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365-Tiny and Wild: What To Know To Build a Small-Scale Meadow Anywhere

| Grow, Podcast

Converting lawn to meadow is not as hard as it may seem, and my guest this week demonstrates as much in his book “Tiny + Wild: Build a Small-Scale Meadow Anywhere.” Graham Laird Gardner works to get the word out about the simplicity and benefits of creating a native meadow.

Graham uses the moniker “Native Plantsmith.” He has been involved in horticulture since childhood. His paternal grandparents were Master Gardeners, and they instilled in him a passion for plants — though he says with a last name like Gardner, becoming a gardener was bound to happen. 

 

Graham Laird Gardner

Graham Laird Gardner, the Native Plantsmith, and the author of “Tiny + Wild: Build a Small-Scale Meadow Anywhere.”
(Photo Courtesy of Graham Gardner)

 

He grew up in Rhode Island and returned there to pursue his degree in landscape architecture after attending school in Boston and New York. He went on to live in Denver and New Mexico, and for the past three years, he has lived in Ceiba, Puerto Rico. 

After earning his bachelor’s in landscape architecture from the University of Rhode Island, he worked in private residential design. He discovered native plants, and he credits entomologist and conservationist  Doug Tallamy with giving him the language to use for native plants from the entomology side. 

“I’ve just been passionate about connecting people to the things they might otherwise overlook and trying to create a language of design that reflects a sense of place,” Graham says.

 

Tiny + Wild: Build a Small-Scale Meadow Anywhere book cover

“Tiny + Wild: Build a Small-Scale Meadow Anywhere” by Graham Laird Gardner. (Photo Courtesy of Graham Gardner)

 

Tiny + Wild

Graham wrote “Tiny + Wild” from 25 years of experience and practice. The book is “zone agnostic,” which means it is not specific to any growing climate. “So that it could reach the largest audience, I had to zoom out to that 30,000-foot space,” he explains.

In the book, he explains how he goes about site assessment, formulating questions and identifying resources in the various places he has lived.

Puerto Rico is a variable island in terms of ecoregions, diversity and soil types, presenting a new inspirational phase of learning, he says. 

Graham has switched professions from landscape architecture to flower farming. He practices a meadow-style of raising flowers, with interplanting, rather than the traditional rows of one species each.

“I’m working with the timing and the pace of each individual species and learning about what native plants from here I can incorporate to highlight them and feature them in design work.”

Graham says he has never seen himself as an author, but he has identified as an educator, working one-on-one with clients or talking to small groups such as native plant societies — plus family, friends and anyone who would listen.

Writing the book involved distilling his intuitive process into something that is accessible to every gardener. He wanted to write for beginner gardeners as well as advanced gardeners who don’t have experience in meadow-scaping or native plants. 

Connecting native plants to the places people live has the potential to influence how the ecosystem survives, according to Graham.

 

Black wasp on flower

With an elongated body perfect for climbing inside these spotted beebalm (Monarda punctata) flowers, this elegant black wasp was observed visiting only these species in this planting.
(Photo Courtesy of Graham Gardner)

 

Why Choose a Meadow Over a Lawn

“A lawn is ecologically void,” Graham says. 

Especially if it’s treated with chemicals or is a monoculture, a lawn offers nothing to the local species that are super important to the ecosystem of the area, he explains.

“You can pack so much diversity and resilience into a tighter space and watch something that’s far more complex unfold, whether it’s day by day or year by year,” he says. 

Meadows are the quintessential flower design and the optimal level that gardeners are trying to elevate and celebrate, according to Graham. “And it offers the most diversity of visitors in terms of wildlife, from pollinators to birds, to, you name it. It’s got a lot more going on than a static traditional perennial border that you might see in France and in England and in California and in Rhode Island.”

He says the lawn has its place. It’s where the most outdoor activity happens, and he acknowledges that can be a big space for parents with soccer-playing kids. But once kids have gone off to college, maybe that soccer field is reduced in size to something easier to maintain that doesn’t require as many inputs. 

Ecological horticulturist Rebecca McMackin puts it this way: Lawn should be an area rug, not wall-to-wall carpet.

Installing a meadow can feel daunting compared to laying down sod of turf grass seed. And Graham points out that there are plenty of contractors standing by who are happy to take your money and maintain your lawn for you. Not to mention homeowners associations may require you to keep a lawn and restrict what you are allowed to plant.

 

Flowers and seedheads

Flowers and seedheads punctuate this grass matrix on a busy street.
(Photo Courtesy of Graham Gardner)

 

“That’s why this book is so important,” Graham says. “It’s not about converting your entire property overnight. It’s about approaching things based on the scale that you can appropriate and make time for and learn from and not rush into anything. And so, if you begin in a small area and learn from the lessons that it’s teaching you, then you can expand.”

The importance of starting small is to not feel overwhelmed, he says. Learn from what you’re able to manage, what works in your space, what the ecoregion, ecosystem and microclimate are — all of those things that will take some time to discover. 

A smaller-scale lawn conversion will also have more manageable costs in terms of labor and financial investment.

“What happens with meadows is people think you clear a spot, you sprinkle some seeds, you walk away, and it’s supposed to be this incredible space that you see in magazine photos and on Instagram,” Graham says. “And it actually takes — especially during the first couple of years of establishment and the planning and design phase — it takes work. And so it’s not a hands-off situation. And you want to make it as manageable for yourself as possible based on what time you have to devote.”

“Especially if you’re trying to bring an HOA on board or neighbors or your visitors, you want it to be as beautiful as possible,” he adds. “And if you start small, you can really experiment in that space and learn. And then once you get it going and you see what’s working, and you learn what time you have, and you become more passionate about it, you can expand from there.”

 

Mid summer meadow

Here is a newly planted meadow in mid-summer with a diversity of flowering perennials, self-seeding annuals, and a mixture of warm- and cool-season grasses.
(Photo Courtesy of Graham Gardner)

 

What To Plant in a Native Meadow

Before you are ready to strip the grass and plant, you should first get an idea of what you will plant. Graham recommends going on native plant walks to familiarize yourself with what thrives in your town and neighborhood. Find out what plants are available from local and mail-order nurseries, and pick out a color palette.

The National Wildlife Federation offers the Native Plant Finder tool to identify the natives in your ZIP code.

Site Assessment

Learn the lighting, drainage and microclimate of the site where you wish to plant a native meadow. It’s important to know these details so when you peruse plants, you will know if you need plants that require full sun or are shade tolerant, and plants that can tolerate wet feet or must stay fairly dry.

Understanding the soil and the pH will make assembling your plant list easier.

 

Cool season crops seedheads

The upright seedheads of the cool-season prairie junegrass (Koeleria macrantha) stand out among the airy sprays of prairie dropseed (Sporabolus heterolepis) in this simple grass matrix.
(Photo Courtesy of Graham Gardner)

 

How To Get Started Converting Lawn To Meadow

Once you have an idea of the scale of the project and what you will plant, the next step is stripping the lawn from the designated area. You can rent a sod cutter for a large project, or remove the turf manually for a small project. The removed turf can be relocated to a spot where you would like grass to grow.

Another option is “lasagna gardening.” Lay cardboard over the existing grass to smother it, and cover the cardboard with topsoil.

Topsoil that has been highly amended with compost encourages weeds, Graham points out, so use an unamended topsoil from a reputable source.

A non-organic option is a one-time judicious use of herbicide to kill an area of lawn and then plant directly into it.

“I ask people to obviously read the label and have their own ethics conversation with themselves about if that’s a tool that they wish to put in their own toolbox,” Graham says. “I know there are professionals who use it and believe that the outcome is worth the trade off, and so I don’t advise on that in one way or the other.”

Mulch in Meadows

Organic mulch in a first-year meadow in a dry climate can certainly be beneficial in retaining moisture and keeping weeds down. But over the long-term, Graham does not recommend mulch. Because it covers the soil, it can suppress the growth of native seeds that the meadow is intended to encourage. 

Mulch discourages spontaneity, self-seeding and movement of plants. It also reduces habitat for burrowing native bees.

 

The grasses, from the pink-mauve of the little bluestem to golden tan of the blue grama and prairie junegrass, glow in mid-fall light (contrasted by the powder-blue bold foliage of the sea kale).

The grasses, from the pink-mauve of the little bluestem to golden tan of the blue grama and prairie junegrass, glow in mid-fall light (contrasted by the powder-blue bold foliage of the sea kale).
(Photo Courtesy of Graham Gardner)

 

Scatter Bloom Times

Another consideration when choosing native plants is bloom times. Picking plants that bloom at various times of year will ensure a longer period when pollen and nectar sources are available for pollinators. Graham includes non-native bulbs in meadows he designs to supplement pollen sources at times when not many native plants or trees are blooming.

The Importance of Design

Designing native meadows for beauty is an important aspect in winning over critics of native gardening.

“I appreciate a messy meadow,” Graham says. “I can find beauty in any chaotic space of seedheads and brown. But maybe to the untrained eye or to someone who hasn’t visited a lot of spaces that articulate that or that celebrate that, keep it simple. Repetition, structure, architecture.”

He advises that if you live in an HOA, learn the ordinances and rules before planting in a front yard, and experiment in your backyard until you’ve figured out the formula.

You will find out what is aesthetically appealing.

When it comes to function, you may choose plants for a specific objective, like attracting a certain species of bird or supporting butterflies. 

“You kind of pick your passion, and that helps to define what it is that you choose for the initial palette,” Graham says. “Some people come into it purely aesthetically, and I don’t want to discourage them either.”

Not everyone needs to be an entomologist in training to create a space that supports wildlife.

 

Welcoming spontaneity by thoughtful design, a dense flower forward meadow can thrive in the most challenging spaces.

Welcoming spontaneity by thoughtful design, a dense flower forward meadow can thrive in the most challenging spaces.
(Photo Courtesy of Graham Gardner)

 

Installing Plants or Sowing Seeds

Planting a native meadow with seeds requires patience and research but can be much cheaper than using plugs. It can also mean having more plant species available to you. 

Plugs are germinated plants in tiny cell strays. The plants may be more mature than typical cell-tray plants, but are still small, coming in a flat of 32 or 50. They have deep root systems, making them ready to catch up to a gallon-pot plant within a season.

Plugs are often only available wholesale, so accessing them may require hiring a consultant who has that access, Graham points out, butyou can also encourage your local nurseries to carry native plugs.

Graham started out using half-gallon or 1-gallon plants before plugs became more available in the trade. Now, he’s a big fan of the dynamism of seed mixes.

“I always tell people to check in with their supplier and to really ask them as many questions as they have and not feel shy about it,” he adds.

Native seeds often require a period of vernalization, requiring winter sowing before they germinate. 

 

Left, after laying out the small pots and landscape plugs, the plants were installed directly into the new gravel layer. Right, here is the same garden one year later in late summer.

Left, after laying out the small pots and landscape plugs, the plants were installed directly into the new gravel layer. Right, here is the same garden one year later in late summer.
(Photo Courtesy of Graham Gardner)

 

Watering Native Meadows

Once established, a native meadow does not require supplementing watering. But in the first year, or maybe two, applying water will help seeds and plugs along.

“If you’re choosing to germinate from seed, it might take more consistent, lighter watering, irrigation, in the beginning,” Graham says. “And depending on the scale, you might set up a sprinkler system or you might just hand water.”

How often you water will depend on the local climate.

“Denver was more challenging,” Graham says. “For example, we got 11 inches of rain a year in Denver versus growing up in Rhode Island, we got 44 inches of rain. I now live at the base of a rainforest, and we get 108 inches of rain.”

He recommends watering deeply but infrequently to encourage deep roots. 

During this establishment phase, removing invasive plants that will compete with your native plants will also likely be necessary. 

“Then really it’s about sitting back and learning from what’s happening, the dynamics,” Graham says. “You can do all the planning and research that you want, but you’re going to learn the most from once things are already in the ground and how they’re emerging, how they’re interacting with each other.” 

Graham anticipates a 10–15% loss when he plants a garden and does not try to replant the species that failed because he knows something is wrong and they won’t thrive there.

“I’m going to celebrate the plants that are thriving and give it time to teach me what it is that I don’t know yet about the dynamics that are occurring with the species that I’ve chosen.”

 

Wet meadow

Find inspiration in wild places like this one. Purple elephant’s head (Pedicularis groenlandica) weaves through a wet meadow beside a mountain lake.
(Photo Courtesy of Graham Gardner)

 

If you haven’t listened to my conversation with Graham Gardner on “Tiny + Wild,” you can do so now by clicking the Play button on the green bar near the top of this post.

Are you planning a native meadow? Let us know in the comments below. 

Links & Resources

Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.

Episode 232: Ecological Horticulture at Brooklyn Bridge Park, with Rebecca McMackin, Part I

Episode 233: Ecological Horticulture at Brooklyn Bridge Park, with Rebecca McMackin, Part II

Episode 237: Ecological Gardening: Creating Beauty & Biodiversity

Episode 331: The Ecological Garden Blueprint: 10 Essential Steps That Matter Most 

joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; seed starting and more.

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Organic Vegetable Gardening: My new premium online course. The course is designed to be a comprehensive guide to starting, growing, nurturing and harvesting your favorite vegetables, no matter what you love to eat, no matter where you live, no matter your level of gardening experience.

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Seed Starting: Everything you need to know to start your own plants from seed — indoors and out. 

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Beginning Gardener Fundamentals: Essential principles to know to create a thriving garden.

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Growing Epic Tomatoes: Learn how to grow epic tomatoes with Joe Lamp’l and Craig LeHoullier. 

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.

Earthbound Expeditions: Discover South Africa with Joe Lamp’l

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Growing a Greener World®  

GGWTV YouTube

Tiny + Wild: Build a Small-Scale Meadow Anywhere” by Graham Gardner

Graham Gardner on Instagram: @NativePlantsmith

Proven Winners ColorChoice – Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of joegardener.com 

Earth’s Ally – Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of joegardener.com 

Dramm – Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of joegardener.com

Greenhouse Megastore – Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of joegardener.com – Enter code JG10 for 10% off your first order

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 was 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: Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Greenhouse Megastore, Territorial Seed Company, Earth’s Ally, Proven Winners ColorChoice and Dramm. 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.

About Joe Lamp'l

Joe Lamp’l is the creator and “joe” behind joe gardener®. His lifetime passion and devotion to all things horticulture has led him to a long-time career as one of the country’s most recognized and trusted personalities in organic gardening and sustainability. That is most evident in his role as host and creator of Emmy Award-winning Growing a Greener World®, a national green-living lifestyle series on PBS currently broadcasting in its tenth season. When he’s not working in his large, raised bed vegetable garden, he’s likely planting or digging something up, or spending time with his family on their organic farm just north of Atlanta, GA.

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