The more we learn about the importance of biodiversity and the harms of monoculture, pesticides and synthetic fertilizer, the more we realize that sprawling lawns should be phased out. Here to explain the simple steps to converting lawn into an ecologically fundamental meadow is Owen Wormser, an expert in regenerative landscape design.
Owen was born in rural Maine, where he grew up off the grid in a town with about 500 people in it. His family used kerosene lamps, had an outhouse and didn’t get a telephone until he was 11. He says the experience brought him closer to the natural world — the seasons, the plants, the animals. “When you’re a kid and you’re growing up, you just kind of take these things for granted,” he says. “But later on in life, I realized that it really set me up for a deeper connection that I try to convey and share through my work.”
When Owen earned his undergraduate degree in landscape architecture in the late 1990s, it was just before the field began shifting into teaching about ecology. The academic focus was still on modernism and postmodernism, but his focus was elsewhere. Outside of college, he found inspiration through books and out in the world.
He became a fan of William McDonough, the architect renowned for his work in sustainability. He also counts among his influences the 1954 book “Living the Good Life” by Helen and Scott Nearing, a book that I too enjoy. Owen says it explains that how we live and our connection to the earth matter when it comes to our well-being and ability to be happy. He’s been fortunate enough to visit the Nearing homestead, the Good Life Center in Harborside, Maine.
Owen learned to use regenerative, low-maintenance practices in designing and building landscapes. Today he’s based in western Massachusetts, where his company, Abound Design, provides meadow design, consulting and installation services. His book, “Lawns into Meadows: Growing a Regenerative Landscape” is about replacing the “deadscape” called a lawn with low-maintenance, eco-friendly meadows. You can buy Owen’s book directly from the publisher here.
Saying Goodbye to Turf
I have grown more and more excited over the years about replacing the turfgrass on my 5-acre property with meadow. In my travels with colleagues and on vacations I have been exposed to some incredible examples of what’s possible. A real “aha” moment for me came in Margaret Roach’s yard while filming an episode of “Growing a Greener World.” She had just let the grass grow out in an area. The difference in the life coming out of the mowed area versus the unmowed area was just night and day.
I have yet to get started transforming my remaining lawn into meadow, but with books like Owen’s “Lawns Into Meadows,” I know where to begin. His book walks you through the steps beautifully, simply and logically.
Owen was motivated to write “Lawns into Meadows” to give people the tools, perspective and inspiration they need to create meadows successfully. He sought to make the subject matter accessible, so anyone could implement the principles.
Beyond the beauty of a meadow and attracting pollinators and other wildlife, from an ecological standpoint, meadows are critical. And as gardeners, this is something that we can do tangibly — something that really makes a difference.
Multiple studies have shown that meadows sequester significant amounts of carbon, on par with oceans and forests, Owen points out. A mature meadow will have roots that go 5, 10 even 15 feet into the ground, he says. Meadow plants pull carbon out of the air and use it to create starches and sugars to grow their roots. When those roots die and when microorganisms in the ground receive those starches and sugar, all that carbon gets parked in the soil.
Meadows can store about 70% more carbon than lawns. Owen explains that’s because lawns have really shallow root systems, while meadows’ roots sink carbon deep into the ground.
Owen says more studies should be done because past studies have only looked at the top foot or so of the soil to determine how much carbon is being sequestered, and not looking as deep as the roots go.
Turning a lawn into a meadow not only sequesters carbon, but it also reduces the carbon footprint of maintaining a lawn: running a lawnmower, the production of fertilizer, etc. In fact, Owen’s book says that for every one ton of fertilizer produced, two tons of carbon dioxide go into the atmosphere. And chemical fertilizer, via runoff, also pollutes ponds, lakes and bays.
One study through Project Drawdown estimated that about 20% of global carbon stock is stored in grasslands, including meadows. That’s a huge number.
An Abundance of Deadscape
In the United States, mowed turf covers an area as large as Washington State, Owen points out. Probably 80 percent of that turf is never used or walked on, despite requiring time, money and an ecological toll to maintain.
Owen also acknowledges that not all lawns are the same. There are organic lawns, lawns for play, lawns for pathways. But lawns have become ubiquitous. “We just wound up in this place where lawns are everywhere, and why is that?” he wonders. “Do you need it? Do you need to spend that money for someone to come and mow your lawn throughout the course of the year, and put all these products on it?”
Not to mention all the water put on lawns to keep them green.
The more I learned about healthy habitats, biological diversity and all of the reasons why lightening our environmental footprint is important, the less lawn I maintained. But decades ago, I was the guy who wanted to have the perfect lawn. I was throwing everything I could at it to make it that way, and in the process, I was doing a lot of not-so-pretty things.
Now, just a small percentage of my property is lawn as I have slowly but surely increased the size of native habitats. My remaining lawn space threads between the beds and provides pathways, and I continue to evolve even more into less lawn and more plants that are benefiting greater biodiversity
A Solar-Powered Regenerative System
Meadows plants are resilient. They don’t need fertilizer, water or good soil. They can deal with wet conditions as well as dry conditions and they can withstand climate change.
“For asking for so little, they give an enormous amount back,” Owen says. “They provide food for, obviously, pollinators, but also for birds and small animals. And they help support the food web in your local area, and really offer a tremendous amount ecologically.”
The goal is to get the right perennial plants for your yard established. Once your meadow is filled out with meadow plants — flowering plants as well as grasses — the soil will be stable and the meadow will have the ability to regenerate itself. All that will be required of you is an annual mowing to cut down any woody plants that are trying to get established. Cut to 4 to 6 inches tall so trees and shrubs will never get the upper hand over meadow plants.
Owen mows in the spring right before plants start growing again. This allows insects and critters that overwinter in the meadow to complete their lifecycle. The next best time to mow is late fall, but a meadow that stands tall all winter will be more attractive and the seed heads will provide food for birds.
Getting a meadow to the point where it is well established and self-sustaining usually takes between two and five years. “That process takes patience,” Owen says. “It can be a little bit slow, but there’s tricks and ways to get there, including putting down annual crops that act essentially as cover crops — we call them nurse crops — that help those perennial seedlings establish and help create green cover and stabilize the ground while you’re waiting for those perennial plants to get going.”
One nurse crop he prefers is annual rye, which establishes quickly, stabilizes the earth and prevents the soil from becoming scorched. Rye also protects seedlings from being blasted by the wind and takes up the available space that weeds would otherwise occupy.
Owen also puts down very carefully chosen annuals for the first season so the meadow will have color. He sows seeds of plants that grow vertically but don’t get too tall, such as poppies.
What a Meadow Needs
Meadow plants are very resilient and tough, and there are only two basic criteria for establishing a meadow.
A successful meadow requires full sun — a minimum of half a day of sunlight that is uninterrupted by trees or buildings creating shade.
“Meadow plants really need sunlight,” Owen says. “You can always grow meadow-like environments in the shade, but they’re not really going to give you the same range of possibility in terms of bright colors and flowers and things like that.”
A meadow also needs 20 to 25 inches of rain annually. That includes most places east of the Rocky Mountains and many places out west. However, arid regions in the west can’t support meadow grasses and flowering plants the way wetter climates do.
Soil quality doesn’t matter all that much, which is one of the alluring things about meadows, Owen says. For that reason, meadow plants are used in habitat restoration projects in mine tailings, and they often volunteer on the sides of roads and in abandoned lots.
Pick the Right Species
When you pick out species for your meadow, choose plants that want to grow on that site. Look in your lawn or nearby at what’s growing on its own. Those are the species that you already know are suited to the conditions there.
Yes, there are aesthetic considerations and height considerations, Owen says, but ultimately the success of a meadow is contingent upon picking the right species. Those species, ideally, are native to the area. As natives, they are adapted to your local conditions.
Preparing to Plant a Meadow
Owen’s first step to starting a meadow is getting rid of the existing turf. He does this by tilling. Turning the organic matter back into the earth restores the soil and builds it up. The disturbance will also encourage the seeds that are already present to sprout. Successive tillings — two or three times but sometimes more — will eliminate the grass and weeds.
Tilling is typically discouraged in regenerative gardening because it releases carbon from the soil and destroys mycorrhizal networks, However, establishing a new garden is a one-time occasion in which tilling is merited. Your new meadow will endure for decades and will be an ecological asset that will far and away offset any disturbance that tilling causes.
In lieu of tilling, you can use a drill seeder. The device scores slices into the lawn and pushes seeds in before closing the slices back up. It allows seeds to get soil contact, which is tricky if you are not removing the existing law.
How to Plant a Meadow
Your meadow design starts with the list of plant species that you will be using, which is based on the site characteristics, the desired height and flowering times. Having a consistent plant height is important. If some species are short and others are tall, the taller plants will shade out the shorter ones, and you will end up with less variety in your meadow.
To spread out bloom times for nearly year-round color and interest, use as many species as are relevant to your space. This also increases the odds that various species will be happy there, will establish well and will fill out the space.
You can give all your criteria to a seed house and have them create a custom mix for you. You can broadcast that mix and see what species establish themselves from one spot to the next. Some plants will like one part of your yard better than another.
Meadows can also be grown from live plugs that come in trays of 38 or 50. Plugs are essentially small perennials that are planted right into the ground. Owen encourages using seeds rather than plugs in large spaces due to the cost of plugs and the time it takes to plant them.
Most nurseries don’t sell trays of plugs, but that’s changing. “More and more local nurseries are starting to do this, so it’s helpful to kind of poke around and also encourage some of them to do this because there’s growing interest in it,” Owen says.
You can also search for plugs online. For gardeners on the East Coast, he recommends North Creek Nurseries in Pennsylvania.
CORRECTION: North Creek Nurseries is a wholesale supplier to the trade ONLY. For homeowners looking for plugs, here are 3 different suggestions: 1) request a local independent garden center to place the order for them, 2) order plugs through a landscape or garden designer or 3) visit IzelPlants.com to purchase flats of plugs online shipped to your door. See our links and resources section at the end of this article for a list of nurseries that sell plugs directly to homeowners.
Plugs will get you on your way faster than seeds. If you want to save on costs but still have some plants establish themselves sooner than others, like at an entrance, a good strategy is to use both seeds and plugs in your design.
Putting down seed is best done late in the fall because many meadow seeds require cold in order to germinate. This is known as vernalization. The second best time to plant seed is in spring.
Owen mixes seed with sawdust before broadcasting it on the ground. That way, he can see where it’s going, which is helpful with seeds that are tiny. He just throws the seed down and walks away — no watering in required.
Plugs can be planted at any time of year, Owen says, but early in spring, when the ground is wet, is the best time. Fall is also a good time because you can water less than you would need to if planting in summer. When ordering plugs, look at the spacing information to account for the footprint of a mature plant.
A shovel will be more than you need to plant plugs. A hori hori knife does the trick nicely. Once plugs are in the ground, only water them when they need water. Owen says you want those plants to set down roots looking for water. If you dote on plants too much, they’ll never toughen up.
If your meadow is large, you can mow a 4-foot-wide path to allow you to walk through it with less concern about ticks.
Meadows & Deer Control
Meadows have evolved to tolerate grazing. Once a meadow is able to establish itself, it will put out so many seedlings that it can shrug off even fairly heavy grazing. Only extreme deer pressure will become a problem in an established meadow.
In a new meadow, prevent deer from grazing on young and small plants. If you don’t have a deer fence, you can use a repellent for the first year or two.
Owen encourages gardeners to experiment and engage with plants. You don’t have to just go for it and just turn your whole front yard into a meadow tomorrow. You could take an area that’s 10-by-10 in your backyard and try it out. You could try plugs, you could try seed — you can play around.
“The only way that we actually become proficient at it is by doing it,” he says. Though it can seem intimidating, taking small bites makes it easier to begin, and it’s fun. He says one of the key takeaways is nature’s ability to regenerate and create abundance.
I hope that after listening to my conversation with Owen Wormser you feel inspired. If you haven’t listened yet, you can do so now by clicking the Play button on the green bar near the top of this post.
Have you tried to turn lawns into meadows? Let us know in the comments below.
Links & Resources
Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; seed starting and more.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Pests, Diseases & Weeds: Learn the proactive steps to take to manage pests, diseases and weeds for a more successful garden with a lot less frustration. Just $47 for lifetime access!
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Perfect Soil Recipe Master Class: Learn how to create the perfect soil environment for thriving plants.
“Lawns Into Meadows: Growing a Regenerative Landscape” by Owen Wormser
“Living the Good Life” by Helen and Scott Nearing
Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us, and compensation is not an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast were based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Rain Bird, Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Exmark, Greenhouse Megastore, High Mowing Organic Seeds, Territorial Seed Company, Wild Alaskan Seafood Box and TerraThrive. These companies are either Brand Partners of joegardener.com and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.