Meadow lawns are the talk of the neighborhood – and the future of lawns for health and wellness
June 26, 2023 - by Jessica Metropolyt
There is a growing community of landscape stewards and homeowners frustrated with the effects of lawn care on their environment, safety and budget.
Lawns are a pain, and not just for the homeowner with the painstaking task of weeding, watering, mowing and fertilizing on a weekly basis. As the biggest irrigated crop used for residential and commercial sites (2015), lawns offer an awkward and inhospitable home for your neighborhood's most powerful maintenance staff; wildlife flora and fauna.
For our fellow ecosystem service workers, turfgrass lawns are an eerie wasteland of strange plant material leached with chemicals. The message is often repeated in environmentally informed spaces; when our birds, pollinators and wildlife thrive, we thrive. Often left unarticulated is that the reverse is also true – when humans truly thrive by keeping their environment a safe and regenerative place, other species will have the strength to help with that most important mission.
The questions we are presented with are:
Are turfgrass lawns really worthy of the label “ecological catastrophe?” (2021)
What is a meadow lawn, and can it really replace my lawn?
The short answer is – yes!
Introducing the meadow lawn – the turfgrass' number one competition
Experts in landscape ecology propose a new vision of the clipped, green lawn; the meadow lawn. One of the most powerful tools at your disposal as a landscape steward today is the ability to sow a quilt of meadow grasses and wildflowers. A piece of regenerative landscape extends far beyond property lines – it synthesizes a wider patchwork of vitally important wildlife corridors and habitat.
Ecosystem services – the leaders of the worlds largest ongoing maintenance project
To explain the scope of the meadow lawn’s victory over grass lawns, I will introduce the ever crucial concept of ecosystem services. Ecosystem services are natural processes that provide major benefits for other living things. In our case, the process of pollination by fauna is considered an ecosystem service because it is vital to the process of growing food – our energy source.
One vital ecosystem service that one can observe daily is stormwater management which is naturally mitigated by the organic material around us. Rainfall soaks into the earth and is retained by organic material such as plant roots. Runoff is the excess water that travels back into water bodies such as streams and lakes. The more water is retained, the less runoff is pushed out and the less irrigation (excess watering of the lawn) is required. Nature does the work, but as ecologists have observed over recent years, their workplace conditions are less than stellar around paved and mowed human development.
Grass Lawns are literally Flooding the Neighborhood
In a paved residential area, flooding poses a huge risk during periods of rainfall for overwhelming stormwater infrastructure. Meadow lawns majorly decrease risk of flooding by replacing shallow-rooted turfgrasses with densely-rooted plants that permit an exorbitant increase in water retention. Native vegetation buffers can save staggering flood damage costs, including the money that goes towards fixing public infrastructure like stormwater drainage systems – a win for everybody.
Chemical and Gas Spillage - Taking a Toll
Layering on top of the high risk flooding issue, runoff will be leached with whatever chemicals your grass lawn comes into contact with. These chemicals contaminate the water table that we all depend on each day for life. We eat, drink and breathe traces of these synthetic chemicals (2012). Lawnmowers are responsible for extravagant emissions and gas spills, contributing to the inherent environmental costs of the grass lawn. Turfgrass lawns cannot sequester more CO2 than they emit – they are not regenerative.
Meadow Lawns are just Prettier (and a lot less work)
From a landscape design perspective, meadow lawns have much more to offer than the standard grass lawn. First and foremost, they offer a wide range of color, texture and form to conjure the lively and picturesque. Native wildflowers such as showy goldenrod pulse with several months of rich color without the need for constant deadheading. Meadow grass also provides stunning winter interest, offering their husks as a glistening spectacle of ice and snow. All of that year-round beauty could be right outside your front door.
And the best part — no mowing!
Picking and preparing a Patch
To get started with incorporating the meadow lawn into your landscape, the first step is to pick a good patch to transform. Fear not, you can still keep a patch of turfgrass lawn to use for lounging, playing and other outdoor activities. The chosen spot for the meadow must get at least 5-6 hours of sun every day in order to support the meadow planting.
Next, determine the type of soil you will be working with. This will be essential for the following step – making a meadow grass and wildflower selection for planting. The following selection is recommended by experienced landscape architect and ecologist, Owen Wormser (2021), who has hundreds of ecologically sensitive design projects under his belt.
Picking your Grasses
The meadow grasses will be the main structure of the meadow. Grasses can be sown from seed or picked up from your local nursery as plugs.
Native Meadow Grass selection list:
Blue grama grass
Tufted hair grass
Picking your Wildflowers
The wildflowers will be used to add visual interest and to support ecosystem services like pollination. Native varieties are chosen to specifically help local species who require these plants to survive as a part of their habitat.
Wildflower selection list:
Black Eyed Susan
Great blue Lobelia/ Red Cardinal Flower Lobelia
Throw a little meadow in your life!
The meadow lawn will burn less gas, less strenuous labor and less holes in your wallet. These changes in landscape preference are a pivotal step towards creating a healthy and safe environment for ourselves and the abundant life around us.
The Article isn’t over yet!
This piece is the first of a series on landscape stewardship, ecology and design that promotes health and wellness for all. The goal is to offer inspiring, educational and up-to-date slices of how landscape stewardship is sowing the way to bright-green futures.
Lawns Into Meadows, Owen Wormser, 2021
A strategy for mapping and modeling the ecological effects of US lawns, The International Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing Volume XXXVI (2015)
Fertilizer use responsible for increase in nitrous oxide in atmosphere, Kristie Boerig, UC Berkeley, Nature Geoscience, April 1, 2012
Jessica is studying Landscape Architecture at University of Guelph. She works for Rekker's during the spring and summer in our nursery department.