A suburban meadow can help free you from tiresome yard work
These days, many of us are searching for alternatives to conventional lawn and garden care, a chore that has become increasingly dependent on time and maintenance as well as pesticides and other poisons. The suburban meadow offers a beautiful solution to this problem.
Low-maintenance and chemical-free, meadows require far less yard work while optimizing land use, reducing soil erosion and saving water. The very act of planting a meadow can improve water quality in the community by curbing the need for harmful chemicals and fertilizers. And by making use of native wildflowers and grasses, meadows help preserve the landscape while complementing and enhancing a home’s natural terrain.
According to Catherine Zimmerman of The Meadow Project and author of the book Urban and Suburban Meadows, what she calls meadow-scaping can liberate us from our lawn’s virtual monoculture and restore healthy, sustainable ecosystems to our backyards. Said Zimmerman,
“If you think about things in life, diversity is usually the most healthy. Traditional lawns allow little opportunity for biodiversity, let alone plant or insect life.”
Aside from the regular applications of pesticides and fertilizers required to sustain them, lawns require constant maintenance while placing heavy demands on limited water supplies. “Water is going to become very precious in the future,” said Zimmerman.
Her point is well taken. A recent United Nations study showed that worldwide, agriculture and industry already consume more than four-fifths of this precious resource.
Traditional vs. Natural Lawns
Lawns planted with non-native species engage people in a perpetual struggle to maintain their landscapes through nonstop monitoring and irrigation. According to Zimmerman, most all lawn seed sold today originated in other parts of the world. Popular lawn seeds such as Kentucky Blue are actually cool season species that go dormant in the dry summer months. This makes them a poor choice for areas with hot, humid conditions.
On the flip side, many native grasses are drought tolerant and can be used to establish low-maintenance, affordable alternatives to the traditional lawn. Some nurseries are now selling little bluestem, Indian grass and sedge for just this purpose. Some species, like buffalo grass, have roots that can stretch as deep as seven feet into the ground. This makes them exceptionally good at finding their own water and other nutrients.
Even the ubiquitous white clover can offer a viable option to grass enthusiasts who are trying to wean themselves from chemical-dependent lawns. A member of the pea family, clover uses bacteria in its root system to convert nitrogen into fertilizer in the soil. Since it spreads rapidly, it can crowd out broadleaf weeds while growing harmoniously with grass. It’s also drought-tolerant and keeps its cool green color even in the hottest summer months.
To meet growing demand, many nurseries are now developing native grass seed mixes, adapted to specific regions that require little attention once rooted. These adaptations require infrequent watering and no fertilizer input. Best of all, mowing is minimal, and only really needed a few times a year, or once a month if a more manicured appearance is desired.
Meadows As Companions to Natural Lawns
Compared to the natural lawn, meadows deliver even more low-cost, low-maintenance advantages. When successfully modeled after plant communities already existing in the area, they can stabilize soil, control storm run-off and make watering a bygone chore. Ultimately self-sustaining, suburban meadows are a smaller and more intentioned space than traditional meadows. They are often paired with natural lawns.
A meadow designed for the urban/suburban landscape typically consists of more grasses than flowers. Zimmerman stresses that while flowers are beautiful, a meadow should actually consist of at least 60 percent grasses. Grasses are vital to the meadow community since they aid in stabilizing soil while supporting taller meadow flowers. They are also drought-resistant and provide food and shelter for local wildlife.
It usually takes two to three years for a meadow to adapt and align itself with conditions native to its environment. This enables complex relationships to form between the meadow’s plants, animals and other microorganisms. Over time, each meadow develops into its own unique ecosystem, attracting scores of insects and wildlife.
Zimmerman enjoys watching the yellow finches grazing on the seed heads in her own suburban meadow garden. Her yard now provides a habitat for disparate species where before there were none.