Giving Up on Traditional Turfgrass? Plant a Meadow Garden.
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Having given up on fighting weeds, diseases, insects, and environmental stressors that plague traditional warm-season grasses, a growing contingency of homeowners are starting to look for low-input alternatives to traditional lawns. These alternatives have the ability to save time and money and also provide an aesthetically pleasing, quality landscape that is both beneficial for the environment and your wallet. Meadow gardening is one of those alternatives and promises to be a great solution for your turfgrass woes.
What is a meadow garden?
Imagine any meadow or open field that you may have seen in your wanderings and you have the basic concept of a meadow garden. Meadows, or prairies from an ecological concept, are those areas that are dominated by tall grasses, mixed grasses, or shorter grasses depending on the amount of rainfall an area receives each year. In a meadow ecosystem, grasses will dominate 80-90% of the landscape, but will be interspersed with native wildflowers.
From an environmental standpoint, meadow gardens are also extremely functional. Because they are dominated by grasses, a meadow will help stabilize soil and reduce erosion and will increase water infiltration and reduce stormwater runoff. Of course, they also provide homes for wildlife, including many beneficial insects.
Site Selection and Ordinances.
Meadow gardens require full sun, so when you are selecting a site, choose areas with limited tree shrub cover to maximize sun exposure and minimize root competition. Next, identify your soil type. Distinguishing between a dry, sandy soil from a heavy clay, or wet soil will greatly affect the types of plants that will thrive in your meadow garden. I normally would go into my spiel about having your soil tested, but believe it or not, a soil test is not necessary in this case. That’s right folks, your extension agent has finally given a case where a soil test is not required. But if that encourages you to plant a meadow garden, then my job here is done.
One other important thing to consider is whether or not your HOA, POA, or town has weed ordinances. These regulations are designed to prevent the spread of noxious weeds by keeping grass mowed to a certain height. If you have concerns about these ordinances, you must first call your county, city, or local governing body about the specifics concerning weed ordinances.
Getting your meadow started.
Though a meadow garden will eventually require minimal care, there is an initial investment of time and money that goes into your new lawn. Site preparation will first require removal of any weeds that are present. This task can be accomplished in several ways: 1) physical barriers like dark plastic, tarps, or plywood, 2) tilling the area for a period of weeks or months, then mulching, or 3) use of broad spectrum herbicides. Tactics and strategies will vary, but remember that the larger an area, the more difficult it can be to use physical barriers.
Once a site is ready, you must till the area thoroughly to help loosen compacted soil and break up any remaining weed mats left behind. Tilling will also increase soil-seed contact and enhance germination rates.
Once you have prepared the site, it is time to choose plants. There are many grasses that are durable, attractive, and low maintenance like the very short blue grama grass. This grass can also be mowed like a lawn once established. Other grasses that work for sunny dry areas include prairie dropseed, panic grass (of which there are many varieties), muhly grass, and big (or little) bluestem, or sea oats. Perennial wildflowers that tolerate drought include: butterfly milkweed, spiked gayfeather, purple coneflower, black-eyed susan, gray beardtongue, and more! It will be up to you if you want to start from seed or buy plants but there will be an obvious cost difference associated with each strategy.
A meadow garden can be an excellent alternative to traditional turfgrass lawns, and for the gardener who likes a smattering of everything (like me), it is the perfect way to achieve a functional lawn environment that will offer year-round pleasure.
For information on plants suitable for meadow gardens visit our NC Extension Gardener Toolbox , or give us a call at 910.253.2610.