On a sliver of land near the parking lot of the Moravian Archives, delicate stems are beginning to peek out of the soil of a garden bed. They’re the descendants of flowers Max Nottke of Bashavia Gardens planted years ago. 

“We’re letting the plants do what they want to do,” he says. “You can kind of see here all these little guys poking up. This is the echinacea, the coneflower self-sowing.”

Coneflower is one of dozens of plant species growing in this tiny plot, each one native to North Carolina. The garden is dominated by bluestem, a long prairie grass with a blue tinge on its leaves. Nottke says he modeled its design after the meadows you might find hiking around the Piedmont. 

“And then not only is it drawing that inspiration and giving it a sense of place, but it's functional too, with the idea that the bluestem will self-sow and fill in and then there won't be any room for weeds,” he says. 

That’s one of the many benefits of replacing turf grass with native plants — no weeding. Another big one? Little to no watering. 

“We watered it to establish it. And that was two years ago,” he says. “This is its third season, and I haven't watered it since like three or four months after we planted it.”

It’s easy to see why natural landscapes have been growing in popularity. But up until recently, Winston-Salem’s city code didn’t allow for them. When the gardens started popping up around town in place of lawns, citations were issued.  

“Unfortunately, code enforcement just didn't realize what it was,” says Moriah Gendy, with Winston-Salem’s office of sustainability. “They're very much just trained to be able to identify this as grass, and if it’s over 8 inches they’re gonna cite you”

Gendy says citizen complaints prompted her department to explore creating a new ordinance to encourage these kinds of gardens. She says it was easy to see how the city could benefit.

“In the long term, you're going to be reducing your environmental impact, but also it's going to help people save money too, because all those things cost money to have to maintain a traditional yard,” she says. “All of the mowing that people do is a costly thing. All the fertilizing and watering people do is also a costly thing.”

The ordinance reduces landscape setbacks from 20 feet to 5 feet, and allows for native vegetation greater than 8 inches in height.

“It's not giving people permission not to mow their yards, it's just giving people permission to be more intentional in how they want to plant their yards,” Gendy says. 

The ordinance requires residents to create a site plan for their native garden, listing the kinds of plants they plan to include, where they’d be placed, and a maintenance schedule.

Rebecca Craps with the Forsyth County branch of North Carolina Cooperative Extension worked with the city on the measure. She says it doesn’t have to be complicated.

“Showing intention is really the goal of the site plan,” says Craps. “Not so much that it looks like a landscape architect sketched out a blueprint for your yard.”

She says the first step of creating a plan is assessing the space — identifying whether it's full shade or sun, the quality of soil, etc. From there, she advises residents to use the extension’s online plant toolbox resource, which allows users to enter in their site-specific information. 

“So if you're looking at, you know, an area that's damp and has full shade, you can set those parameters on the filter," Craps says. "And it gives you a list of plants, and it has descriptions about all of them. So you can you know, kind of look to see is this plant going to be 8 feet tall? That's a problem in this space, let me find something shorter.”

The tool also provides information about each plant’s spacing needs and growing season. 

Max Nottke, with Bashavia Gardens, says the easiest plants to start with may be what are called generalists — species that are adaptable to many environments.

“Coneflower comes to mind, black-eyed Susan comes to mind,” he says. “Penstemon is one that we use a lot that can be in full sun, can take some shade.”

Nottke acknowledges there is significant upfront investment involved when it comes to converting turf grass yards into natural landscapes, but says it’s still less work than lawn upkeep.

And he says native gardens are low maintenance for a reason — these plants are designed to thrive in this environment. 

“We, as gardeners, we like to think that plants really rely on us to be productive, but they've been growing on Earth for millions of years before humans,” he says. “So I think we just need to kind of learn those processes that are naturally occurring and then apply them.”

Winston-Salem residents can fill out a natural landscape area registration form on the city’s website

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