One Year Update on Converting the Dead Lawn to Native Plants

Pink wild buckwheat flowers blooming

If the relentless bad news about the climate crisis has left you feeling anxious, planting native plants can help, well, everything. Native plants support local ecosystems by providing habitat for insects and wildlife facing mass extinction. Natives require fewer pesticides and fertilizers and less water. And by digging in the soil, you’ll be exposed to Mycobacterium vaccae, a bacterium that triggers the release of the mood-boosting compound, serotonin.

If you don’t have access to a yard, consider growing some plants on a balcony, lobbying your school or employer to plant natives on the grounds or volunteering at a nearly arboretum, community garden or park. Search for plants native to your area through the National Wildlife Federation’s plant finder. (Check out this post for more resources.)

How it started

In early 2022, immediately after reading entomologist Doug Tallamy’s book, Nature’s Best Hope, I began planting natives in the dried remains of a long since dead lawn.

Front yard, July 2021

How it’s going

The plants thrived from this winter’s dozen or so atmospheric rivers. Of course, we Californians would prefer the patter of steady, regular rains rather than intense, roof-rattling storms and their ensuing landslides, floods and mayhem but all that rain did alleviate the extreme drought.

Various California native plants growing in a yard covered with light colored wood mulch
I still have lots of work out here but these spreading plants will do some of it for me

Despite the fact that I am on Instagram, the yard does not meet the platform’s aesthetic standards. But it has definitely improved. The city didn’t send a warning about the weeds this year, for example. (I still haven’t figured out which neighbor complained in 2022…) The many birds, bees, butterflies and other insects now visiting regularly certainly appreciate my efforts. (And actually, I think people who do like my Instagram posts appreciate that nothing does look perfect. I keep it real on there!)

Coast Live Oak

If you plant nothing else, plant native oaks trees. Like keystones in the center of a Roman arch, this keystone plant supports entire ecosystems. Oaks sustain hundreds of types of caterpillars that in turn feed the birds. Other critters rely on eating oaks’ acorns. You have to be patient though—oaks take time to grow. But they pay off. Sometimes for centuries.

A big lesson I’ve learned from this project: start now.


Another keystone plant, goldenrod spreads quickly and requires little care. It will start to flower this month.

California Poppies

We had our very own super bloom this year. And although the poppies have died back and browned by now (like some of the other plants), the bees still visit them so I have let them stay put. Poppies self-seed and return every year with zero work.

A bee pollinating a poppy in spring

California Wild Rose

These smell amazing. I planted one in the backyard as well, where I’m also slowly adding natives.

A bee lands on a bright pink wild rose with a yellow center
The bees love the roses!

California Sagebrush

Also known as cowboy cologne—cowboys freshened themselves up with it—this fragrant plant smells like sage and the outdoors. The Indigenous Tongva community uses this native shrub for its medicinal properties, treating symptoms of respiratory illnesses, menopause, menstrual cramps and labor pain. The plant thrives in drought.


I am obsessed with my ceanothus plants. The ceanothus shrub I ordered last year from a nursery appears to be a spreading ground cover. That’s fine. It’s thriving and very happy. (This year I also planted a shrub variety.)

Native Californian Ceanothus plant with a blue blossom
Ceanothus flower in the spring

Planted this year!

Below, clockwise from the top left: I’ve planted several red-flowered buckwheat plants, snowberry, California fuchsia, Western redbud and blue-eyed grass (among others).

Except for the Western redbud, all the above plants came from generous friends. If you feel inspired to plant natives, find some native-loving friends. They will share your obsession, sense of urgency and sometimes, plants!

Stay tuned for another update next year!

A monarch butterfly flies towards a milkweed plant in a yard
The transformation is working! Monarch headed for the showy milkweed

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Learn more here.

Planting native plants benefits the soil, the insects and even your mental health!
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8 Replies to “One Year Update on Converting the Dead Lawn to Native Plants”

  1. Brava!!! It’s looking great. We are taking a similar approach in our allotment here in Sopot, Poland. Year one we received a reprimand from the allotment authorities, but I replied that everything in our plot was providing habitat and foraging for so many insects and critters that they should be thanking us. Haven’t heard from them since and we’re just letting the “weeds” grow and flower in succession as we watch in amazement at the wildlife. The bats of an evening are the best! Check out Dave Goulson, Professor of Biology at U of Sussex, for more inspiration. He’s our gardening guru. Although, it does look like you are doing wonderfully all by yourself. This makes me smile.

    1. Thank you! I don’t know if my neighbors like it much, but I’m on a multi-year plan. It’s not going to fill in overnight. I love your response to the city. You are doing them—and all living things in your neighborhood—a huge favor. Thank you for the recommendation. I will look Goulson up.

  2. It’s great to see the year-old view of your installation. I’m in Zone 5b-6, and we have had extraordinary drought this past year. I’m determined to transition to something more like this than a lawn that gets stressed from lack of water every July and August.

    1. Some of these plants simply thrive without water! I almost killed the California fuchsia I planted in spring by watering it. I finally just left it alone and it has been growing like crazy ever since. And the plants are much less work than a lawn. Win-win-win! I bet you’ll find some beautiful plants native to your zone that also thrive with less water. Enjoy!

  3. Kristina Lundbergh says: Reply

    Thank you, I really needed some positive news this morning and a reminder that my “messy” garden is doing great things, even though the insects have had a hard time finding us.

  4. Well Done… its looking great and coming together it takes time but as you said the bees and butterflies are coming and thats good to hear 🙂

  5. I am in Tasmania, Australia, and covered up the lawn with cardboard and mulch seven years ago when I moved into this house. My garden is part jungle and weeds, lots of natives, lots of food and lots of flowers. We have so many insects, bees, butterflies and small native birds in our garden now in the middle of our small city. I love what it’s doing for the earth, but I also love it for me. I feel so fortunate to be able to sit in a garden full of food and flowers listening to bees and birds. Also, so many weeds are edible and delicious!
    Your garden is looking wonderful and I am so glad to see this is happening all over the world:)

  6. Jessica Baxter says: Reply

    Nature’s Best Hope was a huge inspiration to me also! I’m a member of the native plant society in my part of Virginia, so I get a few plants that way. Also, every time I go to the local food co-op I buy at least one native plant, so my native garden on the hill below our road is filling in nicely. My favorite thing about native plants is how most of them spread and make gardening for pollinators so much easier!

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