How To Make A Meadow In An Urban Landscape
Excerpt From Climate Wise Landscaping by Sue Reed & Ginny Stibolt

There are several ways to create a meadow in urban/suburban landscapes. No matter which you choose, be aware that a new meadow will probably take several years to become a relatively stable ecosystem. Establishing a meadow takes a bit more care than lawn. And meadow maintenance, while much less intensive than lawn care in terms of time, energy, and fossil fuels, requires a bit more knowledge and attention, a small price for the great pleasure of having a vibrant meadow in the landscape.

Generally speaking, a mixed meadow (one with native grasses and wildflowers) usually works best when it attracts both pollinators and birds. The flowers provide valued nectar and pollen (and beauty), and the grasses hold the soil, provide winter texture, reduce places for weeds to grow, and physically support the wildflowers. In addition, the grasses, when left un-mowed over the winter, provide cold weather food and habitat for many species, including early-migrating and nesting birds.


  • Choose a suitable location. Sunny or mostly sunny areas work best for meadows. Some seed mixes, however, are specifically designed for partial shade, such as you might find near a house or at the edge of a woods; be sure to select this type of mix if you want to grow meadow plants in areas that receive less than 4–6 hours of sun a day.  If the meadow will be started from seed, installation will be easiest on level or nearly level land. On steeper slopes, some kind of erosion control material may be required to prevent the seed from washing downhill in rain.
  • Choose the best time of year. In general, the best time to transform a lawn to a meadow corresponds to the best time to plant wild ower seeds for your climate. In the southeastern states, this is in the fall; in more temperate regions, it may be at the end of winter. Of course, if the meadow will be created by simply stopping the mowing of a lawn, any time is good.  Starting a meadow from an existing lawn is the most climate-wise method, and it can be done in one of two ways:
  • Just stop mowing. This strategy can work for a lawn in any state of health—thick and lush, or thin and straggly. At first, the growth will be fairly uniform, but within a few months different types of plants will show themselves, especially if sustainable lawn care without pesticides has been practiced for a year or more. While a lawn-started meadow will look weedy at first, it is definitely the easiest way to start.


Figure I-16: The grass in this large side yard was left to grow long and is now mowed just once a year. Beehives and an attractive movable stairway signal to any concerned neighbors that this is not just abandoned lawn.


  • Scalp the lawn. If the lawn is thin, the other option is to mow the lawn to 1 inch or shorter. Rake up all the clippings and loosen the soil as you rake. Time this mowing so that it is the ideal time to sow native wildflower seed for the region. In the South, fall is the best time, since the grass will be going into winter dormancy. Irrigate daily for a week, and then gradually cut back to little or no irrigation.  With either method, since the exist- ing grass is not killed, these meadows will have a relatively high grass popula- tion, but some grass could be replaced over time in selected areas with forbs (non-grass owering plants). Plants or plugs will work better than seed in this scenario. Note: If the site contains an extensive population of invasive plants, this method is not appropriate, but if there are only a few areas of undesirable or aggressive plants, they can be removed by hand at the start.
  • Start a meadow by eliminating all existing vegetation. There are several ways to do this, with pros and cons for each method. Whichever method you chose, the idea is to create a more or less clean slate, to give your seeds or plants a better chance of survival. (See the sidebar on page 26 to learn about methods for removing lawn.) If your site presently contains many annual weeds or invasive plants, consult with a local agricultural extension or natural resources agent to determine best strategies for removal.
  • Plant the meadow. A wildflower meadow is a complex ecosystem consisting of annuals, biennials, and perennials and will vary greatly in different climates. In a natural environment, a meadow may consist mostly of grasses with only a 20% or less coverage by forbs (flowers). In a created meadow, many people include a higher ratio of forbs for the beauty of their flowers and habitat values—40% is a good starting point. Be sure to include several species with variable blooming times so that something is flowering throughout the growing season to serve the pollinators.

    If you don’t wish to decide on your own mix of plants or seeds, many companies over pre-made meadow seed mixes suitable for various conditions; these tend to be more affordable than customized mixes, and the results can often be modi ed later by adding other sprigs or plants to an established meadow. In addition, the best suppliers and nurseries provide step-by-step instructions for installation, along with helpful phone advice.

    Last Thoughts

    To preserve the open feeling that a lawn provides, but to avoid the regular maintenance, fossil-fuel consumption, air and noise pollution, empty habitat, and CO2 emissions that a lawn involves, consider creating a meadow. Good places for meadows could even be in our sunny front yards, many of which stand empty and unused most of the time. Enlivening this space with gracefully waving grasses, drifts of meadow flowers, and lots of pollinator visitors would be an excellent way to display our intentions to take care of the environment and be leaders in the movement to help reverse climate change.

Figure I-18: This New England meadow emerged from what used to be lawn, with the addition of only a few plants such as this Meadowsweet (in the foregound) and Steeplebush spirea.






This excerpt originally published by New Society.