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Start your prep now for native plant gardens

Are you thinking about converting a lawn or garden area to native plants to attract pollinators and birds into your landscape?

This time of year, questions about preparing a garden for native plants are at an all-time high. Gardeners are learning that native plants attract pollinators, butterflies and birds to their gardens, and once established, their deep root systems make them very resilient in a changing climate. So, they can survive extreme temperatures, including drought and flooding.

The easiest start-up approach is to plant natives in an already prepared garden bed in your landscape where you usually plant annuals or non-natives. That way you can see how they perform on a smaller scale. But if you have bigger goals—like converting your lawn to a wildflower garden – then you have some prep work to do first.

The plan to turn the sterile bluegrass and tall fescue lawns into native habitats is a challenge.  Perennial weeds, such as the lawn grasses, must be removed before planting or they will choke out any efforts. Proper planning leads to success.

Removing grasses can be difficult, and as a horticulture agent I need to give you all of your options. It’s probably no surprise that the quickest way to eradicate turf is with chemicals. But many gardeners considering native plants are looking for organic options. So, here are some effective alternatives.

The goal is to eradicate the lawn, including roots and runners. A tiller can help cut through dense sod, but it can be tough work. Another option is hand digging, which also requires a lot of energy if it’s a large area. The results can be a clumpy mass of roots leaving the planting bed rough, creating issues down the road.

A sod cutter can be rented to remove the sod layer. This may be the quickest method for non-chemical control and would allow for planting this season.

Another method is to suffocate the turf. Cover the turf with thick plastic or layers of cardboard. The exclusion of sunlight slowly kills the turf. However, this process can take a few months, so suffocation works best when you plan ahead. Start this process now for a fall planting or in late summer for a spring of 2022 planting.

From these methods, devise a plan that works for you. This process could slow a big planting project into the fall or next spring. But by adding this important step, your hard work can pay off with more spectacular results for your new beneficial habitat.

Reach out with questions or comments to the Johnson County Garden Hotline at [email protected] or 913-715-7050.

Story: Dennis Patton, Horticulture Agent, Johnson County K-State Research and Extension

Photo: Valerie Kutchko

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