Center for Urban Restoration Ecology, School of Environmental & Biological Sciences
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
Unrelenting development and loss of natural lands continue to deal severe blows to the world’s biodiversity. Much attention is given to the destruction of rain forests in the tropics, but we must also be concerned about what is happening literally in our own backyards.
Suburban sprawl stresses resident and migratory wildlife by reducing food and water resources, suitable shelter, and available nest-sites. Remnant parks and “preserved areas” that do exist are often enmeshed in a web of invasive plant species or plagued with inappropriate destructive and disruptive recreational activities, which severely limits their ability to support rich and diverse wildlife communities. Loss of functional ecosystems also reduces the beneficial ecological services that we depend on, such as clean air and water.
These current trends force us to face the notion that suburbia is our new landscape, and we must explore the possibility that this landscape can become a rich and diverse habitat in itself. Take a look at your yard. What wildlife do you see? Perhaps an American robin poking for worms in the lawn? Or a bumble bee flying around a flowering shrub along the foundation of your house?
Most suburban landscapes are highly simplified plant communities consisting of a large expanse of turf lawn bordered by ornamental (and often non-native) trees and shrubs, which can only support a few highly adaptable animal species. The landscape is neat and manicured…but devoid of value for wildlife. Let us now define what is desired and aesthetic as what is sustainable and ecologically functional.
Do You Really Need a Lawn?
Lawns are useful as a site for some social activities, but they also have many drawbacks to our environment, our budgets, and our free time. Lawns are high maintenance, water-guzzling, finicky, and expensive to keep neat and green. The average lawn requires mowing 30-40 times per year. Since turf lawns are comprised of non-native cool season grasses that are cut approximately 4 in. from the ground, they are very sensitive to summer heat and require watering on an almost daily basis. Lawns are also highly susceptible to foot traffic, dog urine, and fungus, so they are consistently plagued with brown patches or bare spots. To keep lawns thick, green, and weed free, they are often treated with expensive insecticides, fertilizers, and herbicides. These compounds commonly contain salts and heavy metals, which are toxic to us, our pets, our atmosphere, and our waterways. We struggle year after year to maintain this landscape; however, there are sustainable and eco-friendly alternatives. Perhaps the solution is to reduce the size of our turf lawns and transform the majority of our yard into a natural landscape.
An Alternative to Turf Lawns: The Perennial Meadow
Perennial meadows are a useful and beautiful alternative to the traditional lawn. A landscape of perennial grasses and wildflowers provides a myriad of ecological benefits with very little maintenance. After the plants are established, watering is virtually unnecessary (except during excessively dry spells), and mowing requirements are reduced to once per year. Meadows provide year-long food resources and shelter for small mammals, and birds. Wildflowers also attract hummingbirds, butterflies, and other beneficial insects, who feast on flower nectar. The root system within a meadow slows down stormwater, allowing it to seep into the ground rather than gush into storm drains as a pulse of pollutant-rich runoff. And since they require no fertilizers or insecticides, meadows cut down on the amount of excess nutrients (like nitrogen and phosphorous) entering and polluting our ecosystem.
In addition to these ecological services, perennial meadows can also be more visually rewarding for a homeowner. In stark contrast to a static lawn, meadows constantly change throughout the seasons, offering something new to discover each day. Blades of tall warm-season grasses catch the sunlight as they rhythmically dance in the breeze, while colorful wildflowers produce eye-pleasing colors and textures. This landscape amenity can reduce stress and serve as a conversation piece during a social gathering. And rather than a desolate lawn, this oasis becomes a bustling community of wildlife which can be enjoyed by any curious observer, young and old alike.
How To Create a Perennial Meadow
Converting all or a portion of your lawn to perennial meadow requires a bit of careful planning and work during the initial stages. Once the meadow is established, however, maintenance requirements are minimal. Below are the steps to follow in creating your own perennial meadow.
Step 1: Site Selection & Analysis
First determine how much, if any, of your land you wish to keep as low, mowed grass. This patch may be maintained for ball games, social events, or gatherings. However, land not needed for these special activities can be targeted for ecological habitat value.
Since meadows generally consist of grasses and wildflowers, they require quite a bit of sun. Select an area of your yard that gets at least 6 hours of full sunlight a day, preferably more. Identify the permanent features in this area, such as structures or hardscapes (stones, pavers, etc.), and determine how you will incorporate them into your meadow. Large rocks or fenceposts may offer a calm backdrop or serve as a focal point within your meadow while also offering sunny perches for butterflies. Be creative.
Next determine the site conditions, including the slope of the ground, moisture levels, and soil composition. Having an idea of how water drains in this area and whether your soils are sandy or clayey will help you to select the appropriate plants to place in your meadow. You can usually have the soil tested and classified by your local university’s cooperative extension for a modest fee. They will tell you what is needed for healthy meadow growth. Finally, identify and remove any noxious weeds or invasive plants growing in and around your proposed location. These plants will challenge your ability to grow a sustainable meadow. Much information on invasive plant identification and control is available (see Critical Plant Invasives and Their Removal on the Duke Farms website for additional information). If your meadow will be adjacent to your neighbor’s yard, consider placing a stone or fabric barrier along the perimeter. The last thing you want is crabgrass and fescue encroaching upon your meadow!
Step 2: Determine Who Will Plant the Meadow
There are several choices you can make when installing your meadow, including its size and shape, whether you will use a seed mix or rooted plants, and how you will prepare the ground. Constructing a perennial meadow can be a fun activity for the entire family, but you may consider hiring a professional, especially if you are planning on converting a large area. Removing turf lawn is a labor-intensive (but manageable) task, and planting several pots can be time consuming. If you do use a professional, hire a contractor that has some experience in creating natural landscapes. Otherwise, you may end up with a high maintenance garden rather than a sustainable meadow.
Step 3: Site Preparation
Proper site preparation is the MOST IMPORTANT task when constructing a meadow! First, you must kill and remove the pre-existing turf lawn. There are several methods for killing turf; however, the quickest and most effective way is to use herbicides. For example, Roundup®, available at any home improvement or garden center, will kill the grass within 2 weeks. Roundup® contains glyphosate, a chemical that disrupts the plant’s ability to produce food, and is not environmentally unsafe if applied in the proper proportions and away from surface waters (streams, lakes, etc.). Burnout® is an effective organic alternative to Roundup®, killing grass and weeds with a combination of vinegar, lemon juice, and clove oil.
Once you kill and remove the turf, you MUST effectively control new weeds! Every year, weeds produce thousands of seeds, which fall to the ground and remain dormant until the following year. Only some of the seeds germinate, and the rest remain in the ground, waiting for the right opportunity. This “seed bank” can severely compromise your meadow, since the seeds can germinate once the turf lawn is no longer a barrier. After removing the turf, water the bare soil for 2 weeks, allowing weed seeds to germinate. Once they reach an average height of 6-8in., spray with herbicide. Repeat this grow-kill cycle at least 2 more times or until the seed bank is exhausted. To prevent mud or erosion during the grow-kill cycles, you may want to add a thin layer of bark mulch or straw to the bare ground.
Before you are ready to plant, consider re-grading the soil to add some more complex topography. By adding shallow depressions and mounds, you create areas that differ subtly in moisture, temperature, and sunlight, which can maximize the diversity of plants that will grow in your meadow. Of course, the more plant diversity you have, the more animal diversity you will attract.
Step 4: Select Your Plants
You will select your plants based on what animal species you want to attract and what conditions exist at your meadow site. For example, if you want to attract butterflies to your meadow, pick up a book on butterflies of the northeast. This guide will help you select the appropriate nectar plants and larval-host plants (food plants for caterpillars) to support local butterfly populations. There is also much information on how to create hummingbird, pollinator, bird, and general wildlife habitats. The possibilities are endless! Two important points to remember are: 1) select plants that will survive in the conditions on your site, and 2) make sure that flowers are in bloom throughout the entire growing season to provide a constant food source for insects, which then become a constant food source for birds. Table 2 provides a list of native perennials for meadow habitats, as an example.
Step 5: Planting
Planting should occur in the spring or fall, when there is no threat of a frost. Think about whether or not you would like to plant your meadow from seed of pots. Using a seed mixture will greatly reduce the cost, but be careful to select a mix that contains native seeds and a diversity of desired species. Many wildflower seed mixtures contain evening primrose (Oenothera biennis) , Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), and cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus). Evening primrose, while beneficial to wildlife, is a very common and robust wildflower that can quickly overtake a meadow. Queen Anne’s lace and cosmas, while aesthetically pleasing, are not native to the U.S. If you cannot find a seed mix that you are happy with, you can also create your own unique mix by purchasing seed packets of individual species. Be sure to include some annual species as well so that you will have some blooms during the first year. Perennial plants dedicate their first year mostly to root establishment and usually do not flower until the second year.
When determining how much seed to buy, a good rule of thumb is that 1oz. of seed will cover between 100 and 300 sq. ft. of ground, depending on how dense you would like the meadow to be. Table 1 lists some recommended sources for native wildflower seeds.
To plant seeds on bare ground, lightly rake the soil in your prepared area. Transfer the seed mixture into a bucket and mix in playground sand at a ratio of 10 parts sand to 1 part seed. The sand will help dilute the seed density for more even coverage, and its light color will allow you to see where you have already sown seed. Use a hand or drop spreader (these can be bought or rented) to evenly disperse the seed throughout the prepared area, perhaps switching directions half way through the encourage even coverage. With a lawn roller or by lightly walking over the area, lightly press the seeds into the soil. Do NOT rake! Wildflower seeds will not germinate if buried.
Potted plants are more expensive, but they have a greater chance of success than a single seed because they are already established. Finding rooted native plants can be difficult. There are wholesale nurseries that sell only native plants, but very few will sell retail. One way to find native plants is by attending native plant sales, which are hosted in many states by local conservation or non-profit groups. Table 3 lists some retail native plant nurseries and native plant sales in the region (let us know if you find others!). Decide on how many plants to purchase by estimating the full grown spread of your selected plants. When you are ready to plant, lay the pots out across the prepared area so you get a feel for how things will look as the plants grow. Be sure to provide the young plants with enough space to grow to maturity. Many grasses and wildflowers are clonal, meaning they will spread out vegetatively through the ground each year, covering more and more land. If you plant enough material, the open spots will eventually grow in. The meadow will look more colorful and interesting each year.
Step 6: Care of Plants in First Year
Meadows require very little maintenance relative to turf lawns, but you must care for them plantings during the first year to ensure that their root systems develop properly. If you have planted seeds, make sure to water the meadow with a sprinkler at least once a week (or more depending on conditions) until the young plants have reached approximately 6in. in height. After that, you only need to water during dry spells.
If you have planted pots, deep water them once or twice a week with a watering can or hose. Spread a 2-3 inches, layer of mulch throughout the planting bed to reduce erosion, increase water retention, and discourage weeds. Depending on the density of your plantings, mulching will most likely only be required in the first year.
Maintaining Your Meadow
Once your meadow is established, you will enjoy a picturesque, useful and sustainable landscape with very little work. To maintain the meadow during the growing season, occasional weed pulling and water during excessive dry spells may be necessary. Otherwise, modest maintenance is required outside of the growing season.
Since a meadow is an early successional habitat, its natural trajectory is to slowly become a woodland. The seeds of woody species that are brought in by wind and animals germinate under the protection of grasses and wildflowers, and they eventually overtake the landscape. Mowing your meadow once a year will ensure that young tree and shrub seedlings are suppressed.
The best time to mow the meadow is in very early spring, just before new growth emerges. Although some may prefer to mow the dead stems in late fall, leaving them in place over the winter provides many benefits for wildlife. The dried flower heads contain seeds for wintering birds, and the thick masses of dead stems provide much-needed shelter for small mammals, birds, and overwintering insects like butterflies. In addition, the brown seed heads contrast beautifully against white winter snow. Some people may harvest seed heads for use in winter decorations, blending the unusual shapes and textures.
There are several books on designing perennial meadow, including some that focus particularly on butterflies, hummingbirds, or other wildlife. A few recommended sources are listed in table 4. Enjoy the process of designing your meadow! Be creative, design with aesthetics, ecological services, and wildlife in mind. Start the process of plant community establishment, and let nature do the rest! Visits to Duke Farms, and listening and learning more about meadows will help you appreciate, understand, and care for your new and valuable landscape for years to come.