Wildlife & Nature

Transforming Lawn into Meadow Benefits Everyone: ‘Your Garden Comes to Life’

Mini meadows that replace lawns benefit pollinators and act as carbon sinks. (American Meadows)

Garden designer Owen Wormser describes lawns as “something of a national obsession.” In his 2020 book, “Lawns into Meadows,” he writes about the proliferation of lawns in America and the resources spent on maintaining them.

“This massive footprint makes lawns the biggest irrigated crop in the continental United States, and it sucks up an outsized amount of fossil fuels, fertilizer, chemicals and water,” he writes.

As an alternative to a monoculture of turf grass, Wormser proposes a meadow, which not only benefits pollinators, but also acts as a carbon sink.

A meadow is “what can happen when you give the earth a chance to heal itself,” he writes. “With every year in the ground, meadow plants support more life and build healthier soil. This makes them quite efficient at parking carbon — just the opposite of a resource-guzzling lawn.”

With Wormser and others, such as entomologist Douglas Tallamy, writing about the connections between home landscapes and surrounding ecosystems and the importance of wildlife and pollinator corridors, more homeowners are converting areas of their lawns to meadows.

Some meadows contain a mix of natives and both annual and perennial cultivars, while others have only native plants.

Sally Johnson, vice president of the Rhode Island Wild Plant Society, said gardeners are increasingly choosing plants that go beyond beautification and provide food and shelter for pollinators and other wildlife.

“People are going from the purely ornamental, showy plants and understanding more the role of supporting pollinators and host plants,” she said. “The understanding of it’s not just the pretty bees and butterflies but it’s also the wasps and who’s going to live there over the winter and leaving your perennials up over the winter so insects can overwinter in them.”

Founded in 1981, American Meadows, in Williston, Vt., is one of the earliest wildflower seed specialists, selling regionally appropriate wildflower seeds and seed mixes and advising homeowners on how to grow meadows.

Mike Lizotte, a principal in the company, said the Vermont business has customers across the country, and while he wouldn’t provide figures on how sales have grown in recent years, he said business has seen a definite uptick. He said the company sells more than 50 different types of mixes and offers some 300 individual species.

National television host, educator and organic gardener Joe Lamp’l said he was also hearing more about home gardeners replacing lawns with meadows.

“I do think it’s a trend, and I hope it’s one that lasts, and it should, because, you know, we’re becoming more aware of the environmental benefits of attracting pollinators and beneficial insects and others, and the way that we do that is, we grow those flowers that co-evolved with those insects and selfishly, you’ve got some beautiful flowers there, and you’ve got the insect activity and it’s exciting,” he said. “Your garden comes to life, so why wouldn’t we want to do more of that and that, in concert with the drumbeat of ‘Let’s do less lawn, more flowers,’ and the need to protect and promote and create habitat for those insects that are declining and birds that are declining en masse.”

A sign, in the wildflower meadow at the reporter’s house, explains the intention of the planting. (Cynthia Drummond/ecoRI News)

First-time wildflower growers should make sure they are not planting chemically treated seeds. Neonicotinoids, agricultural insecticides derived from nicotine, are systemic, which means they are absorbed by plants and are present in nectar and pollen.

Commonly used by large commercial growers, “neonics,” as they are often called, have been shown to be toxic to pollinators, particularly bees. Gardeners are often unaware that plants grown with neonicotinoids will poison the pollinators they are trying to attract. A bill introduced last month in the House of Representatives seeks to limit the use of neonicotinoids in Rhode Island.

Lizotte said gardeners should look for seeds that are guaranteed to be free of neonicotinoids.

“As we started to do more research on that … what neonics were doing to various bee populations and pollinators in general, we took a stance to make sure that all the seed that was grown and sourced for us, there were no neonics present or used in that,” he said. “We make our growers sign paperwork to ensure that as well.”

In defiance of the edicts of their homeowners’ associations (HOA) that require neatly cut lawns, more gardeners are planting meadows in front of their homes, where manicured grass used to be. The traditional aesthetic, of swathes of green lawn bordered by tightly controlled plants and flowers, is changing.

“I continue to hear that,” Lizotte said. “Somebody had moved into a homeowners’ association property and three years ago, they had to meticulously keep it up to code and had to mow all the time and they couldn’t have weeds, and they’re starting to turn the page and say ‘Hey we can plant the little mini-meadow and we don’t have to keep it manicured. We can kind of let nature do its thing, because we want to create a pollinator pathway,’ and it’s been really exciting to see that and hear about it.”

On a personal note, I have firsthand experience with wildflower meadows. Three years ago, I planted a “mini meadow” at the front of our house, and while I did not have any HOA regulations to defy, I did have to figure out how to do it, apart from what I had researched and read in books. Not only is it pretty, it is alive with birds and pollinators, and the occasional rabbit family, and it is always changing, so I never know what’s going to be blooming or feeding there from week to week.

The ever-changing nature of meadows, Lizotte said, makes a garden come to life.

“I tell people, ‘Take that perfectly manicured lawn and go sit in the middle of that for five minutes and let me know what your senses detect,’” he said. “There’s absolutely nothing. You smell cut grass, and that’s it. And when you do the same exercise in a meadow, and you can be surrounded by different types of pollinators and bees and butterflies — you name it, it’s pretty awesome.”

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  1. Apparently, my previously posted comment here was lost in the transition to the new website design. Here it is again:

    As a land-care professional who has been designing, installing, and maintaining meadows of native grasses and wildflowers for 20 years, it’s always gratifying to see articles like this which, one hopes, engages new audiences and creates interest and appreciation for these kinds of landscape features and the ecological function they provide.

    I have to note a couple of things, though. At one point, the article seems to conflate the distinctions between native and non-native, and cultivars and open-pollinated. (“Some meadows contain a mix of natives and both annual and perennial cultivars, while others have only native plants.”)

    A species can be designated as native to some designated geographic region if it has been found to exist in that region for some specified, relatively long period of time. For North America, the line of demarcation is typically European settlement, which marked the first period of significant importation of plants that were not indigenous to the continent.

    A seed-producing plant growing in the wild reproduces by open-pollination, with flowers being fertilized by pollen typically carried by the wind or insects. This method of reproduction provides the greatest opportunity for genetic diversity.

    Plants have long been bred by humans by choosing particular plants that have characteristics which are desirable for some intended use, then, through a variety of techniques, breeding or producing more plants to have those characteristics. These techniques can be applied to any plants, regardless of where they originated. Thus, it is possible to have cultivars of natives, and, in fact, there are many cultivars of native species available in the trade.

    I would also suggest that the article underplays the importance of native plants in these kinds of landscapes. Although the article references Doug Tallamy, it fails to mention that a large part of his work has been devoted to researching and demonstrating how much more important native species tend to be in supporting local ecologies than are non-native species.

    My disappointment in this regard extends to the photo that accompanies the article, which appears to show a number of non-native species, and to the referencing of American Meadows as a possible—and in the article, the only—source for seed.

    Their mixes contain a large proportion of non-native seeds, and, for their “Northeast Wildflower Seed Mix,” more than half the species are not native to North America, let alone the Northeast. They also contain no grasses which are an essential meadow component that help provide long-term function and expanded habitat structure.

    This is not to say that non-native plants should never be included on a particular project if there is some demonstrated role they could play, but if one is concerned with maximizing ecological function, seed mixes should be primarily native.

    Nick Novick
    Small Planet Landscaping
    Ashland, Mass.

  2. Brilliant Nick, I noticed the same thing when I saw the picture. A lot of people who want to make a positive impact with their property will buy something like a Northeast Wildflower mix trusting the experts with ‘meadow’ in their company name. Not only do most of these flowers not have many ecological benefits, some can also escape the meadow and become a real problem.

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