Growing Hope: Lawn Reduction Best Practices

Photo by Michelle Hill

April 30, 2023
By Michelle Hill, POL Contributor

“We are at a critical point of losing so many species from local ecosystems that their ability to produce the oxygen, clean water, flood control, pollination, pest control, carbon storage, etc, that is, the ecosystem services that sustain us, will become seriously compromised.” – Doug Tallamy

Here are some reasons to get motivated to act:

The reality is heavy and can feel overwhelming. Thankfully, we have so many resources at our fingertips. Douglas Tallamy, world-renowned entomologist, lecturer, and author provides us with eight steps that are within reach for many of us. 

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Our first action is to reduce the area of our lawns. 

          The area that we have personal purview over is where we can make an impact. That impact grows when it is amplified by collective action. We can create a life-sustaining pathway for pollinators by simply planting native plants, shrubs, and trees. Many pollinators live their entire lives within a very small space, like a backyard or a patio.  The life that is supported within your space is directly connected  to the vegetation that you provide.  A lawn with a few ornamental species such as Boxwood, Daffodil, English Ivy, and Roses do not support much life at all and, in fact, is actually to our detriment when plants native to our ecoregion are absent. Our spaces have the capacity to make a truly positive impact, but not when structured as a monoculture. 

Photo by Michelle Hill

Let’s get started:

Make a plan for your space: how do you use your lawn? Do you have areas you never use that you spend time and money mowing? 

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That’s the place to start. Certainly, we need lawn space for outdoor activities, running space for children and pets, cookouts, and lawn games. That being said a good portion of many lawns have no function at all. They are a net negative in our ecosystem. Let’s change that. Reduce your unused lawn space. Save the time, money and energy you previously spent mowing, raking and applying chemicals to maintain the space. Instead grow something that is functional and contributes to your health and happiness and helps build an eco-friendly community. Give the butterflies a place to stop, rest, and refuel.  

Patty Shipley is the owner of Leaves for Wildlife in Sunbury. As a native nursery owner and gardener, she patiently guides new and experienced gardeners alike who are interested in planting a more pollinator-friendly habitat. 

Photo by Patty Shipley

What drives a native gardener like Patty? 

“I’ve been a lifelong gardener and nature lover, and without even knowing the depressing and unfortunate statistics you shared at the beginning of this article, it’s been painfully obvious to me that nature is declining at an alarming rate in our area. As a natural healthcare provider, I’m familiar with the stats for Ohio, which are not good. We’re consistently in the top 10 states for the most environmental pollutants being dumped into our air, water and soil – over two tons per square mile in 2021 alone!” 

What can we do to help correct this issue that affects us all?  

“Plants help remediate those chemicals and are also critical for wildlife. And not just any plants – native plants form the basis of the food web. More than 90% of our insects specialize on one or a few native plants, while less than 1% can digest non-native plants.”

What would you say to people who are concerned the native plants would bring too many insects to their property? 

“While insects may seem like a bother to us, they are the food for most baby birds in the nest, as well as toads, frogs, and lots of other species of wildlife. All of the things I enjoy seeing in my yard are reliant either directly or indirectly on native plants.” 

Before and after images provided by

Patty, what if I don’t have a ton of gardening experience? 

“As a gardener, I’ve found that native plants are not only beautiful, but also easy to grow. They’re adapted to the soil and weather of our region, and don’t require soil amendments or special care.”

Photo by Michelle Hill

By reducing your total lawn area you will actively repair the fragmented corridors of our ecosystem. 

To accomplish this you should do the following: 

  • Trim the lawn as low as possible with minimal soil disturbance.
  • Lay down cardboard or newspaper overlapping layers to completely deprive the grass from photosynthesizing-don’t leave ANY gaps, however small.
  • Moisten with water to weigh the cardboard down and help it anchor in place.
  • Place leaves or other organic materials on top so that no cardboard is visible and moisten again. 
  • Lay branches, bricks, and other objects with some weight to hold the set-up in place through winter and early spring. 

An important ingredient is time. The longer you leave the treatment in place the more effective the treatment will be. Many find it easiest to lay cardboard and cover the space with fallen leaves and branches for weight during the fall and winter, allowing you to plant your new pollinator habitat in the coming spring. The supplies will be readily on hand and the overwintering insects in the leaf debris will thank you. 

Keep the cardboard/leaf set-up in place until the threat of frost has passed the following spring.  Simply part the leaves and cut into the cardboard to place your plugs or very small plants in their new homes. Per Patty, “the cardboard and organic topping will help hold soil moisture and suppress competition as your plants become established”.

Another option is available which will have you planting out your supportive pollinator habitat more quickly this spring is called “Sheet or Lasagna Mulching”.

Photo by Michelle Hill
Photo by Michelle Hill

Gather your ingredients and follow these steps: 

  • Cut your grass as low as you can.
  • Lay cardboard and/or newspaper, as described above and moisten.
  • Sprinkle some mature animal manure from either rabbits, chickens, or cows. The manure must be from vegetarian fed animals.*
  • Alternate applying composted materials (nitrogen) and leaves/shredded paper products/straw (carbon).
  • Ideally you should strive to achieve eighteen inches in height though some build to as much as thirty six inches.
  • For your final layer apply two to six inches of quality, seed free soil.
  • Plant some plugs and top off with some mulched leaves.

The “Lasagna” will decay as it “cooks” and condenses with time. Your new bed will have lovely, rich soil.

*If available-this step is not necessary, but is helpful in achieving a tasty lasagna bed. 

With knowledge gained about the crucial role that our leaf debris plays we can act accordingly to preserve the life therein by simply Leaving the Leaves. By leaving the materials in place you will not only be providing overwintering habitat to crucial, beneficial insect life but you will also benefit from natural soil amendments, weed suppression and fertilizer. 

Ohio is home to some estimated 3,000 different types of lepidoptera, the vast majority of butterflies and moths spend at least one stage of their lives among leaves and other plant debris. The brown owlet moth, whose appearance mimics that of a leaf, is camouflaged from predators and people. Our annual leaf removal displaces the atias luna -the luna moth, the brown owlet, and many other varieties of moth from our ecosystem. 

Luna moth Shutterstock image

Our actions have consequences, good and bad, and while unintended our bad decisions are adding up. Pollinator numbers are down 60% in just the past 15 years alone. According to Ohio DNR, “about 75% of Ohio’s 115 species of breeding songbirds are highly dependent upon caterpillars as a food source, especially for nourishment of nestlings during the breeding season. Caterpillars are of such importance to songbirds that many species would vanish without them, and our forests would largely fall silent.”

 Your decision to reduce your lawn, and leave leaves and pithy stems will welcome life that will support us all. 

Carrie Brown is the Agriculture and Natural Resources Educator for Ohio State University Extension office in Fairfield County. As an educator with a strong interest in native plants, soil health, invasives, and habitat restoration she is an invaluable resource for our community.  She has a recommendation for those individuals who would like to keep their lawns mostly intact, but would like to support our environment, especially our air, water and soil health.

Photo by Michelle Hill

 “A recent Michigan State study showed that mulched tree leaves can add organic matter and nutrients to the soil which will help to make lawns greener. By breaking the leaves into small pieces using a mulch mower, the pieces can work their way deeper into the turf canopy where earthworms can pull them down into their burrows for further decomposition. By doing this, homeowners create a slow-release fertilizer (with micronutrients) and reduce the need for purchasing ‘artificial’ fertilizers.”

You can keep some green lawn while reducing your reliance on chemicals, saving money, and improving the health of your soil! 

Gardeners should be aware that chopping the leaves will result in some loss of life of overwintering insects. As a rule try to reserve  intact leaves within new and old garden beds, chopping leaves that will remain in lawn spaces to get the full benefits. 

The leaves serve as a more appropriate and free mulch that will provide natural weed suppression, overwintering space for pollinators and other life. Fallen leaves will decay and return crucial nutrients to your soil, building with successive seasons to a more robust, healthy, and life giving sustainable soil. Your soil will more readily absorb the rain water, directing it down to recharge our water table rather than puddling up and diverting downstream filled with various chemicals. 

Instead of investing in treated mulch that is costly and unnecessary, simply rake leaves to your garden beds and underneath trees allowing the mind boggling number of soil dwelling insects, fungi, microorganisms, and pollinators to inhabit this space. This ensures high quality soil and even more beautiful future blooms on your property. You will know you are on the right path when, on a warm summer night, you look outside and see that thousands of fireflies have returned to your yard. 

Photo by Michelle Hill

This is the second article in a series. Read the first here.

Click this link for several videos about lawn reduction and habitat creation

A helpful link To learn more about Ohio’s moths.

Here is an informative pdf on leaving the leaves.

Ready to go native? Head to Leaves for Wildlife

Listen to a talk by Mr. Tallamy presented by OSU in 2022.

Read an article by Carrie Brown to learn more about leaving our leaves. 

Photo by Michelle Hill

Michelle Hill is the founder of the local Pro Pollinator Initiative which is a group working to plant pollinator gardens throughout the Pickerington area. This summer, they will plant native flower beds at Toll Gate Elementary School and the main branch of the Pickerington Public Library.

She is also the acting president of Greener Violet, a newly-formed Pickerington-based environmental organization combining a variety of ecological interests including invasive plant remediation and watershed protection.

To learn more about either organization or to ask a question specific to your situation, please email Michelle at

Growing Hope logo created by Dawnette Fleischer