Lawn Gone: Nourishing Our Ecosystems with Meadows

by Mary B. O’Neill, Ph.D.

Reprinted with permission, this article first appeared in the July 2017 issue of Main Street Magazine.

The American Dream of homeowner-ship, good fences making good neigh­bors, and lush, rolling lawns – it’s the mythic trifecta of life in these United States. Or is it? Homeownership is down, while fences and divisions of all kinds are up, to the point where we don’t even want to see our neighbors.

Perhaps it’s time to rethink the last component of a life well lived – the lawn.

Maturing wet meadow, second year from seed, done totally organically – no synthetic herbicides. Formerly, the site was infested with mile-a-minute vine, porcelain berry vine, multiflora rose, etc. Photo: Mike Nadeau

By educating ourselves about the history and consequences of lawns we can see there is no commandment dictating that thou shalt have one. We can redefine beauty and order, make better use of our land to feed the insects and animals upon which our survival depends, and see ourselves as part of a larger natural order.

This move takes us from a com­bative anthropocentric view of nature, where humans are at the center of all thought and action, to a biocentric view, where we are one species among many on a more equal footing.

Roots of the Lawn

The Lawn Institute, dedicated to the improvement of lawns everywhere, defines the lawn as that “portion of a yard or land area covered with mowed turfgrass plants.” Dr. James B. Beard, turfgrass scientist, writes that humans have spent centuries and vast resources to achieve the functional, recreational, and aesthetic benefits of turfgrass.

Beard asserts that “The more technically advanced a civilization, the more widely turfgrasses are used.” Hmmm…. That’s a statement worth thinking about. It illustrates the inter­play between technological advance and our increased determination to disrupt and degrade the complex natural systems that have served the earth – and us – so well over evolu­tionary history.

At McKinnis Garden, New York Ironweed greets you as you enter. Photo: Mike Nadeau

Earlier in that history, short grasses over large expanses made it easier for us to see attacking animals and people. As walls and fortresses took over that function, grass sprouted into a position of privilege and leisure, allowing for perambulating and outdoor games such as tennis and croquet. Large parklands spoke of the wealth required to maintain them.

Field of Dreams

The idea of the individual lawn was fertilized in the post-Civil War era. Michael Pollan, in his essay Why Mow? describes Frederick Law Olmsted’s role in planting the seeds of turfgrass in his early suburban com­munity design. Through his efforts, and those of other notable designers such as Downing, Vaux, and Scott, the lawn became democratized.

No longer a sign of privilege as in England, the American lawn could beautify the suburban home. Pollan writes, “The American lawn is an egalitarian conceit, implying there is no reason to hide behind hedge or fence since we all occupy the same middle class. We are all property own­ers here, the lawn announces, and that suggest its other purpose: to provide a suitably grand stage for the proud display of one’s own house.”

Pollan also identifies the dark, coercive side of lawn maintenance, particularly in the suburbs. The pres­sure to maintain and conform reigns supreme. Lawns must be edged and mowed. Uniformity and order must be maintained. Those who subvert these suburban laws of nature are punished.

It’s Not Easy Being Green

And so, we sow the seeds of our own destruction. In the name of the American Dream and suburban idyll we mow, weed, de-pest, and fertilize. However, that maintenance has costs to us and the environment beyond mere dollars.

Scientists and researchers from NASA, NOAA, and universities in Colorado and Montana recently asserted that there’s an estimated 163,812 square kilometers – 63,000 square miles – of lawn in the US. That’s three times larger than any other irrigated crop. And while lawns do sequester carbon, i.e., keep it in the ground where it belongs, that benefit is reduced by up to 35 percent due to carbon emissions from fertilizers and lawn and garden equipment.

According to an EPA study, in 2011 gas-powered lawn and garden equipment belched approximately 26.7 million tons of pollutants. This accounts for up to 45 percent of all non-road gasoline emissions. The EPA predicts that in 2018 there will be roughly 136 million pieces of lawn and garden equipment being used in this country.

A Very Dry Toxic Cocktail

The NASA study, mapping the ecological effects of US lawns, warns that “if the entire turf surface was well watered following commonly recommended schedules there would also be an enormous pressure on the US water resources, especially when considering that drinking water is usually sprinkled.”

As it is, the average household sprinkles 30 percent of its daily water consumption on its lawn and garden. All told, Americans cumulatively use nine billion gallons of water a day for landscaping purposes – that’s more than we use for showering and wash­ing clothes combined.

Chemical fertilizers, pesticide, and herbicides bring their own issues. They run off into our waterways, increasing nitrogen levels and causing algae blooms that make it difficult for aquatic species to survive. Due to their highly toxic composition, they also cause cancer and other illnesses in humans and animals.

Not to take the name of the lawn in vain, but when you put all these facts together, it’s a pretty toxic and resource-heavy burden for us and our suffering Earth to shoulder.

Beauty Is Not Lawn Deep

Maybe we need a paradigm shift. Per­haps there’s another way to define the beauty and order in our yards.

When we look at a well-manicured lawn, we think we are seeing order, symmetry, and aesthetic appeal. But our efforts to create that enhanced beauty creates chaos on a deeper level. The complex system of relationships present in soil microbes, food webs that convert the sun’s energy into a form usable by living creatures, and relationships of diversity and special­ization that exist between plant and animal species, are all part of a larger plan that’s at play. In this plan, we’re not the main character. Heck, we’re not even all that useful.

The good news is, you don’t have to roll back all your lawn. Think critically about the areas you use for recreation and leisure. Apply some of that tiny house mentality to your lawn. How much do you really need? Given our tick-infested landscape, that square footage is probably not that big. We’re not jumping in leaf piles and rolling around on lawns like we were in the pre-Lyme days.

Once you determine your outdoor lawn needs for aesthetics, relaxation, and entertaining, you can begin to think about how the remaining land can be used. One possibility is creat­ing a meadow.

Servants of the Land

Sharon, CT-based land experts and life partners Robin Zitter and Michael Nadeau have committed much of their working lives to doing what the land asks of them, not what they force it to do. Both have extensive experi­ence creating meadows and restoring tired, degraded land to productive and healthy terrain.

Zitter’s connection to the earth is palpable and respectful. You can almost imagine that if she sat still for too long she’d grow roots into the earth. Her clients are loyal and long-standing and she grows deep attach­ments to the land as she listens to it.

Nadeau, owner of Wholistic Land Care Consulting, is fiercely committed to lawn alternatives and organic gardening methods. He’s a born storyteller and nature protector, reminiscent of Teddy Roosevelt right down to the full moustache (minus the pince-nez).

One of the traits Zitter and Nadeau share is a humility in their relationship with the earth. They see land as part of an integrated whole that must be thought of as such. Blending boundaries and creating interrelationships between spaces and elements define their approach.

Fooling with Mother Nature

Traditional lawns, mostly from Euro­pean descent, are monoculture. “This means there’s no diversity. One plant is being cultivated to the exclusion of others,” explains Nadeau. That’s not the way nature works. Natural systems are diverse, with complex interrela­tionships and back-up plans. Where lawns lack diversity, meadows restore it. This diversity of plant life provides important food sources for a variety of insects and animals, further enriching the diversity of a landscape.

Meadows return us to a more harmonious relationship with the land. They create minimal disturbance and help restore the land to a more pristine state. Maintaining meadows requires no chemical pesticides, herbi­cides, or fertilizers.

This meadow as lawn alternative is shown one year after seeding and plugging live plants. Photo: Mike Nadeau

However, transition from an existing vegetative state, be it lawn, invasives or woods, to meadow usually requires the use of herbicides – either organic or synthetic. Nadeau elaborates, “Robin and I have done meadows without herbicides but it is a more costly and time-consuming proposition. Clients usually choose the herbicide route – either organic or synthetic. Once the meadow is properly established no herbicides are necessary.”

Native meadow plants, meaning those that are indigenous to the area, don’t rely on nutritional inputs. They use their own waste to fertilize and build organic matter. These plants also adapt to conditions in which they find themselves, which is often soil with lower pH. Nadeau explains, “Estab­lished meadows grow really well in drought conditions and in depauper­ate soil. That’s soil that’s been depleted of healthy nutrients and microorgan­isms.” This less-than-ideal soil also discourages weeds that compete for space with your nascent meadow.

The bucolic look, milkweed and butterfly weed in meadow. Photo: Mike Nadeau

Diversity Is Strength

Lawn monoculture is the enemy of biodiversity. In that diversity is strength and resilience. Think about your stock portfolio – you wouldn’t put all your assets into one stock. It’s too risky. If that stock fails you lose everything. Instead you create a diverse portfolio of complementary investments to minimize risk.

It’s the same for nature. By provid­ing food and shelter for insect and animal life, a meadow creates and fosters diversity. Acres of rolling lawn are the death knell for intricate food webs upon which local ecosystems depend. Soil, sun, and water produce the conditions for plant growth. Plants become food for insects, such as caterpillars. They, in turn, become food for birds and amphibians.

Tale of the Monarch

On the flip side of diversity is special­ization, and meadows support this too. In Bringing Nature Home, Dr. Douglas Tallamy describes the special­ized dietary relationships between most plants and insects.

Take the monogamous marriage of the monarch butterfly and the unfor­tunately named milkweed. Evolution has allowed the monarch to digest the plant toxins in milkweed, which are part of the plant’s protective armor.

The butterfly recognizes only milk­weed as a food source for its larvae. When native milkweed is absent, so too are monarch butterflies. Why are monarchs so important? Because butterflies, like bees, are important pollinators. If you enjoy eating foods that rely on pollination, like fruits, then you best try to keep pollinators around. Ditto if you want birds in your life, since 96 percent of our birds feed their young a steady diet of soft, juicy caterpillars.

Meadow Formerly Known as Lawn

Before you panic over the thought of losing your lawn, Zitter comfortingly reminds that, “Your yard doesn’t have to be a place of either/or. It’s okay to have a lawn – and a meadow – and a vegetable garden – and woodland. It’s all one garden with many elements. The more you begin to think of the garden as an integrated whole, the more you can work with what nature provides.”

“The first step is to figure out how you use the land, how you circulate around it. Figure out how much you need for recreation, what kinds of views are important for you from im­portant vantage points in your home,” Zitter recommends. “What are the focal points of your landscape? What areas draw your eye? Most people like to have lawn near the house. It creates an element of safety.”

Nadeau adds, “Once you deter­mine the areas that will remain a lawn, think about a transition zone where the lawn and meadow meet. If the line of demarcation is too abrupt, it looks messy and unappealing.” He suggests following the contours of the land. Make sure the lines of the meadow follow the contours of the landscape using an uncoiled garden hose to replicate the line.

Laying Down Roots

When you consider how the land flows, also observe sun and shade, water proximity, and soil quality. Both Zitter and Nadeau highly recom­mend having a soil sample analyzed. There’s no sense in introducing plants that won’t thrive in the soil you have. Nadeau sums this up with the phrase, “right plant, right place.” It’s not so much about changing the site, it’s about changing your expectations.

A faux meadow in the making. Low maintenance lawn in the orchard was converted to flowering meadow. Colored flags represent groups of plants for each space with slightly differing conditions. Photo: Plantscapes Organics, Inc.

Zitter and Nadeau explain that plants are not individualists, they’re communitarians that form “plant guilds,” i.e., plants that work well together. Some have deep roots, some shallow. Others grow to form a canopy and others thrive low to the ground in the created shade. These plants interact as a community to strengthen the whole yard ecosystem.

Stop Mow, Make Faux Meadows

The easiest way to begin a meadow? Stop mowing. Zitter suggests experi­menting with the mow line. “That’s a low-risk and easy way to begin a meadow. See if you like how the land flows in relation to grade and shade line and the line you have created. If you don’t like it, mow more or let it grow back in.”

Nadeau has created a method that takes a stop mow meadow to the next level. He calls it “faux meadow,” that over a few years it grows into the real thing. Here’s how it works. In your stop mow meadow, remove sod and soil about six inches deep in 18-inch diameter holes. Repeat this around your meadow-to-be in a ratio of one hole per 10 square feet. Contribute this sod and soil to your compost bin.

Removing topsoil (see wheel¬barrow on left) and backfilling with depauperate soil (in wheelbarrow on right) gives meadow plants to establish. Photo: Mike Nadeau.

Fill these planting holes with poor soil, the kind you might find at a construction site. This is the depauper­ate soil that meadow plants thrive in but challenges weeds and sod-forming lawn grasses. Place a good-sized pot­ted meadow plant, such as black-eyed Susan, asters, or goldenrod, in the hole and backfill with the depauper­ate soil. Then add about four inches of weed-free mulch. Water as neces­sary until the plants are established. This method gives the meadow plants you’ve introduced a fighting chance against existing weeds and lawn.

Gender Blenders

Do Zitter and Nadeau encounter resistance when they suggest convert­ing lawn to meadow? “If people are calling us, then they’ve already started changing their thinking,” laughs Zit­ter. Both have observed that gender can play a role. Nadeau elaborates, “Women seem more open to blurring edges, blending areas, and creating meadows. Many men like their lawns. I get that. A long time ago I thought that way too. It’s their territory. Protecting your turf, home turf, turf wars – it’s all very masculine. They sometimes take more convincing.”

Michael Nadeau is available for land care consultation. His website is www. michaelnadeau.org. Two must reads for the importance of meadows and biodiversity are “Urban and Suburban Meadows” by Catherine Zimmerman and “Bringing Nature Home” by Douglas W. Tallamy. For information on soil testing in CT, MA, or NY, visit www.soiltest.uconn.edu/, http:// ag.umass.edu/services/soil-plant-nutrient­testing-laboratory, or http://soilhealth.cals. cornell.edu/.

About the Author

Mary B. O’Neill, Ph.D. holds a bachelors degree in accounting and philosophy from the University of Scranton (Scranton, PA) and a doctorate in philosophy from DePaul University (Chicago, IL) specializing in ethics, and social, political and economic philosophy. She has worked for Arthur Andersen & Co. (New York, NY), The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation (Chicago, IL), and other non-profit organizations. After living in London with her family for nearly 10 years she moved to Connecticut where O’Neill launched and coordinated the adult programs at Scoville Memorial Library (Salisbury, CT) before becoming an instructor at Western Connecticut State University. She writes a column called “The Agora” for her local newspaper, The Lakeville Journal, and is contributing writer to Main Street Magazine. In whatever she writes, O’Neill tries to see the humorous and philosophical in the subject at hand.