From Lawn to Native Minnesota Prairie Part 1: Site Preparation and Defining Your Space

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So you’re interested in converting some of your lawn to native Minnesota prairie and planting, and reaping the benefits. Where to start ? Think of this as your crash course in planting native grasslands.

In Part 1, two native gardening experts – Bre Bauerly, habitat specialist at Minnesota Native Landscapes, and Julia Vanatta, who is on the Wild Ones Twin Cities education committee – outline the very first steps you need to take. You can read part 2 here and part 3 here.

Location, location, location

Before you plant a trowel in the ground, take some time to think about how you want to use your entire garden.

“You do a quick assessment of what you have now, and then you think about how you want to be able to use the space,” said Julia Vanatta, founder of Wild Ones.

She suggested using a sketchbook to create a rough outline of what currently exists, such as a garage, trees, shed, garden bed, or patio. At the same time, think about how you are using each space.

Do you want to make sure there is room for a barbecue and a picnic table? Does a patio set have to fit somewhere? And what do you want to see while spending time there? Do you need to keep a clear path to the garage or save space for the kids to play?

“You have to really think about your lifestyle and think of your garden as an extension of your house… and how you use that space,” she said.

Bauerly suggested looking at areas of lawn that are not used very well, such as along a fence, or where existing sod is already not growing very well. A place “which has not been newly sodded or fertilized”.

Identifying and defining these spaces will help you choose the best location for a native garden.

And don’t feel like you have to get fat right away. Take it step by step.

Vanatta said a “manageable size” for an initial grassland conversion area is about 5 feet by 10 feet.

“Don’t bite more than you can chew until you understand how it fits into your lifestyle,” she said.

Related: ‘Unexpected Joys’: Why You Should Consider Replacing Lawns With Native Minnesota Plants

Then comes the preparation of the site

Once you’ve decided on the part of your lawn you want to convert to native plants – and even before you’ve selected the plant species – you can begin site preparations.

The goal is to get rid of the traditional turf lawn or bluegrass in this area, including the roots tangled under the surface.

“It’s only about 3 inches of roots, but you want to get down to bare, weed-free soil as much as possible,” Baurely explained. (Vanatta compared it to a rug with a pillow underneath.)

Bauerly and Vanatta both described two different effective methods:

  • Use a lawn trimmer: This will allow you to remove pieces of grass at a time, with fairly minimal effort. You can also use a flat-sided spade to do this manually, but a lawn trimmer is faster, Vanatta said.
  • The “lasagna method”: This involves putting wet cardboard or newspaper in layers directly on the lawn, then adding topsoil and wood mulch. This will suffocate the grass below and the layers will break down. If you are starting in the fall, the area should be ready for planting in the spring.

A lawn trimmer will probably be best for a large project, Bauerly said, but the lasagna method (or a compostable weed mat) can do the trick in small spaces where you start with live plants.

“I always say you can’t start too small,” Baurely said. “If all you did was add 36 plants to an existing perennial bed, you are still doing something impactful for the habitat and for the value of the pollinators.”

If you’re using the lasagna method, Vanatta warned about jumping worms, an invasive and destructive species that can sneak into gardens via mulch. It’s important to make sure your mulch is “100% free from hopper worms” before you use it, she said.

She also said herbicides are really not necessary for a garden space.

While this step can be hard work, you don’t want to compromise, Bauerly said. It’s worth doing “a little extra effort upstream to make sure your planting area is free of most problematic weeds,” she said.

Otherwise, you might end up fighting for a while with stubborn lawn grass growing in your native meadow.


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