Have you noticed that lawns are becoming increasingly controversial subjects? For generations, they have been the prize of middle class success. They are an outward expression of saying "hey - I made it - I bought a house in the suburbs". The vast areas of turf that surround these houses are like shiny green moats that protect private islands.
But in recent years, new potential homeowners struggle to afford the house with the huge lawn, and they also don't really seem to want them as much. Not only are we are beginning to collectively recognize how environmentally taxing lawns can be but simultaneously, we also don't want to waste precious space with such useless planting.
There are many better alternatives to the American lawn and I am going to continue to explore them all in future posts. This will include my own lawn replacement project - coming soon. But I thought I might get started with thinking about how you can transform a lawn to a meadow in 5 easy steps.
I see meadows as attractive and interesting gardens. They often thrive in the worst kinds of soil and are highly characteristic of their location. Meadow's also provide much needed habitat if we are to reverse the decline of a huge variety of species.
Meadow gardens do have a beautiful “au naturel” look but they are not easier to maintain than a lawn - just different.
A lawn requires regular mowing and it often needs other things like pest treatments and fertilizers to keep it healthy. Not to mention lots and lots of water. Maintaining such a prized monoculture can add up in time and effort. And, depending on your choice of maintenance, it can be substantially unsustainable.
Meadows, on the other hand, occur naturally, but take patience and considerable care to maintain. It isn’t as easy as just scattering a handful of seeds and hoping Mother Nature takes care of the rest. I tried that many years ago - it was great a first but then some species took over. Without regular maintenance to keep the balance, it has followed an expected path. It has deteriorated from its once colorful beauty.
A Simplified Approach to Lawn Conversion
Installing a meadow is quite similar to installing a lawn and the workload is largely the same. Meadows require a substantial amount of work—almost as much as a lawn—particularly in the first years while they establish. The work is different, and it does taper off after the second and third years. Still, establishing a meadow shouldn’t be considered solution to shirking lawn duty.
A meadow will require weeding in a way that a lawn typically doesn’t. As seeds germinate, look out for weeds (there will be some) and pull them as early as you can identify them. It will take several years of regular weeding to ensure that the weeds will not take hold of the meadow and start to choke out desirable plants. (This is what happened with my first meadow attempt and it has taken many years of hard work to reclaim it.)
A meadow is not mow-free. In fact, it is very important to mow your meadow at least once a year in the fall. A small area can be done with a string trimmer, but larger meadows might require a tractor to mow (a flail type mower works best as it chops the plants so that they can dry quickly) through the tall, thick mat. Wait until all the flowers have ripened and dropped their seeds—in this way annual flowers will come back the following year.
Meadows that contain all perennial plants should be mowed more regularly in the first two years (not letting them grow taller than 8 inches at a time). This will encourage root growth that will sustain the plants long term and will also help plants that aren’t as fast growing to receive enough sunlight.
Reseeding is likely to be needed in weak spots, which is just like patching a lawn.
If you are thinking to replace your lawn I suggest taking a multi year approach that gradually reduces your lawn size while you learn how to create and maintain a meadow that works in your region.
From Lawn to Meadow in 5 Easy Steps
- REMOVE THE GRASS. This can be done chemically, but you will need to remove the dead organic material. Also, know that chemical alternatives can have substantial negative side effects. I personally avoid them and alternatively, use a sod cutter to remove an existing lawn in sheets. This is also preferable since the underlying soil is relatively weed free. Sod cutting will mean that the soil level is about 3 inches lower than the surrounding area. (So you may want to account for that). There is a mix of industry advice on rototilling under the lawn and I can't say I am firmly in either camp. A tiller will help remove roots and it will soften up the soil for planting. But it will also stir up and expose lots of weed seeds that you will need to remove later. If you can use a hard rake to scarify the soil it might be preferable, but if you end up using a rototiller just try not to dig too deep. The deeper you go, the more weeds later.
- DO NOT AMEND THE SOIL. While this might seem like an easy step, you will need to take the opportunity to understand what kind of soil you have. Is it sandy, clay, loam? How wet is the site and how much sun does it get? These are all important questions as wildflowers and native grasses prefer different types of soils. Making a love match between the two will help ensure success. The right wildflowers, planted in the right place do not need fertilizer to thrive. There are wildflower mixes to match the native flowers of countless regions across the country. These are also adapted for a variety of sites. Talk to a specialist, preferably at a wildflower nursery that is intimately familiar with your region, to get a good match for your land. If you have a north- facing slope, you may want to consider another lawn replacement option. This is a very hard type of site to establish a meadow. Without sun these areas tend to stay cool and moist and, generally, are not hospitable to a wildflower meadow.
- SOW THE SEED. Wildflower seeds can be broadcast by hand. Rake over the site to spread the seed evenly and then walk over the entire area to press the seed into the ground (or you can use a lawn roller if you have one). Seed to soil contact is important and it can make or break the success of your planting.
- MULCHING can help to maintain moisture levels that will help with germination but it isn’t required. If you do mulch, use clean weed and seed free straw in a thin layer that will not smother baby plants. Do not use field hay - it is full of weed seeds.
- SEEDS, especially those planted in the spring, will need daily watering until they are established. Generally the plants will need daily watering for about 8 weeks. After that, weekly watering should suffice. You can plant a meadow late in the fall and snowcover will help to provide the protection and water that it needs thrive in the spring.