Lawn Replacement: the Pollinator Garden 3 Years Later

NOW – my garden, three years after lawn replacement

Three years ago (spring 2015), we ripped out our lawn and replaced it with a pollinator-friendly, drought-tolerant, and native garden. We happened to pick the worst possible summer to replace the garden – the drought was so bad the water districts called for voluntary water reductions and asked people to stop watering their lawns etc.

BEFORE – same view of the garden in September 2015, the year of planting.

We had a pretty high mortality rate, in part from the drought, and also likely in part from my inexperience in selecting the right plants. Turns out my yard’s soil is much poorer draining than anticipated. Also, that the spot I thought was shady is more like mixed sun/shade. (I also blame our voracious rabbits though the rabbit fences have helped.)

Each year, I’ve added some replacement plants, some successfully, some not so much. Last fall, our neighbor removed the large tree on our property line, a huge pine tree that continuously dropped 12″ long needles that were nigh impossible to clean up. That opened up a lot of light and visibility to the street that we hadn’t had before, so I added some shrubs on the edge that should grow into screens in a few years.

The garden looks the best in May through July, when everything is flowering. (All photos taken in July 2017 unless otherwise noted.)

New shrubs in middle bed – June 2017

The bees LOVE our garden. We have so many kinds of bees – so many kinds of insects! – buzzing around the yard. That means we also get lots of birds and dragonflies :) I swear I have seen only one butterfly in the last three years though >:( We do get pretty bad aphids on our lupines (and last year they spread to the euphorbia).

bees on globe thistleThe part of the yard closest to the street is where I put most of the native plants. The sword ferns have been successful – they keep year-round interest – but I think I need to add some winter color mixed in.

Native shady bed in May 2017

I like the front part, it feels like a fairy garden with hostas and dainty spring ephemerals like bleeding heart and meadowrue making appearances. I added our native strawberry as a groundcover here and it’s finally taking off this year! 

Challenges in the New Garden

The garden’s biggest problem is weeds. I cannot keep up with them. Every year a new weed seems to arise that I didn’t have to deal with before. I need to mulch, I need to plant more groundcover, and and I need to install a solid path so weeds can’t grow around them.

weedy garden path

Weeds weeds weeds! At least it’s finally green? Taken May 2017.

The garden’s next-biggest problem is how pathetic it looks in the winter. The shrubs I picked are insufficient to keep the yard looking nice.

Garden looking sad in November 2016.

I added some bulbs for late spring interest, but the early season ones just looked sad in the empty yard.

Hi lonely hyacinths! Very little life in March 2017 – the garden doesn’t really take off until April / May.

Tulips blooming in May 2017 – I thought I ordered orange tulips but those look pretty red to me.

My biggest takeaway mistakes, three years after lawn replacement:

Lawn Replacement Process / Garden Success

  • More mulch! Especially if, like me, you don’t want to use chemicals to kill weeds.
  • Install hardscape (paths) at the same time as you install the plants – people aren’t patient to wait for your garden to fill in.
  • More groundcover! Space it closer than you think, and plant it everywhere, or something else will become your groundcover for you.
  • Do yourself a favor and pull up the soaker hoses in fall, and lay them back out in spring. My groundcover has grown over the soaker hoses.

Garden Design

  • Plant more evergreen shrubs and winter interest.
  • Incorporate more shrubs and trees for architectural, especially vertical, interest.
  • When planting multiple shrubs together, consider whether all of them are deciduous – for plants that have architectural branches in winter, plant them in front of an evergreen backdrop (don’t be like me!).
  • Consider the texture of the flowers – maybe don’t plant all the spiny pokey ones all right next to each other.
  • Add features like bird-baths or stones for year-round interest.

Plant Selection

  • When someone says that a plant may be weedy, BELIEVE THEM. It will become a weed in your yard (I’m looking at you, yarrow, yellow monkeyflower, and self-heal).
  • It’s OK to try moving plants.
  • Don’t feel pressured to only plant natives (like I did) – plant what you like.
  • The winners in other people’s yards may not be the winners in your yard (like coneflower, which has proven impossible for me to keep alive).
  • Be willing to admit defeat or mistakes and rip plants out if you don’t like them or they aren’t working.



About Tracy Durnell

Seattle-area graphic designer and SFF writer inspired by the Pacific Northwest, crafting a sustainable and intentional life.

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