I don't think there has been anything in my sustainability journey quite like this project. I have had to unlearn some things I have "known" the entirety of my life and backpedaled more times during this process more than anything else I've trialed and failed at in this environmental journey. This even includes changing to an electric vehicle and that time that I was figuring out rags and put the used ones in an enclosed container until wash day and almost died of how gnarly they were when I finally opened up the jar.
Once again, I can't believe how far we have come as a culture so far away from living with the land.
I grew up on a farm in Lindsay with very, very elaborate flower gardens. My mom won the local beautification award several times and man, did I ever know how to deadhead a geranium. There were five kids and often times, my friends in high school came to pick me up and we would all be driving around lawn tractors and hoe'in and work gloving all over the place when they showed up. We gardened all of the time. Although it was a bit too much, and I never wanted to do that level of work on my yard in my own space as an adult, I always thought it was a pollinator oasis in a sea of corn.
Until I realized that those types of excessively manicured garden beds don't offer much to pollinators, especially after they have drawn them in. The pollinators would arrive, but the amount of Roundup Ready on the surrounding lawn and walkways probably killed quite a lot of them over time. And if they stayed and made a home, they got the Raid.
meme by gogreensavegreen
All things historical aside, we didn’t have ill will and didn’t want to have that type of impact. It was just what was done, and is done; we didn’t know. The impact piece always seems to be hidden behind what we just do in the day-to-day in our society and why would something we all do, be so bad? I had so much to unlearn about creating a space outdoors that wasn't highly impactful once I pulled back the curtain. I am even hesitant to write this blog post, knowing that there is still so much for me to learn.
Why re-wild? What's wrong with a lawn?
My partner and I started considering the concept of a lawn a couple summers ago when we would share back and forth some reels or clips about how ridiculous the whole concept of a lawn really is. They are essentially "make work" projects - we spend so much time, money, gas, and effort to do these grass haircuts for our spaces pretty much weekly when we just want to be in the lake and have to do all this homeowner adult garbage instead.
It was funny - like a, haha we are so those adults now, how crazy is this reality man? sentimentality - but the whole thing wormed its way in there further until it really did seem kind of pointless. Lawns are not a concept in a lot of cultures, and really, the lawn wasn't a thing for my grandma's childhood the way it is now. My dad even said that a lot of their lawn was maintained by goats and chickens as a boy, because his family farm didn't have electricity until he was born, so there were a lot of other jobs to keep people busy. There's a lot culturally and socially ingrained with having a lawn. Reading further into it, lawns were a social class thing brought forth as a show of wealth, and now they are something we feel a lot of social pressure to maintain; it is basically a visual representation of how well you have it together as an adult. I know this social norm pressure thing was something I had to look long and hard at untangling in trying to start rewilding.
The thing is, there is not much that can live on a lawn. It is a "monoculture" - one type of crop or vegetation - so it requires a lot of upkeep and environmentally hazardous inputs to keep it free from other types of plants. We generally remove the biodiversity of our space to plant this monoculture patch and use water resources to help it thrive, no matter the variety or imitations of growing conditions that exist. The mower blades ensure that not much else can live in that space beyond the worms and organisms that manage to live in the top layer of the soil, and that's only if we aren't spraying and aerating and adding hazardous things to the patch. Lawns are making up 1/3 of land use in some areas now, meaning those wild spaces are declining, biodiversity is declining, and the types of things we do to our lawns without thinking generally harms the system. It is a fly-over space for pollinators, and sometimes there is so much of it in an area that they don't ever make it to where they need to be to thrive. We then ensure that no leaves (a naturally biodegradable thing, that adds nutrients to the soil and protection for a number of hibernating insects and other small critters) remain, interrupting an ecological cycle and closed loop system that has a very real purpose.
And mostly, it's because we feel we need to. It looks pretty good, from our cultural standpoint. And so, we continue a cycle of interrupting nature and putting out a lot of work (and usually cash) to essentially keep up our appearances.
Now, I will say that not all lawns have zero purpose. We do have spaces that we use to play with our kids and we do still maintain those spaces as we used to (although we never got into spraying or really doing much else than cutting and raking). If you use the space as an outdoor carpet/living space, that's a bit different than just maintaining big swaths that aren't exactly needed and could be used to support the land and nature around us. And if you truly love gardening and outdoor tasks like this? There's still lots you can do, and lots that can be done in your community (like a shared community vegetable garden, or park gardens, or garden club, etc), if you love the hobby of it all.
Failures/Lessons + Successes so far
We started this project in 2022 and are in the midst of our second year. I'm sure I will have future updates as things develop, but here's how it's gone so far.
1. Success: Boarder + Use Planning
One thing I think I started out doing well was to choose areas to rewild. We have two spaces on our property that we were cutting that were not used to do anything other than to keep cutting it. We allowed these spaces to grow up into meadows and this really hasn't changed much for us. The other space we selected was our front lawn, which isn't a play space for our boys as the road is out there. We used about 30% of it to create vegetable gardens and the rest we are working on creating a naturalized garden/pollinator space. The lawn space we maintain now mostly has a use or a purpose.
A new meadow space
2. Lesson: the internal value I was putting on this external thing
So, I did chat about this first, but it really is such an internalize pressure we have to do so many things, even things we may come to understand as detrimental. So much of this environmental journey for me is unlearning things that really aren't anything other than a social pressure to do it the way everyone else does - whether it is clever marketing making us feel something is the norm, a convenience thing that I don't know how to do the "old way" because it's now counter-cultural, or just "what's done" - even though it's pretty clear now that we have been living so far out of the norm and our nature's means but we aren't really sure how to reel it back in, having always lived this way. It was one more thing that wasn't in line with being intentional because I never chose it, it was something I felt I "had" to do.
That didn't mean that once I started letting things grow that I didn't have this voice and worry bubble up inside that people would think I was a slobby lady with a slobby house and a slobby life and my business there must be pretty slobby, too. I think that I probably should have gotten or made a sign to help me through that time; there are some cute ones that say things like "don't mind me, I'm thinking of the bees" (etc). I really did worry so much what people would think, it's nuts to think about it now. I think my partner also had to let things go in this area too a bit, and I ended up putting up a boarder of field stone on the edge of the front space because he said that would help him feel better about it (definitely always try to compromise if you can, especially if you are the charge-leader for all the eco changes, I think it gets things further along in a way that keeps the relationship respected!).
I did slowly start to realize that I was not the only person doing this, even if it felt like it. I started to see many other naturalized lawns, wildflower front lawns in little farm towns, and food gardening spaces that took up big patches of the lawn space. As I improved my space over time, this worry started to fall away, and I'm back to my usual space of worrying more what I think and sticking to my authentic values than the big ol' society at large.
2. Lesson: I thought flowers were just flowers
So, we started this process in spring 2022, and we really just let things grow the first season. I planned to snag a bunch of flowers to fill our naturalized space as things were put on sale later in the season. I bought some flowers and put them in during the fall, but was working on some other projects and didn't do much initially.
It's a good thing I did not do more!
Flowers are all not equal, when it comes to pollinators. Planting native plants to your area ensures that the pollinators in that area can be successful. The relationship between pollinators and native plants has taken hundreds of years (or longer) to develop; throwing a hosta from Africa in there was really not going to do much for them. This spring, I started looking up native plants on my field trips to the local plant shops and was astounded at how few of the plants offered are actually native to Ontario. Spain, the Mediterranean, Africa, Afghanistan, Brazil - this is actually where so many of the varieties and species call home, and here I was, thinking my Ontario bees and butterflies are going to just love them.
I had believed that "a flower is a flower" to bees and butterflies my whole life. This was quite the lesson to learn, and I feel that unfortunately, so many of us don't learn this type of stuff, even when talking about biodiversity and preserving nature in our "units" on the environment in school. This made me feel like I had a lot to learn (I did), and it helped me delve further into learning more so that I could try to do this right.
In planning new spaces, like this little section, we’re using native plants. We have yarrow, blanket flower, black eyed Susan and cone flower here (and creeping thyme to prevent erosion)
3. Success: talking about it
I started talking about my quest to work on this with family, friends, and of course, the Harlowe Green community. This helped me collect a whole bunch of perennials for free, and be gifted seeds from some that harvest seeds from their own flowers. Connecting with others really helped me get excited about the project, learn more, and do the work in community rather than in a silo alone, and it became so much easier.
The tips flowed in, and I started following some good accounts that helped me learn more based on recommendations. I learned things I needed to, like how spreading seed in the fall has a better outcome and when to harvest milkweed seeds for success (after they have dried out and are ready to take the wind in an opening pod). I found some great websites, like onplants.ca, northernwildflowers.ca (and their blog), and the West Coast Seeds blog through others, and tips for different places accepting plastic planters back or offering some locally cultivated native plants. Community is always so much more supportive, especially in trying to learn all of these new (old?!) bits of knowledge.
4. Lesson: wildflowers aren't always the key
In 2022, we had a ton of wildflowers come up in the space that we wanted to make a naturalized garden. I was so excited! This was exactly what I was looking for, without the work, right?
Again, I was wrong, and it came up when I started looking into the wildflowers I had. Leanne (from Lionize Collective, lovely Leanne from the shop!) shared the app "Picture this" with me, and I began to work on identifying a number of plants within the space that hadn't produced blooms yet, so I could see what I was going to end up with.
I learned that most of the things that had come up in my rewild area were invasive species, non-native plants. Then I started identifying all of the roadside plants I was seeing, curious as to how far this really goes. So many flowers in our area are not actually native to Ontario (like even the oxeye daisy - it was a grass seed contaminant from the 1800s!) and that was not what I wanted to cultivate. Even worse, I was probably making it difficult for the actual native plants to succeed in that space. I felt again like I had to backpedal and reroute. I started pulling out plants, and will probably have to keep doing this over time to keep the things I want to establish successful in expanding.
meme from @gogreensavegreen
5. Success: using a wait period to realize I didn't need to buy so much
If you've read our blogs, you'll know I love a good wait period to sort out the consumer excitement piece of the process prior to jumping in on buying all the new stuff. A wait period it a pretty simple, but incredibly effective (in my experience), concept - essentially, you stop before buying something and give it a 'time out' for whatever period you deem reasonable. Almost all of the time, I don't end up buying that thing and think of another solution instead (like borrowing, using what I have, or finding it second hand).
I was ordering vegetable seeds from West Coast Seeds and really got excited about their lawn alternatives section. It was great! I could fill in some patchy bits in my lawn with something else that was going to benefit the soil and help me rewild without needing to cut the grass in those spaces. So, I realized I was excited and only bought one packet for the very early spring, instead of going nuts and buying several. I told myself I could always place another order. I waited.
However, after planting my one packet of micro clover (and being happy I did, it worked out well), I considered buying more. I waited, and then realized that so many spaces around my rewild areas were full of wild strawberry, which makes this little carpet. It grew so much better than the clover seed, and spread out nicely and provided native pollinators some florals as well. So, I am now transplanting little bits of wild strawberry around and not spending any money on this. In the same way, a friend suggested I find areas or spaces with some native plants, and just transplant them. So far I've managed to transplant some blackberry brambles and milkweed without spending any money and knowing for sure that they are suited to the soil and climate in my area.
milkweed + blackberry brambles we transplanted, and carpets of wild strawberry
6. Success: leaving the leaves + using natural mulch methods
In the fall of 2022, we left our leaves on the full extent of our lawn and didn't rake anything beyond our entrance areas. In the early spring, when I would normally be trying to "beat the black fly season" here where we live and raking everything in a few days when the first bits of sun come through at the end of April, I left everything on the ground except the areas where we ploughed snow and had moved the leaves/ground cover there anyway. This was to help hibernation for a number of organisms that need that ground cover. I only raked leaves in the areas of the lawn we still cut for playing/entrances later on at the end of May, and the leaves are still settled onto the rest of the lawn where we want to naturalize things. Interestingly, the grass didn't come back in the same way there. I did not begin the process by ripping up any grass, and planned to just remove grass as I went while adding new plants. Leaving the leaves created a natural mulch layer that worked so well in quelling a lot of the grass without me needing to do much. We started to notice we had a lot more traffic from birds, and I learned recently that the big fuzzy bumble bees need that type of ground cover still for their habitat, as they don't make a traditional hive style of home (and I am very partial to a big fuzzy droner, it brings me so much hope to see them!).
This natural mulch method extended to our garden bed areas as well. For Mother's Day this year, my partner managed to find a copy on Poshmark of the Mother Earth News Vegetable Gardening handbook. This book is pretty incredible; I had taken it out at the library first to look through it to make sure it was worth having, and man, it so is! It talked about how with regenerative agriculture and cover crops, the soil benefits from not being exposed and having this constant degradation source of nutrients and more developed living soil layer. In the same way, adding natural mulch can add to the soil overtime, protect organisms that need to thrive there to sequester carbon and create healthy soil environments, and also make it so that you're not weeding any spare weeds that take up residence in the exposed, bare soil. So, we now use dried leaves we've crunched up in our hands, grass clippings, and undyed wood chips/mulch to cover up any bare soil areas. We used discarded straw in our walkways instead of stone or plastic landscaping fabric to ensure weeds can't grow, but in turn also have this added organic layer of natural mulch to create an even richer soil environment below over time. Newspaper and cardboard went down before soil did in some areas to prevent weeds, so there is a living soil layer still happening there as these biodegradable things break down, rather than a plastic netting layer ensuring nothing can live at all, including the organisms and elements of soil that benefit the plants we are trying to grow in those spaces.
7. Lesson: be ready for drought
Unfortunately, we are living in times that we are going to have to start considering the impacts of climate change in our spaces. Drought is a key thing here, and watering gardens pulls so much from our resource reserve. Often, when the drought comes, unnecessary tasks need to stop, like watering the lawn and our naturalized flower areas. I had to let go of watering some of the milkweed and strawberry I had transplanted to try again later when the rain kept disappearing from our forecast and forest fires creeped closer and closer to home. I worried frequently about the future droughts that we can expect with this changing climate.
some of our transplanted milkweed didn’t make it through a very dry spell
After the mild drought we had recently, it was clear that we couldn't keep drawing from essential resources that could run out. We ended up further decreasing the impact of our garden with a rain barrel from Marketplace, and are watching for another to come up we can snag for longer term planning. If you're in Kingston, you can claim an upcycled rain barrel at a great price through Utilities Kingston (the info is on the bill!).
Within this lesson I also had to learn which native plants were going to thrive in our sandy, drought-prone soils, and which were going to need more compost, mulch, watering and lovin' on them to be successful. This concept of drought planning will make the whole thing easier if I can keep it in mind from the get-go, and ensure we will continue to do okay if climate change keeps driving its impact down in our area.
8. Success: considering impacts of other outdoor elements on pollinators + wildlife
I was chatting with a friend about this whole concept of rewilding our lawn spaces in different ways and she was the one that pointed out how problematic huge manicured spaces are for pollinators - it attracts them, but can kill them due to the other sprayed elements and toxins in the space that are used to support the whole aesthetic picture. This made me start paying even further attention to what I was bringing to our outdoor space overall in terms of pollinators and chemical off gassing/impacts.
As we started keeping bees last year, we had to stop using the Thermacell my partner loved for deterring/preventing bugs, because that also meant it was impacting his bees he was working so hard to get established. This spring, in looking at some paint projects we had in mind, we opted to use pine tar and raw linseed oil on our shed to protect the wood, and linseed oil paint for our garage exterior, because we are starting to keep in mind all of the other things off gassing in our natural environment.
We also learned more about what we needed to have to support pollinators and now have a little bee pond for a water source by our hives, a small upcycled bird bath water spot (we used a big ceramic bowl from Marketplace on a pile of fieldstone, which apparently butterflies also love for 'sunning'), and some smaller bee watering cups around the space. We are also keeping an eye out for a thrifted hummingbird feeder to place near our cardinal flowers (as hummingbirds love red) and are leaving some of our field stone rock piles for supporting the garter snakes in our area that are essential for our little ecosystem.
9. Lesson: naturalized might be better with a bit of planning
When I finally thought I was on track, I went at adding any new native plants to my space so randomly. I would identify a tuft of grass in my new "pollinator" space, and then I would dig it up and put a plant there. This seemed to be a good plan for removing grass without removing all of it at the same time and be the best way to do it over time.
This wasn't the case. As soon as I read that bunching the same/like plants together helps the majority of pollinators, I realized that made so much more sense than randomly making this collage of random sprinkles of flowers everywhere. This was a backpedal because I also realized that what I was doing was going to look so chaotic, and plants would not be able to naturally spread into little groups in a natural manner as they developed and established. Different plants are different heights, and some are more aggressive than others, so I needed to pay more attention to how it was going to end up for them all to be successful.
So, naturally, I then had to backpedal and spent a few hours trying to move the plants I'd already planted into groups. I actually took a moment to see how big some of them got and made sure they had space to realize that growth, and I planted plants that will grow taller at the back of the spaces and considered the space as a whole. I found that "cottage garden" and "naturalized garden" were very helpful terms in trying to visualize the set up of a pollinator garden that was also natural and beautiful, and looking up those terms on Pinterest helped me get a sense of how to do this in a way that made a bit more sense with the space that I had (just be cognizant that not all of the plants in those images make sense for your space, it just gave a better understanding to the planning aspect in my experience).
If you're curious to try changing up your yard
My suggestions for getting started:
- Assess where you're at in terms of time. Growing your own food can save money, if you can put the time in! If you're short on time or in the thick of things for whatever reason, commit to smaller projects to keep your success rate motivating you forward.
- Consider areas that you do not use for rewilding first. Lawn boarders in subdivisions can be lovely to rewild and still look neat, especially when clumping plants together in groupings and also provide more of a natural barrier for your own space.
- Use what exists - get a water source, a rain barrel, wood to make raised planters, perennials from a friend - before consuming new to go about this in the most sustainable fashion. Get creative and see what you can accomplish with what you have and problem solve! Try to think of mulch sources you might already have or items you can find second hand.
- Look at your zone and consider the type of soil you have. Tickseed, Black Eyed Susans, Yarrow, Wild Strawberry, Canada Anemone, and Smooth Oxeye can do well in drought prone soils in our area.
- Clump like plants together and consider an overall visual/space arrangement. Spend some time understanding spacing for different plants and considering light and soil needs before committing to purchasing so that you can get things solid the first try.
- Before accepting wildflower seeds or transplants to spread in your space, look at whether they are compatible with your area and ask questions if you're not sure. Plant them in the fall for great results.
- When digging up sod, consider flipping it upside down to add naturally created boarders for areas. The grass will die in this position, but the organic matter can be added back to the soil.
- Read and watch as much as you can about enhancing your soil in a natural way; the David Suzuki Foundation has some great info, as well as the documentary on Netflix called "Kiss the Ground." It can help you in decision making for landscaping (I cannot tell you the number of people that said they regretted stone paths and landscaping full areas with river rock or stone rather than using degradable substances).
- Consider leaving your leaves for longer periods and for the full winter. If you feel queasy about "leaving a mess," put up a sign! Maybe you'll inspire some more of your neighbours to do the same!
Of course, to be continued...
I'm sure there will be many more little triumphs and heartaches in the days to come, but I am happy we got started and working on it. We have lots to keep working on, but we are already so much further down the path for having just gotten started. This is my first jump into working on limiting our impact in the outdoors of our home as well, and it can for sure be overwhelming at times. I know I have to keep my eye on what five years away might look like, because gardens and work on the home can be very time consuming and can get out of hand quickly.
If you have any other tips and help to offer, feel free to leave a comment, or reach out! We are going to be creating some sustainable living stories on our social media on this topic, and we would love to keep working on this on our end of things, as well!