening practices and planting a variety of flora that will provide a heaven for spiders? They will thank you by eating those pesky flies and mosquitos.

For more information, call Jana Vanderhaar, landscape architect and owner of Verdant Connections, a sustainable landscape design and organic garden consultation firm, at 775-412-8771 or visit