by Jake Brown
Passersby may have noticed some work going on in two front yards on the one-way section of College Street up by Main Street. What are we doing? Along with our neighbor Katie Fahnestock, Milly Archer and I are pulling up our front lawns and replacing them with native trees, shrubs, and understory plants.
We’re excited about this transformation for a whole range of reasons — more biodiversity in our yards, better control of stormwater, and a little bit of a wilder aesthetic variety. Friends of the Winooski River, which initiated and supported the effort, has a better name for all this: converting lawns to forest.
Shawn White, the Friends’ project manager, posted a solicitation on Front Porch Forum last fall. Katie jumped at the chance to rid herself of her lawn, then recruited Milly and me. One day last year, we all stood outside, masked, in the cold November rain to learn how the project would work and which species were candidates for planting. Then came spring!
Here’s how it goes: first, you take a mattock (they get heavy after a few minutes of swinging, let me tell you) and strip out the lawn. After you shake off the soil from the roots (we’re blessed with nice well-drained loam in this part of town) you toss aside the old chunks of lawn — off to the stump dump.
Then, more or less simultaneously, you plant your shrubs and spread mulch. Friends of the Winooski River supplied the trees and shrubs and members of the Montpelier Tree Board (in particular Sarah Hoffmeier, a local landscape designer who helped with this project) volunteered to plant them. In this case we bought hemlock mulch from Fontaine’s sawmill in East Montpelier.
Species the volunteers have planted included witch hazel, white birch, chokecherry, northern bayberry, winterberry, blueberry, pagoda dogwood, and more. When they mature, the shrubs and trees will grow anywhere from three feet tall up to 20 feet tall and flower at various times of year. Our job is to keep an eye on this new vegetation, keep it healthy and watered, and watch all that we’ve planted grow up in the coming years.
Most recently we’ve been finishing up the job, doing final understory plantings of native species — ferns, Solomon’s seal, spiderwort, violets, and more to round out the landscape. Are we experts? Not really, but we are having fun.
It’s been a big education for me — I hardly know a pansy from a petunia — but I’m really happy with the overall improvement we are making to the yard, not to mention there will be less grass to mow.
“There is a nationwide movement beginning to gain momentum to make yards more natural,” says White, of the Friends of the Winooski River. “There are so many reasons to plant more native plants. We’re hoping our ‘Lawns to Forest’ program will encourage residents in the Winooski watershed to understand the environmental and societal costs of their lawns and think about their yards as part of the larger ecosystem.”
The Friends of the Winooski River is promoting reducing lawn in favor of native woody vegetation to reduce stormwater runoff entering the storm drains. Whenever it rains or the snow melts, water from our yard, roof, and driveway flows down College Street to a storm drain and from there through underground pipes to an outfall pipe near the Unitarian Church and into the North Branch of the Winooski. On its way it picks up pollutants such as fertilizers, sediment, pesticides, herbicides, and motor oil.
Woody vegetation, such as trees and shrubs, is able to intercept and absorb a much higher volume of stormwater runoff than grass can. Plantings like ours on College Street not only reduce the amount of pollutants reaching the river, but also help reduce flooding.
Using plants native to Vermont provides better habitat as well. Native pollinators and insects often feed on specific plants they have evolved with over thousands of years and will not use non-native plants for food or shelter. Planting more native means we’ll provide a home to more bees, caterpillars, butterflies, and other insects. More trees, shrubs, and insects means better shelter and more food for more birds. Lawns, on the other hand, provide very little in the way of habitat or food for pollinators, birds, and other critters.
The larger trees and shrubs we have planted will also remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than our grass did.
Our yards are small, so the impact they have will be small too. We won’t solve these big problems on our own, but it feels good to know we are actively doing something about them. And we’re looking forward to watching our new plants grow and seeing birds perched in our new “forest.”
About the Friends of the Winooski River and the “Lawn to Forest” Program
The Friends of the Winooski River is dedicated to the protection and restoration of the Winooski River. Goals are to reduce pollution, improve habitat, increase river stability, and encourage passive and sustainable enjoyment of the river. The Friends work in partnership with individuals, local communities, other nonprofits, and state and federal agencies to achieve these goals through restoration and protection projects, monitoring, assessment, paddling events, and education and outreach.
The group’s lawn-to-forest program involves planting woody vegetation on residential lawns in the Winooski River watershed in order to reduce the volume and polluting effects of stormwater runoff from developed land. The desired outcomes of the project are cleaner surface waters, better habitat and species diversity in suburban and urban areas, improved flood resilience, healthier communities, and a more engaged public aware of how their properties impact water quality, flooding, and habitat.
The Lawns to Forest project is funded in part by the United States Environmental Protection Agency in partnership with the Lake Champlain Basin Program.
More information about their Lawn to Forest program, other projects, volunteer opportunities, and how to support their efforts can be found on their website: winooskiriver.org.