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Lawns into Meadows: Growing a Regenerative Landscape

Reviewed by Ellen Walther Sousa

lawn into meadowsAn established meadow can store 70% more carbon than a traditional monocrop turf lawn, and can improve the environment by supporting pollinators, increasing biodiversity, and enriching soil health as well. In Lawns into Meadows, Owen Wormser uses his wealth of experience to create a readable and up-to-date manual of meadow startup and maintenance for properties large and small.

Far from being as simple as throwing down a packet of wild flower seeds and letting your lawn ‘go wild’, a successful lawn-to-meadow conversion is generally a multi-year process, requiring knowledgeable site assessment, careful plant selection and design, and ongoing upkeep in the form of an annual mowing or weeding out of woody trees.

Wormser explains in detail how to plan and create a meadow planted with a diverse selection of forbs (non-grass herbaceous flowering plants) and grasses that are native to your region and site conditions. Case studies describe lessons learned from several meadow projects of varying sizes, site conditions and situations.

There is good advice on site and soil assessment, design and planting, and even a whole chapter on Community Building, with useful information on educating skeptical neighbors and communities about the benefits of meadow plantings.

Site-specific plant selection means doing your research and choosing seed and plant sources carefully, and an Appendix at the back lists some national mail-order seed dealers that are committed to selling native seeds. There is also good advice for choosing between seeds, plugs, bare-root and containerized plants, or using all of the above, depending on the size, scope and budget of your meadow project.

The author discourages herbicide use for site clearing, and offers a number of less toxic alternatives for killing the underlying lawn, including the scorch/smother method (for smaller areas), and the twice-tilling approach to turn over the soil (on larger sites). Although mechanized tilling is problematic for a no-till farming operation, and can burn fossil fuels in the process, the author explains that the eventual carbon capture and storage from your established meadow will more than offset any carbon used and released in two initial tillings ahead of a meadow planting.

Included are detailed plant profiles for about 20 robust American native meadow ‘starter plants’ that are easy to grow from seed and/or containers and should grow just about anywhere in the northeast with well-draining soil and at least half a day of sun. The list includes blue aster, showy goldenrod, anise hyssop, mountain mint, wild bergamot, black-eyed Susan, purple coneflower, butterfly milkweed, beardtongue, great blue lobelia, wild lupine, coreopsis, and obedient plant, plus native grasses tufted hairgrass and switchgrass. This makes a fine shopping list for a beginning meadow builder in New England, anyway! A meadow containing these plants will feed, shelter and house an astounding number of native and specialist bees, other pollinators, and predatory and herbivorous insects, and supply birds with the insect meals they need to feed their babies in the nest. And all that from what was once just a lawn!

My one disagreement with the advice in this book is the perpetuation of a debunked garden myth that the use of wood chips as mulch depletes plants and soils of nitrogen. Dug into the soil, wood chips may temporarily lock up nitrogen around plant roots, but a mulch of wood chips (shredded tree chippings, not bark mulch) laid on top of the soil around plants will not only suppress weed seeds from germinating, but actually increase the nitrogen in the underlying soil in a slow-release form, through the decomposition process.

For homeowners looking to reduce their lawn chores and the ecological footprint of a traditional lawn, or landscapers looking for a manual to accommodate customer demand for lawn-to-meadow conversions, Lawns into Meadows is an excellent resource.

Ellen Walther Sousa gardens and teaches at Turkey Hill Brook Farm in Spencer, Mass., and is the author of The Green Garden: A New England Guide to Planning, Planting & Maintaining the Eco-friendly Habitat Garden.