To Bring Back Birds, Lose The Lawn And Plant Native Species

Oct 18, 2019

On an October afternoon, a small patch of prairie in the parking lot of Burpee Museum of Natural History is host to bees, butterflies, moths, and dragonflies.
Credit Connie Kuntz

Wild Ones of the Rock River Valley and Natural Land Institute (NLI) have partnered to help people create yards that are environmentally friendly. Zach Grycan is the director of stewardship with the NLI. He spoke to a packed classroom at Rock Valley College in Rockford this week about establishing natural areas at home, work, school or church. He said the first step is to get inspired:


“Let's say you are two blocks away from a natural area with an established type of habitat. That might inspire you to get more active in establishing species that would be contiguous with those habitats around you.”

Emphasizing that height isn't everything, Grycan also said it is important to factor in neighbors, pedestrians, and motorists when selecting native plants.

Mark Luthin (left) and Zach Grycan of the Natural Land Institute.
Credit Connie Kuntz

“If you care about natural areas and you want to establish something in town, it’s probably best not to obstruct the view of traffic, or have the most aggressive, tall species out in plain view of everyone.”

When planting in front yards, Grycan advocated for planting low growing native prairie plants because they won’t flop onto the sidewalk, are still showy and will attract other native species including bees, butterflies, and ornate box turtles.

The next step in replacing your lawn with native plants is smothering. You can purchase landscape fabric, cut it into a desired shape and place it on your lawn. It will eventually smother the lawn and eliminate competition from non-native species.

“The least amount of competition you can give your natives will give them a better chance to get established.”

Grycan advised not to plant when it’s hot and dry because that would increase the chances of plant mortality. He said a nearby water source like a hose or rain barrel is essential to helping native species survive, especially in the beginning of the process. He said to take care not to plant into incompatible moisture, shade or soil types, and he encouraged people to work with the land they have, no matter the size.

Lisa Johnson is the program coordinator for Wild Ones of the Rock River Valley. She recently downsized to a smaller home and said the size of her land is “a postage stamp.” Still, she has planted aster, shooting star, main hare fern, compass plant, and more.

Wild Ones Program Coordinator Lisa Johnson refers to the size of her land as a "postage stamp" but still plants native species on it.
Credit Connie Kuntz

“I live on a tiny city lot and am working on replacing what's there with native plants. I’ve already seen a lot of new insect species and new birds.”

Johnson said, “A lawn is basically a green desert. It supports very little life. Even the grass itself has trouble surviving because its roots are so short.” She continued, “But with native plants, there is something blooming throughout the entire growing season. This supports insects, which supports birds, which supports the entire food chain.”

Both Grycan and Johnson said October and November are ideal for planting native shrubs and trees. And if you have the seeds, both recommended seeding into the frost or the snow. Simply scatter seeds on top of the frost or snow. The sun will melt the frost or snow and, in doing so, will send the seeds down into the earth. 

Johnson elaborated, "The winter takes care of the natural stratifcation of those seeds. When the spring comes, the plants come up when they are ready." 

Grycan said a reliable website for learning about individual species and getting information on the insects and animals who utilize those native plants is He also recommended the book Bringing Nature Home by Doug Tallamy.

To meet people, exchange seeds, and learn about restoring natural habitats, Wild Ones of the Rock River Valley meets every third Thursday of the month. The next meeting is a seed exchange and is open to the public if they sign up for membership when they come. It will begin at 6:00 p.m. on November 21 with a potluck at the Universal Unitarian Church at 4848 Turner Street in Rockford. You do not have to bring seeds.