There’s no denying that we need a government dedicated to keeping our water and air clean, and one that’s willing to join the global movement to combat climate change. At least there’s no denying that here within the walls of our home. We need policies that push us toward a clean energy future, and more politicians talking about green infrastructure jobs. We need all of this, and yet I also believe great things happen when communities of individuals decide to make a change at a smaller level.
If you feel stressed the [expletive] out about the destruction of our earth, yet look out the windows of your home to little more than a turf lawn, here’s an idea: channel some of that anxiety into making an impact in your own yard. Get off the internet, go outside, and plant some native grasslands.
At the Native Plant Society of New Jersey spring conference, nurseryman and botanist Jared Rosenbaum of Wild Ridge Plants made a science-backed plea to the gardeners in the room to replace the 40M+ acres of detrimental, or at the very least unproductive, lawns in the U.S. with the sustainable and beautiful grassland ecosystems that once thrived in the Northeast.
It’s simple, really: If climate change is caused by plants being metabolized into gasses, converting more gasses to plants is one way to reverse that process. In the blog post that inspired the talk, Return to the Hypsithermal, Jared lays out the specifics of how powerful of an opponent to climate change native grasses are. “Grasslands are ideal tools with which to sequester carbon in soils,” he writes. “An intact grassland can sequester 2-5 tons of carbon per year on every acre.”
Native grasses are C4 plants, meaning they suck up more carbon dioxide and require less water than other plants. They represent only 5% of the Earth’s biomass, but account for 20-30% of CO2 fixation. Just think about the opportunity there.
Replacing our lawns with diverse grasslands featuring native grasses will create a more authentic, natural American landscape that combats climate change and provides shelter and food for songbirds and other small mammals even through winter months. What’s not to love?
Jared’s talk made me anxious to do more at home. We’ve been working hard to replace the mix of invasive plants, bulbs, and turf we acquired with the house, but not hard enough. We replaced the back portion of our yard with a meadow of pollinators and grasses, but there’s room to do more. A lot more.
As I work on this next lawn-replacement project, I’m adhering to the ecological landscaping principles of Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for a Resilient Landscape by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West. In the book, they show and explain how to design gardens that function like naturally occurring plant communities. My grassland plant community will include a structural layer, seasonal theme layer (blooms that visually dominate at different times), a ground cover layer, and a dynamic filler layer. I’m starting with a list of just 8 plants, and the beds will prominently feature indiangrass and purple lovegrass.
My structural layer:
- Indiangrass, Sorghastrum nutans – Light: sun, part shade, shade; soil: dry to moist; blooms yellow or purple in fall
- Purple Lovegrass, Eragrostis spectabilis – Light: full sun; soil: moist; blooms red and purple August through October
- Wrinkleleaf Goldenrod, Solidago rugosa – Light: full sun; soil: wet; blooms gold in September
- Dense Blazing Star, Liatris spicata – Light: full sun; soil: moist, blooms purple in September
Seasonal theme layer:
- Fire Pink, Silene virginica – Light: part-shade; soil: dry/moist; blooms red in May/June
- Butterfly Weed, Asclepias tuberosa – Light: full sun, soil: drought tolerant; blooms orange June/July
Ground cover layer:
- Pennsylvania Sedge, Carex pensylvanica – Light: partial shade, shade; soil: well-drained
Dynamic filler layer:
- Eastern red Columbine, Aquilegia canadensis, Light: part-shade, shade; soil: high drought tolerance; blooms red in the summer
Making this change is an investment, for sure, so my next step is to sit down and sketch out what this plan might look like. As I figure out how many of each plant to order, I’ll think about the root systems of each layer, the light we’re working with, and how the soil might change as we get closer to an area that collects a bit of runoff from the roof.
If you have any plant ideas or tips, please share them! I’m not a certified ecological landscaper. I’m just a person who enjoys gardening and realizes it’s time to fight for the health of our earth and the wildlife and people living here. I hope you’ll join me.