Spring: The Native Joys of Naturescaping

April 2023

By Jody Sackett, Borough of Rumson, NJ – Environmental Commission


Spring brings more warm sunshine, the awakening of wildlife, an explosion of plant growth, and Earth Day. Let’s celebrate all of these by recognizing we can help our local wildlife and precious waterways by sustainably caring for our lawns while adding delightful native plants to our yards. It’s much easier than you’d think. Here’s how.

Super Simple Sustainable Lawn Care Ideas

Most Americans are surprised to learn that lawns are the largest “crop” grown in the U.S. Each year, this national crop requires about $5 billion of lawn fertilizers, 90 million pounds of pesticides and herbicides, billions of gallons of irrigation water, and 40 hours/yard of mowing. That’s a lot of resources, time, and money. Additionally, the perfect lawn usually consists of just a few types of grasses with infrequent weeds; this lack of botanical diversity means a substantial loss of food and habitat for wildlife. A tight root structure means rainwater doesn’t always percolate through turf, causing runoff and inhibiting groundwater recharge. Finally, the synthetic chemicals used to fertilize and control pests can inadvertently contaminate groundwater and nearby streams. But since we understandably love our lawns, here are a few easy sustainable lawn care techniques so we can have it all – great grass with fewer environmental impacts.

  • Reduce the Use of Fertilizers

Rutgers University recommends the easy “cut it and leave it” approach, since grass clippings have a useful heavy moisture content and decompose quickly, adding nutrients for the roots and soil too. If you do fertilize, do it in autumn when it strengthens root development; spring fertilizing causes top growth and that means more mowing. Don’t fertilize before a heavy rain, as it won’t soak into the soil but instead wash away into nearby waterways where excessive nutrients cause algae blooms, flourishing jellyfish populations, and fish kills.

  • Reduce the Use of Pesticides

These chemicals kill a wide variety of insects, including beneficial ones like ladybugs, butterfly caterpillars, and spiders. Pesticides with neonicotinoids are especially detrimental to bees, our essential pollinators. Birds and small mammals feast on insects, so simply forgoing pesticides will ensure food for our wildlife while protecting our waterways from contamination.

  • Increase Grass Mowing Height

Simply maintaining a mowing height of 2.5 to 3.5 inches reduces weeds, increases drought resistance, and helps control insect and disease damage. Plus less frequent mowing for you!

  • Let a Few Weeds Live

Grasses don’t produce the nectar needed by pollinators, but pretty clover flowers do. Avoid using herbicides to kill weeds, and allow a bit of lovely diversity in your lawn. You’ll attract a variety of bees and butterflies while saving time and money.

  • Encourage Mosses

It’s already hard to grow a lawn under leafy trees, so why not toss in the towel on this one and opt for mosses? They are a great shady ground cover, don’t need fertilizers or irrigation, and stay green all year long. Additionally, mosses provide a habitat for beneficial insects, help control erosion, and reduce stormwater runoff. Homeowners love them since they are so easy to cultivate and don’t require mowing.

Naturescape Your Yard

Why not convert a section of your lawn to native plants? Perhaps an underused side yard or your property perimeter could be a native garden. You’ll have less lawn to maintain, and native plants offer a palette of beautiful flowers that enhance landscaping while providing enough biodiversity to attract wildlife throughout the seasons. You can also simply incorporate native plants into existing garden beds. Here are some native garden ideas.

  • Plant a Native Garden

Use NJ native plants, because they have evolved to thrive in our local climate and soils without the need for additional fertilizer, pesticides, or irrigation. And they are vital. The Red Oak, NJ’s state tree, is a keystone species – which means other species need and depend on it – so it’s no surprise that over 600 species of wildlife rely on oaks for habitat and food. Sustainable native plants are perfect for inexperienced gardeners because they are hardier, require less care, and will provide timely food and cover for our local wildlife when needed. You can even grow these just in flower pots or patio containers; the bugs and birds will still love them and the soil absorbs rainwater. Check out the Native Plant Society of NJ to discover the wide variety of native plants available.

  • Create a Pollinator Waystation Garden

Planting native flowers, shrubs, and trees in a small less-used section of your yard will provide a welcome respite for migrating butterflies and hummingbirds who need shelter and food. Natives like Butterfly Weed produce lovely orange flowers that not only feed monarchs but also provide a place for them to lay eggs. Hummingbirds love nectar from purple coneflowers, red Bee Balm, and yellow black-eyed Susans. And evergreen holly trees not only brighten winter yards but provide cover and berries for returning birds. Visit www.jerseyyards.org for excellent information about migrator-friendly native plants.

  • Build a Rain Garden

Green infrastructure, like functional rain gardens, can be a nice sustainable substitute for grass along driveways, sidewalks, or borders. A rain garden is just a shallow, landscaped depression that temporarily collects rainwater until it filters down through the soil, encouraging groundwater replenishment and reducing stormwater runoff. They can be just about any size – small or big – and planting them with hardier natives reduces maintenance while providing landscaping texture and color. Green infrastructure helps reduce contaminants entering our beloved waterways yet still looks lovely while helping wildlife thrive. The NJDEP offers detailed instructions on its website for installing and maintaining rain gardens and other types of green infrastructure.

  • Design a Moon Garden

While colorful flowers are fabulous, why not plant a garden of native flowers designed to be enjoyed by moonlight? A Moon Garden has fragrant flowers and night-blooming or bright white blossoms that shine under the stars while attracting unique nocturnal pollinators. Look for luminous Evening Primrose, which has a lovely lemon scent. Try white-flowered NJ natives like Clematis, Digitalis, Viburnum, and oak-leaf hydrangea; their silver or variegated leaves and brilliant white blooms invite relaxation. NJ Tea has strongly fragrant blossoms (and the dried leaves were used for Revolutionary era tea). If you’ve got room for a bigger garden, consider radiant white azalea shrubs and silvery-barked River Birch trees. But if your home or condo has less yard space, it’s no problem – scatter patio pots and of these native moonies around front steps or a backyard chair, and feel the zen.


Now’s the Time

Soon it will be planting season here at the Jersey Shore. So why not help our local wildlife and cherished rivers by trying a few of these sustainable ideas in your own yard. What a marvelous way to celebrate our earth.


Jody Sackett has been an environmentalist all her life. She graduated from Allegheny College in Pennsylvania with a BS in Aquatic Environments, and has a Master of Science degree in Environmental Sciences from the Ohio University. While working full-time for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, she attended law school and earned a Juris Doctor degree; she is licensed to practice law in Ohio and NJ. She has worked in municipal and state governments, as well as an Environmental Attorney for the local law firm of Giordano, Halleran, & Ciesla. Changing gears to promote marine science and environmental education, she now works for the NJ Sea Grant Consortium as an educator and program administrator as well as serving on the Borough of Rumson – Environmental Commission. Jody has lived in Rumson for over 28 years with her husband Ray, and they have two children, Ethan and Julianne.

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