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Native plants and organic lawncare

Caring for your lawn in an environmentally friendly way

<br />Purple coneflowers in the courtyard of The Cleveland Museum of Natural History

Think of lawn care as a preventive health care program, like one you would invest in to keep up your own health. The idea is to prevent problems from occurring so you don’t have to treat them. As they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. A healthy lawn can out-compete most weeds, survive most insect attacks, and fend off most diseases-before these problems ever get the upper hand.

Steps to a healthier lawn 

  • Never apply fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides when rain is forecast. For example herbicides should not be applied if rain is expected with 6 hours of before or after application. Be sure to follow the product directions.
  • Trickle and drip irrigation systems can reduce water use by as much as 50 percent.
  • Reduce the amount of actively mowed lawn and create a meadow or rain garden in your yard.
  • Mow lawns to the proper height, 3” for most lawns with a sharp blade, and never cut more than one third of the existing grass height at one time. Cutting too low leaves the lawn vulnerable to stress and disease.
  • Use a mulching mower and leave clippings on the lawn.
  • Nitrogen and phosphorous in fertilizers help grass grow. But using too much, applying just before rain can cause it to run into our waterways, they spur oxygen-depleting algae blooms that kill fish and block sunlight from reaching underwater plant habitats.
  • Before fertilizing, test the soil to see if fertilizer is needed. Be sure you are using the right type and amount of fertilizer at the right time of year. See the Soil Testing for Information on where to get a soil test.

Build a backyard compost area

It is a practical and convenient way to handle yard trimmings such as leaves, grass, thatch, chipped brush, and plant cuttings. Compost also improves your soil and the plants growing in it. If you have a garden, a lawn, trees, shrubs, or even planter boxes, you have a use for compost. Mix 2 parts green to 1 part brown for the ideal carbon-nitrogen ratio needed to “cook” the pile. Stir the pile frequently and keep it moist to quicken decomposition.


Planting for less: Use native plants

Native plants have evolved and adapted to local conditions. These are plants that have been growing in Ohio for hundreds of years and can handle most anything mother nature can throw at them. They are vigorous and hardy, surviving winter cold and in summer heat. Once established, they require little to no watering or fertilization. They are resistant to most pests and diseases. Thus, native plants suit today's interest in "low-maintenance" gardening and landscaping.

Using native plants can help reduce your overall landscape maintenance costs by reducing the amount of water, fertilizer and time needed to maintain a garden of all “ornamental” plants. It is often thought using native plants means that the garden will look messy, unkempt and abandoned, but that does need to be the case. With a little planning and forethought you can create a landscape that not only works for nature, but is beautiful and easy to maintain, too. Native gardens will also attract birds and butterflies to the yard.

Below are several gardening tips to consider when using native plants.

Plan a Landscape Design: The purpose of developing a landscape design is to give a feeling of order to the landscape around us. Orderly environments are appealing. Native gardens can look orderly by following a few simple rules. Do a 15 second sketch of your yard, birds eye view is easiest. This is a sketch of the yard as if you were looking down on it from a tree. Estimate relative dimensions, rather than measuring. For example, the backyard might be twice as deep as it is wide. Add in the house, existing gardens, trees, and bushes. A quick sketch has the important benefit of being disposable. You can be creative and try many ideas in just minutes. If you don’t like the sketch erase it and try again. Think about developing a theme for the landscape as well, such as using the same planting pattern or colors throughout your yard.

Grouping Plants: Group plants together with similar light and water requirements. This will save time with maintenance and watering.

Edges: A crisp edge or border around the garden gives it a sense of order. You may also try putting the garden towards the edge of your yard, rather than in the middle.

Plant Size: Avoid plants that are too tall! Make sure to look at the plants expected height and choose accordingly. You can use naturally tall plants to block your view of the neighbor’s house or in the backyard to set a backdrop.

Edible Landscaping: Think about placing vegetables, herbs and other edible plants with and the flowers. They can add interesting textures and colors to the garden. Rhubarb has lovely cream-colored flower stalks that fit in nicely with flowering plants. Herbs such as thyme and oregano can planted as groundcovers. For more information, go here.

Cues of Care: Add garden accessories such as s split rail fence, garden gnome, or bird bath. Mix and match native and ornamental plants together in your landscape. Using these tips will help cue the neighbors that the new landscaping bed is a planned garden and part of the scenery. Make sure to ask your local building department about any permits or limitations to including these items in your landscaping.

Non-native plants to avoid (because they can crowd out natives)

  • Japanese honeysuckle
  • Japanese knotweed
  • Autumn olive
  • Glossy buckthorn
  • Purple loosestrife
  • Common reed
  • Reed canary grass
  • English ivy, and
  • Privet

For a more complete list see Ohio’s Invasive Plant Species, go here.

Native plant resources

Look for native plants at the local nursery and ask for help in selecting the right plants.

Pest control

Not all insects are bad. In fact, many insects, spiders and predatory mites are considered beneficial in our yards because they eat what are considered undesirable pests. Few insects are actually pests; over 97% of those usually seen in the home or landscape are either beneficial or are innocent bystanders. We can manage our yards to use these beneficial insects—commonly called “natural enemies” or “beneficials”—as a way to minimize pest problems, and greatly reduce or eliminate the need for pesticides.

Below are several resources that list the “beneficials” and give ideas on how to entice them to your yard.

Steep slopes

Steep slopes can include ravines, stream banks, or any slope in your yard that can be eroded. The best way to keep the soil in place and prevent erosion on the slopes is to plant deep rooted vegetation that will hold the soil.

ENGLISH IVY, CROWN VETCH, MYRTLE SHOULD NEVER BE USED ON SLOPES. These plants have a shallow root structure and will DESTABLIZE a slope rather then help stabilize it.

Effective plants that can be planted along a shady steep slope include, but are not limited to:


  • Redosier Dogwood (Cornus stolonifera)
  • Grey Stem Dogwood (Cornus racemosa)
  • Silky Dogwood (Cornus amomum)
  • Green Twig Dogwood (Cornus rugosa)
  • Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)
  • Virginia Sweetspire (Itea virginica)
  • Bottlebrush Buckeye (Aesculusparviflora)
  • Red Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia)
  • Black Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa)


  • Woodland Sunflower (Helianthus strumosus)
  • Showy Sunflower (Helianthus laetiflorus)

Ground cover

  • Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)
  • Checkerberry or Creeping Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens)

For sunnier areas, use native wildflowers and grasses.

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