Transforming Your Lawn into a Meadow

Here’s some Sourland Mountain magic: the first year we stopped mowing our lawn, four native orchids volunteered in our little meadow. Just two years later, our wildflower season begins with the diminutive spring beauty and ends with the purples, whites and yellows of the fall asters. The process was simple, and the results are magnificent.

Lawns have become so common as to seem innocuous to most of us. However, lawn has an interesting history as a decadent statement. Once upon a time, European nobility used vast lawns to flaunt the amount of unproductive land they could afford to keep. Throughout the last century, we’ve all aspired to make that same aristocratic statement, keeping both our sources of food, and the natural world, as distant as possible. But simple decadence has turned into a devastating addiction. Americans now maintain over 30 million acres of lawn; we use 70 million pounds of pesticides on them per year; and 30% of the water consumed on the East Coast goes to watering them. Lawns contribute to erosion and flooding events, and the mowers and blowers we use to maintain them are horrible polluters, emitting 10 to 34 times more hydrocarbon per hour than a typical car.

Converting part or all of your lawn to a meadow is an easy way to surround yourself with beauty and intricacy. It’s also a good way to save money, time, and the environment.

Here are three ways to create a meadow. I’ve organized them in order of increasing commitment. Each requires mowing just once a year, or even every other year, to prevent a shrub habitat from developing.

1. The Easy Meadow
Select an area of your lawn that does not get a lot of foot traffic, and stop mowing it. You can introduce seeds of native grasses and wildflowers, if you like. Over time, your young meadow will recruit from nearby sources and grow in diversity. If your meadow is dominated by one type of plant, or if alien plant species become a problem, consider one of the ways below.

2. The Caretaker’s Meadow
Set up your meadow, as above. Then, plan some daytrips to places with beautiful native meadows: Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, just below New Hope, PA, is surpassingly beautiful. Ask about wildflowers and grasses you like, and introduce them to your meadow, as seed, plugs, or from potted plants. You will be working as nature’s gardener, hastening diversity and increasing the beauty of your meadow.

As seasons change and new plants arrive, your meadow will be a great and patient teacher. Get a wildflower guide and learn your plants as the bloom. As you learn, weed out non-native species to create the richest habitat.

3. Building an Ecosystem from Scratch
Young meadows sprung from turfgrass are sometimes slow to loosen the grip of those non-native grasses. For those who wish to recreate the native prairies that once ranged into New Jersey, the reintroduction of many signature species may be necessary.

To start from a blank slate, three methods are commonly used: disking, herbicide, or controlled burns. A seed mix containing 80% native grasses and 20% forbs (wildflowers) should be sown over the cleared site, to create a stable and diverse ecosystem.


You can use your old mower to maintain paths through your meadow. If the annual mow is too much of a strain for it, consider hiring a local farmer or landscaper to cut your meadow after the first hard frost and before spring growth begins. One can also mow once every other year, leaving seed heads to disperse seeds, and leaving food for birds and other winter wildlife.

Whichever method you choose, you’ll find yourself surrounded by life, color, intrigue and complexity.Italic

Native Grassland with Big Bluestem and Indian Grass, Rawlyk Preserve, Kingwood, NJ


Here are some beautiful native plants for a Sourlands Meadow:

  • Joe-Pye: Tall plant with whorled leaves and purple flowers in autumn
  • Milkweed: Butterflies and wonderful fragrance
  • New England Aster: Fall blues
  • Indian Grass: Slender, tall and graceful
  • Goldenrods: Golden blooms. Not the source of hayfever, as commonly believed: that’s ragweed.
  • Little & Big Bluestem: Showy native prairie grasses
  • Wild Geranium: A mid-spring beauty
  • Golden Ragwort: An adorable flower of spring
  • Helen’s Flower/Sneezeweed: Beautiful bright yellow, see picture at top left.
  • Bee Balm & Bergamot: Fragrant plants cherished by hummingbirds and butterflies.

All of the above are easily grown from seed, will spread on their own, and are widely available. Beware of generic “meadow mix” seed mixes which frequently contain few if any native species, and many imported invasives like dame’s rocket.

Resources:
  • Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve (www.bhwp.org): Information, seeds, and beautiful meadows
  • Ernst Conservation Seeds (www.ernstseed.com): A source for locally native plant seeds and mixes. Beware their "naturalized" mixes which contain myriad exotic invasives.

Books:

  • Noah’s Garden: Restoring the Ecology of Our Own Backyards by Sarah Stein
  • The Once and Future Forest: A Guide to Forest Restoration Strategies by Leslie Jones Sauer
  • Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide by Lawrence Newcomb