A suburban meadow can 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. Luckily, there’s a solution to the problem. Sustainable and chemical-free, it’s called the suburban meadow garden.
Meadows optimize land and save water
In comparison to lawns, meadows require far less yard work. Not only do they optimize land use, but they also reduce soil erosion and save water. In fact, the very act of planting a meadow can improve water quality in the surrounding community by reducing levels of 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 monoculture and restore healthy, sustainable ecosystems to our backyards. Says 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. For example, 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 naturally drought tolerant and can be used to establish low-maintenance, affordable lawns. In fact, many nurseries are now selling little bluestem, Indian grass and sedge for just this purpose. Some of these species, like buffalo grass, have roots that can stretch as far 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 those 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 and still grow harmoniously with grass. And its drought-resistant qualities help it maintain its cool green color even in the hottest summer months.
Nurseries are paying attention. To meet growing demand, many are now developing native grass seed mixes adapted to specific regions. Once rooted, these adaptations require little watering and no fertilizer input. Best of all, mowing is minimal. Indeed, you may need to mow your native lawn only a few times a year, or once a month if a more manicured appearance is desired.
Meadows As Companions to Natural Lawns
Still, compared to all kinds of lawns, 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 ones. And they provide a great complement to natural lawns.
For flower enthusiasts, it may come as a disappointment that meadows designed for the urban/suburban landscape typically consist of more grasses than flowers. Zimmerman stresses that while flowers are beautiful, a meadow should actually consist of at least 60 percent grasses. That’s because grasses perform a vital function in the meadow community. Not only do they aid in stabilizing the soil, but they also give support to taller flowers. And since they are naturally drought resistant, they provide food and shelter for local wildlife all year round.
Two to three years to establish
Plan on it taking two to three years for a meadow to align itself with conditions native to its environment. This enables complex relationships to form between the meadow’s plants, animals and other microorganisms. Some people speed up this process by planting full-grown grasses and flowers rather than seeds.
Regardless of the method, over time each meadow develops into its own unique ecosystem, attracting scores of insects and wildlife. As a result of her efforts, 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 was none.