Turn Your Lawn into a Meadow

Submitted by jwalton on

Since 1998, Owen Wormser has been designing and building landscapes with a focus on sustainability, regeneration, and beauty. His work is rooted in perspective and expertise drawn from landscape architecture, horticulture, permaculture, organic agriculture, and ecology. He is the author of Lawns into Meadows: Growing a regenerative landscape.


Case Study: A Meadow for the Museum

I first visited the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts, with an assignment: to design a meadow right outside its doors. Author and illustrator Eric Carle was hoping to create an ecologically friendly, living memorial to Bobbie Carle, his wife and the museum’s cofounder, who had recently passed away. A landscape architect had designed the cement walkway that looped through the one-acre site, which was essentially a dry lawn dotted with aging apple trees. But aside from the path and the trees, the space looked empty. No children, and no insects, birds, or squirrels either.

As I stood in the shade of one of the more stately trees, I thought about how to turn this unappealing site into a draw for museum visitors, one that could live up to Eric Carle’s dream. I studied the one hundred-year-old orchard that already occupied that space. I observed the ground as I walked . An occasional grasshopper or cricket scrambled out of my away, but in general there was a notable lack of insect life—other than the ants. Thousands of them, their little finely grained homes rising out of the many bare spots surrounding me. If so many ants could dig into the soil, it probably wasn’t as dense as it appeared. 

At The Carle, the tired, hard-packed soil was just one of the challenges I’d have to work through. Another was to preserve as many apple trees as possible, per the museum’s request. Turning the sod would very likely damage the shallow tree roots. This meant we had to figure out how to install a meadow into the existing lawn rather than clear the site, which is the preferred way to prepare a meadow. Removing existing grass and weeds eliminates any competition for sun and space, allowing meadow seeds to establish most effectively. But it’s also possible to seed or plant into existing grass, which is what we ended up doing to create The Carle meadow. I cut the grass close to the ground and spread the seed mix I’d blended for the site’s specific environmental conditions. It took a year to see the results, but the meadow that finally grew is beautiful, and very low-maintenance.


Meadows are Better than Lawns 

Unlike a lawn, meadows require very little upkeep: no irrigation, fertilizers, regular mowing, or maintenance. They certainly don’t require herbicides and pesticides. Lawns on the other hand are a serious burden on the environment. The ‘perfect’ lawn requires significant energy and resources in the form of irrigation, mowing, pesticides, chemicals, and time. 

Mowing, and fertilization in particular, leads to large-scale pollution in the form of fossil fuel use and chemical runoff into our local and national water systems. The excess use of pesticides and herbicides on farms is infamous for producing huge algae blooms that choke off life in oceans. But homeowners use ten times more chemicals per acre than farmers. Treated lawns also emit four times more greenhouse gases than they absorb, while meadows are a carbon sink. 

As a regularly mowed monocrop, lawns also effectively become biological deserts that are mostly devoid of other life. Meadows, on the other hand, support diverse microbial and macro-invertebrate communities, ranging from pollinators like butterflies and bees to vibrant soil life and even birds and small mammals like mice.

While lawns can be useful in certain circumstances, most of the 63,000 square miles of lawn in the United States--an area about the size of Washington State, or the country’s largest irrigated “crop”--are barely, if ever, used.


Turn Your Yard into a Meadow

On any new meadow project, it’s tempting to jump ahead in the design process and start thinking about the flowers and grasses you want to plant. For me, the Carle meadow was no exception. Almost as soon as I arrived, I started picturing the colors, textures, and height of the perennial grasses and flowers I’d like to see in that field. But without first assessing and fully understanding the conditions of your site, you will, for sure, end up picking the wrong plants. 

To turn a lawn into a meadow and cultivate a habitat for birds, butterflies, bees, and other pollinators, there are two important considerations: match your seeds to the existing conditions of the site, and make sure your meadow gets a half day of full sunlight. 

Before choosing your seeds and designing your meadow, consider these conditions: soil quality and type, moisture levels, and hardiness zone, which tells you how cold it gets in the winter. Knowing your site’s environmental conditions allows you to select species that will thrive there. I highly recommend using native meadow seeds like purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) or butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) because they’re best adapted to local conditions and ecology. You can identify what’s native by researching online at sites like gobotany.com or you can buy seeds from companies that focus solely on native seeds like Prairie Moon Nursery.

If your site is large, go with seeds. If small, opt for seedlings and get a head start on the growing process. I always go for a randomized look, which is easy from seed. I also use 30-60% grasses as well as species that grow to a similar height. 

Don’t worry about soil quality. Meadow plants grow just fine in poor soil and will actually improve the soil over time, which is a reason they’re regularly used to reclaim and restore ruined soil in abandoned mining zones.  

If you’ve cleared your site and are planning to seed your meadow, include a nurse crop of fast-growing annuals, like rye grass, to keep the weeds at bay while your perennial meadow plants become established. 

Spread your meadow seeds evenly onto your prepared site (a cleared one is preferable, but not mandatory like the Carle meadow demonstrates) at the same time as seed your nurse crop. There’s no need to rake them in or water them—though moistening them lightly can help keep them from flying away if you live in a windy area. From now on, your job is to mostly just wait for your meadow to emerge.

As your meadow establishes, it will naturally start to sequester carbon in your soil with its deep perennial roots. Studies have shown that even small meadows can be enormously effective at capturing carbon; most of the carbon dioxide drawn down by meadow plants ends up being stored in the soil.  

It can take more than a year for a seeded meadow to fill in, and two to four years to mature and become well established. After that, it requires almost no maintenance, just one annual mowing that helps to keep woody plants down. The photo at the top of this blog shows The Carle Museum meadow in late spring, two years after planting. 

Once your lawn is long gone and your meadow is swaying beautifully in the breeze, you will have successfully turned your yard from an ecological burden to a major asset. Meadows are one of nature’s ways to heal the earth.


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