By Beth Goodnight / WSU Extension Clark County Master Gardener
Landscaping has been around in residential and commercial landscaping for at least 20 years and while trends generally come and go, this is one I would like to see continue.
Meadowscaping is a group of naturalist-style perennials (and sometimes annuals) made up mostly of grasses and wildflowers arranged to more or less resemble a meadow. It can be large, as one would discover in nature, or just a small area of its residential or commercial land.
In addition to being beautiful and relaxing to look at, grassland plantations provide habitat for insects, birds and other creatures. Meadows can benefit the watershed by filtering runoff from the home and surrounding landscape. They can help conserve water, sequester carbon, and depending on the plants used, they can be suitable for wet or dry conditions, so grasslands can be good for the environment and also good looking.
Many grassland advocates encourage people to convert their entire lawns or yards to grassland plantations. In principle, that sounds good, and I totally agree. But in many urban and suburban areas, grassland development is frowned upon. Many homeowners’ associations don’t allow anything that looks like a meadow from a distance. In my opinion, the reason for this is that most people do not understand the concept and the aesthetics of the prairies. They might be too accustomed to the status quo of landscaping or might be hesitant to change.
The selection of meadow plants is extremely important and often overlooked, which can lead to problems. Unless the plant species are carefully chosen and good design principles are followed, grasslands can go through phases where the uninformed may think they are overgrown or dead, residential landscapes certainly not. typical, tidy, that people are used to seeing. As with most new developments, there can be some hurdles to overcome with this style of landscaping that is grassland landscaping.
Although a prairie garden looks natural and is made up of native plants, it should still be considered a garden. This means that it will require maintenance. One of the main reasons grasslands require maintenance is that grasslands almost always appear in the early stages of what is called ecological succession. Succession is the natural process of change in plant communities over time. In most places, succession begins with grasses and ends with forests. If a person does not actively maintain their prairie garden, in most cases it will eventually become a forest.
How you accomplish grassland maintenance will depend in large part on the plants involved and the configuration of the land, as well as neighborhood, city and county codes. Some prairie plants thrive by being burnt by fire at the start of each spring, and most neighborhoods probably forbid this practice. Some neighborhoods prohibit tall grass and plants right next to the sidewalk or street. Some homeowner association rules require lawn mowing on a certain percentage of residential lots. It is good to understand all the rules to follow before starting a meadow.
To alleviate some of these liability issues, care should be taken to understand:
• Plant species characteristics – this ensures that plants are located in suitable places and that aggressive plants do not take over;
• Flowering times – this ensures compelling visual interest while providing enough food for insects when they need it;
• Design strategies that incorporate a natural look into a recognizable ornamental landscape – this ensures order and acceptance of the neighborhood.
If there are no naturalist plantings nearby, I suggest orchestrating a meadow planting in a small area of an existing traditional ornamental garden bed first, rather than converting an entire lawn at the start. The goal may be to convert the entire lawn, but it’s often best to take small steps and then expand your small meadow plantation over time. Doing this accustoms the neighbors to the idea that nature is beautiful. And remember, keeping it tidy helps ensure neighborhood acceptance.
I advocate this strategy to get around neighborhood rules, especially for large lots. I like to call it the landscaping of ornamental meadows. A person structures their landscape using traditional design principles with a mixture of lawn and ornamental beds, but in beds, where you would expect to see ornamental plants and many shrubs, set up meadow plants instead .
Find beds that make sense in typical residential landscaping, keeping some lawn if needed in the neighborhood. Choose meadow plants with the same design intent you would use for a normal ornamental bed, using groupings, drifts, and focal points. Make sure there are a few trees and shrubs, as people prefer this in most neighborhoods.
Using this strategy helps neighbors get used to the types of plants seen in natural grasslands. Once the small ornamental meadows are mature and beautiful – and the neighbors are won over – they can be gradually enlarged, reducing the amount of lawn over time.
If a neighborhood really frowns on lawn removal, some lawn can be saved in the form of wide walking trails through larger areas of ornamental grassland. There are certain lawn turf mixes that are better suited to low maintenance than others, and this option would be worth considering if a lawn is needed. If the goal is to completely eliminate the mowed lawn, grass walking paths can be replaced with mulch, wood chips, pine needles, gravel or paving stones. Just be sure to use good design principles to ensure a visually appealing end result.
Creativity can help overcome obstacles. The more people who dabble in tasteful and well-tended little meadows, the more normal and accepted they can be. Neighborhood, city, and county codes can change, and others may become interested and follow suit. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see mini meadows all over the city and suburban landscape? I probably think so.
To learn more, there is a good resource on prairie management called Pacific Northwest Urban Meadowscaping online at wmswcd.org/programs/pacific- cityscape-northwest. It focuses on the plants and environment of the region. It contains information, plant lists, design tips, and a book available to read online or download. For us in the Pacific Northwest, I consider this to be the go-to resource on grassland management.
To see a famous example of urban prairies, check out the High Line Garden in New York City online at thehighline.org/gardens. It was designed by the father of meadow planning, Piet Oudolf.