Turning a one-note lawn into a panoramic symphony
Does your lawn sway in the breeze? Is it teeming with pollinators and quivering with color? No? Consider joining the meadow movement.
Tina Duncan was driving up to her home in Connecticut recently and did a little experiment. On one side of the driveway lies her meadow filled with an array of various grasses and wildflowers, so she rolled down the window. “It was humming, buzzing, and clicking with all sorts of sounds.” On her neighbor’s side is a swath of manicured lawn. “Totally silent,” she says. And that realization confirmed one of the perks inherent in hosting a meadow. It’s not only about you.
A meadow is a boon for all creatures, great and small. Got an entry drive that is seriously ho-hum? Or maybe you have a slope that’s hell to mow. And how about harnessing some land with soil too lean to support lawn? A meadow might pose the perfect solution. Instead of patchy grass or stubbly weeds, you could host a botanical broadloom of wildflowers bouncing with birds, bees, and butterflies.
The Duncan meadow is a good example of a challenging site given a new career that employs critters up and down the food chain. To achieve it, Tina and Woodson Duncan collaborated with Larry Weaner of Larry Weaner Landscape Associates. A specialist in native landscapes, Weaner has decades of experience in creating meadows. Based in Pennsylvania, he comes up to Connecticut frequently to install meadows for clients who want an ecologically friendly approach to stewarding their land.
The Duncans’ hilltop home is accessed by a long driveway adjacent to a section of dry, hot, sloped land that is unsuitable for shrubbery or a tidy lawn. And it’s a large chunk of property—nearly four acres. The couple wanted their meadow to be organic, which meant transforming the grass sod already in place. Weaner’s team sprayed the sod with an organic vinegar-based herbicide to weaken the lawn grass. Simultaneously, they changed the soil’s pH to discourage sod while giving wildflowers the conditions they love. Then they created custom seed mixes that would thrive in the soil, light, and moisture available onsite.
Meadows-in-a-can they are not. It was a slow process, but the meadow triumphed. In fact, the naturally lean slope worked in its favor. Fertilizer that feeds hungry sod was withheld, the lawn grass was starved, and wildflower seedlings adapted to living in a less fertile environment were given a chance to get a leg up. Uniquely suitable to survival where lawn grass roots shrivel, ornamental grasses such as little bluestem and big bluestem as well as wildflowers like blue-eyed grass, lupines, mountain mint, butterfly weed, and beebalm were able to get a foothold.
Meanwhile, the Duncans enjoyed dividends far beyond their expectations. “I hadn’t thought about the insects,” Tina admits. But after hearing Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home (Timber Press, 2009), speak at a local symposium, she realized the full potential of the habitat she had created. She went home and looked more closely. Sure enough, “I had giant walking sticks and rhinoceros beetles. There are hundreds and hundreds of dragonflies. At night, the fireflies dance around. There’s so much more life in a meadow,” she says.
And bugs are just the beginning. Where insects flourish, birds follow. Bobolinks, meadowlarks, and other grassland nesting birds attract innumerable feathered visitors. Skunks, opossums, foxes, bobcats, turtles, and other critters also take full advantage. A kestrel has been observed soaring overhead. “And kestrel populations are crashing,” says Tina.
Initially, the Duncans thought their new habitat would be on autopilot after the initial installation. Wrong. “Staying on top of things is key. You have to take care of a meadow,” Tina says. Rogueing out invasive plants is an ongoing chore. In addition, the meadow must be mowed annually in late winter to keep it from turning into scrubland. All told, a meadow might require just as much maintenance as a lawn timewise, but fossil fuel usage is diminished for its upkeep. “And meadows sequester carbon,” Tina adds.
The meadow is a never-ending evolution, giving way to a different picture season after season. Tending one in tandem with nature is a fascinating stewardship project. “I had no idea how beautiful this could be,” says Tina, who has become an advocate for the movement. The Duncans are not the only ones hoping neighbors give meadows a chance. A whole horde of dragonflies feels the same way.