How I Got Rid of my Lawn Without Herbicides or Tilling

By Sheryl Smith

There are many posts on social media talking about converting lawn to native plants. Some people support herbicides. Others support tilling. Both leave behind bare soil and the opportunity for unwanted seeds to germinate. Some suggest planting natives right in the lawn, letting the new plants overpower the lawn grass. I think my solution was easier and better.

I used a combination of leaves and old wool rugs. For regular lawn grass, leaves work great! I put down a very thick layer of leaves in the fall. I let them sit undisturbed for one year. The grass was almost all killed. I pulled up the few sprigs that came through. The leaves provided a protective area of mulch for the soil, nearly eliminating germination of seeds. It worked great! I planted whatever I wanted the next fall. Cost no money, took very little effort, and was very environmentally friendly.

I needed more leaves than my trees could produce, so I posted on local social media that I was looking for bagged leaves. People happily dropped them off at my house, saving them a trip to the landfill. I put the empty bags at the street, and people took them home for re-use.

This method didn’t work for some of the other plants growing in my lawn. Violets and a creeping stoloniferous grass came up right through the leaves. (I know many violets are native, but they reseed like crazy and I wanted to limit them to one section.) For problem plants, I bought 100% wool rugs on the cheap at a local auction (Cannon’s auctions). An old, large, stained wool rug is often under $5. I dragged them out in my yard and quickly covered them with leaves before the neighbors saw them and thought I’d lost my mind. The violets and creeping grass could not break through (I only had a little creeping grass. One would need to cover the whole trailing plant.) After a year I planted natives, cutting holes in the remaining bits of rug where necessary. The rugs mostly broke down in 1-2 years, vanishing into nothing. I did find that one of them had a bit of polyester in the structural part, which is annoying, and one rug is so thick that it has taken over 2 years to break down. There is a risk of the chemicals that may have been used in the dyes, but I am guessing it is a lower risk than using an herbicide.

Hunting Dragons in Virginia

By Cindy Andrews

Dragonflies and damselflies, from the order Odonata, really spark my imagination and love of learning. I spend countless hours “hunting” and photographing them from early March through November each Year.

Odes have a fascinating life cycle. When mating, adults often form a mating “wheel” with the male attaching his abdomen to the female’s head while she attaches her abdomen to his thorax for fertilization. Fertilized eggs are then laid by females ovipositing directly in freshwater streams or ponds or on vegetation in those habitats. The eggs hatch into nymphs that live underwater for anywhere from 1-5 years. Like a caterpillar, they go through several instar stages shedding exoskeleton each time. At this stage they have no resemblance to a dragonfly! When ready, they climb up a reed or stick and emerge from the exoskeleton as a mature dragonfly. After drying its wings, it begins its final life stage intent on two things: eating and mating. As an adult, they live for only a few weeks to a few months, depending on species.

Besides being gorgeous creatures, dragonflies are helpful to our environment. First, they are indicators of clean water. Scientific studies of their numbers and health can quickly reveal changes in water ecosystems. As nymphs they feast on mosquito larvae and other harmful aquatic organisms. As adults they feed on many insects, good and bad, including termites, biting flies, and gnats. They also serve as prey food for birds, frogs, and others. Ode habitat varies from stagnant pools, slow and fast creeks both in the open and forested, river banks, and even saltwater marshes. Different odes prefer different habitats.

Dragon and damsel season has started. I found my first of the year on March 22: Fragile Forktails at Tuckahoe Creek Park. Want to hunt dragons? Explore the various aquatic habitats. Check the reeds and sticks where they like perch. Look up – they frequently rest in tree leaves! To identify what you’ve seen, try iNaturalist if you have a photo, the “Dragonfly and Damselfly Field Guide and ID” app, or Dennis Paulsen’s “Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East.” Happy hunting!

Pulling Our Weight

They may be pretty. They might have started out in a garden. But the ornamental thugs of the plant world have become menaces to Virginia’s parks and natural spaces.

Fortunately, many Riverine Master Naturalists are committed to take back our wild places, removing invasive plants and trees and allowing the native plant life to return.

Why is this worth the effort? Well, fewer “natives” means fewer caterpillars and insects, because most require specific host plants (think Monarchs and milkweed, but on much broader scale). The food web depends on these larvae and insects, not just to provide food for birds and other wildlife, but to support pollinators. The payoff, when we’ve freed an area of invasives, is seeing the native plants and insects return, knowing that we have brought these natural areas back to life.

Anyone Home?

While it might seem voyeuristic to peek into another’s home, Riverines’ work monitoring Eastern Bluebird nesting boxes provides important citizen science data on these little lovelies. During spring and summer, our bluebird monitors check on nest boxes in a variety of RVA sites, noting mating and nesting activity, eggs, chicks and fledglings.

“It is so exciting to check on one of our boxes and see a nestful of chirping babies,” monitor Jane Taft enthused. “A few weeks later, they’re fledglings and the parents are ready to start again, so we make sure their home is ready for them.”

Bluebird boxes have given this species, which was dwindling due to loss of nesting sites, the opportunity to thrive again. The Riverine volunteers give the nestlings an even bigger boost, ensuring that the boxes are clean, safe, and equipped with predator guards to control predation from snakes, raccoons and chick-eating bird species. “While I’m involved in a number of Riverine projects,” Jane added, “I’ve got to say these Bluebirds have a special place in my heart.”

O Oysters

“O Oysters, come and walk with us!” The Walrus did beseech. “A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk, along the briny beach….”

Yes, as the Walrus knew, oysters are delicious, but they also are vital to the health of the Chesapeake Bay and its contributing waterways. Think of them as stationary Roombas for the sediment in the waters, filtering it out as they extract nutrients. They make our waters cleaner, serve as food source for otters, herons and other species, provide economic benefits via oyster fishermen, and are awfully tasty with a squeeze of lemon or hot sauce.

Thanks to the Riverines’ heralded (and award winning) oyster shell recycling project, the oyster population is healthier than it has been in many years. Working with the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program (VOSRP), a part of VCU Rice Rivers Center, our volunteers have helped to collect many tons of shell and planted millions of spat on shell oysters on Virginia reefs. Cindy Andrews, program coordinator for the Richmond area said, “ we absolutely could not do this important restoration work without the volunteers from the Riverine chapter and other chapters around the state. They are the backbone of our success.”

“Don’t chuck that shuck!” is their motto, as they have established partnerships with seafood restaurants throughout the area where the Riverines come weekly (or biweekly) to pick up the restaurants’ oyster shells and take them to a central “holding facility” (a fancy way to say dumpsters).

For some of the dedicated Riverine oyster team, this ferrying of shells from restaurant to the dumpster is their major involvement in the project. Other Riverines get involved in the next step – once the dumpsters are full, the shells are taken to the VCU Rice Rivers Center where our folks and members of the public assemble mesh bags, and fill them shells. The bags are eventually loaded onto a flatbed and transported to one of the program partners, Island Seafood, on Gwynn’s Island.

Those interested in a little water adventure can sign up for the next step: ferrying the oysters out to the designated reefs in the waterways and dumping them in so they can build up the oyster reef and serve as nurseries for the next generation of oysters. Currently, the project works on sanctuary reefs in the Piankatank River.

Creating Bird Brains

How many miles could you fly this year? How big is your wingspan? Would you rather live in a cave, a riverbank or a tree house? Why are you, if you’re a boy, so much more colorful? If you were a second grader fortunate enough to be in “Birds and Art,” an after school program at a Richmond elementary school, you’d know about flight paths, feathers, food and songs and how art can teach and enhance learning.

“It was so exciting to give these children the opportunity for fun, in-depth art and science activities,” said Riverine Janice Robertson. “From the first class, the kids were eager to discover, and they loved the hands-on projects that they could bring home and share with their families. I’m sure every one of them sees the natural world around them in an entirely different way than they did before and will grow up to appreciate and cherish it.”

This avian-oriented project was launched with the support of the Richmond Audubon Society, but there’s no end to the range of educational outreach Riverines can and do get involved in. Join us and find your passion.

A Quality Guy

Once a month, Randy Smith takes his bucket and tools and heads to the Pamunkey River to check the water quality. What he’s also doing is celebrating the world around him: “I get to actively do something for nature, something that, in my small way, is helping save the planet. ”

What Randy and other Riverines are doing is testing the clarity, bacterial load, acidity and dissolved oxygen in a specific part of a Virginia waterway, charting their findings and sending them on to the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay. “We get to choose our own section to test, and the site I chose is enormously peaceful and relaxing,” Randy said. “I’m also getting the intellectual stimulation of learning and performing the water quality tests and charting, so it’s a total win for me.”

“It’s so important to be on the front lines in helping improve the habitat for sea creatures, plant life and birds, “ Randy said. “By providing scientists with this data, we are able to alert them to problem areas so proper intervention can be taken. We are their first line of defense to protect the waters.”

Citizen science is a major emphasis for Virginia Master Naturalists, and Riverines – from bats to butterflies, bees to salamanders, skunks to birds to “invasives” there is a project just right for you.