How we love our lawns!
By Donna Delany, French & Pickering Creeks Conservation Trust
How we love our lawns! The first known use of the term dates back to 1540, when the idea of having a lawn became popular with the aristocracy in Western Europe. Lawns remained a symbol of wealth until the early 1900's. Only a family with excess reserves could afford to own land that they neither planned to build on nor use for agriculture. Prior to the invention of the lawnmower, maintaining a lawn was highly labor intensive, as the grass needed to be cut with scythes. Only the wealthy could afford to pay a work crew trained for lawn maintenance.
Two major events helped contribute to lawns becoming the norm throughout American society--over 80% of us have one. The first event was the invention of the lawn mower, allowing people to maintain their own lawns in much less time and with much less skill than using a scythe. The second event we owe to the Levitt brothers. Abraham Levitt and his brother built over 17,000 homes in their 4 Levittowns, each one surrounded by lawn. He wrote "No single feature of a suburban residential community contributes as much to the charm and beauty of the individual home and the locality as well-kept lawns". Abraham Levitt's opinion about lawns set the tone for suburbs everywhere.
A lawn may have its charms, but it is not an environmentally friendly place. Land that is kept in shortly trimmed grass cannot supply the needs of the local ecosystem. In a heavy rain, water runs over the grass in sheets instead of slowly being absorbed into the ground water supply. This large load burdens our streams with a quantity of water they are not competent to handle and leads to flooding.
Our songbirds and other wild animals depend on a rich variety of native plants not only for fruit and nuts, but also to support the insects on which they feed. Our native plants all sprout and bloom according to an intricate schedule, and the insects and animals that depend on them have synchronized their life style to these plants. Sadly, they can't switch to another plant. It just doesn't work that way. Lawns and even gardens filled with plants from other countries cannot support their long term survival.
Lawns use lots of water, 30-60% of residential water use, and often people use herbicides and pesticides to get that perfect look. Mowing our lawns in America uses 800 million gallons of gasoline annually.
So, what if we stopped letting our thinking be influenced by Abraham Levitt and the show-off aristocrats from the Middle Ages, and we redefined what we think an attractive and healthy home looks like? I am happy to report that many of our French and Pickering landowners are doing just that. A very easy and inexpensive way to pep up your yard is by turning some of it into meadow. This can be a large area or a tiny one. One family has just stopped mowing right under trees, leaving a neat circle of long grass and wildflowers around each shade tree. It is a lovely and unique look!
One secret to making this unmown area look like a planned meadow and not like an abandoned lot is by having great edges around it and paths through it. Remember, this space is going come alive with wildflowers and waving grasses and butterflies and hummingbirds, so paths through and around it will allow you to go out and visit them. Some meadows are perfectly square with straight paths, which is lovely and satisfying to the left brain, while the more adventurous can make a meadow any shape they want. One family has a large meadow in the shape of a fan that opens out as you travel away from the house. The paths follow where the lines where ribs of the fan would be. It entices you to go out, follow the paths and get a good look around.
In my work for French and Pickering, I visit all of the properties on which we hold conservation easements once a year, so I get to enjoy visiting all of the different meadows our landowners have started, hearing the how-to's of what worked well and what didn't. The best part is walking through the meadow with the proud parent, hearing stories of the different flowers that appeared and the antics of the birds and butterflies, hearing about the flock of Baltimore Orioles that dropped in or how the Purple Martins are doing in their new house. People who live with a meadow outside of their window get to observe nature and revel in the day-to-day comedies and dramas that take place there. That is a rich connection that is lost to so many of us, one that grounds us and soothes us and delights us.
There are many ways to start a meadow, and from my observation, they all work. If you want to spend a lot of time and effort, you can. If you want to spend no time and effort, that works well, too. Remember all the time and money you are going to be saving every week from reducing the amount of mowing and watering and spraying that needs to be done! The easiest way to start a meadow is to select a spot and stop mowing it. Pick a shape you would find pleasing and that would decorate your yard. I know several people who have done only this, with beautiful results. Wildflower seeds will find you, carried by the wind or by birds. You could also purchase a can of NATIVE wildflower seeds, seeds for flowers that are native to your area. This is easy to do online. You can then go outside and the seeds and water a bit if it doesn't rain until the young plants are established. That has worked for many people, too . Once the meadow plants start to mature, no more watering is required. Because of the thatch that webs together under lawns, it is likely only a small percentage of these seeds will grow. This year, I purchased wildflower plugs online. I got them for less than a dollar each. These are tiny plants with root systems about the size of a finger. They take practically no time to plant, as all you need do is make a small opening in the ground and stick them in--no need to dig a hole! They should be watered until they are established, but then they are carefree. My husband and I had great fun pouring over the color pictures of the flowers available and picturing them right outside our door.
If you are the kind of person who would like instant control over what lives in your meadow, the most labor intensive way to begin is to cover the area where the meadow will be with a heavy fabric or tarp or black plastic for several months, killing the grass underneath and all of the undesirable seeds that could sprout. Then, the ground can be prepared and wildflower and native grass seeds plant, mulched and watered. You could even go to a native plants nursery and buy mature plants to place in your meadow.
A meadow needs far less maintenance than a lawn, but it does require some care to look nice and to stay a meadow. Mowing or weed whacking once every year or two is usually enough to keep out most unwanted plants, like multiflora rose and autumn olive. Mowing in winter is usually recommended. You may need to monitor invasive plants like the ones mentioned above and pull them out if they start to be a problem on a more regular basis, although for most families the annual or bi-annual mowing seems to be enough. The amount of time and care you put into your meadow project is up to you. No matter what, it will take far less time than your lawn. Unless you count all the time you will spend outside admiring nature's handiwork!