THE TIME IS approaching for my annual pass with the tractor through my little meadow on the hill above my house—the one time each year I really intervene in it, by mowing (above). Meadow-making is an exercise in patience and restraint and in accepting that it has a life of its own, it seems to me. And I wanted to talk about all that with someone who makes meadows as his profession.
Owen Wormser’s popular 2020 book “Lawns into Meadows: Growing a Regenerative Landscape” (affiliate link) is just out in a new second edition. Owen is a landscape designer at Abound Design, his firm based in Western Massachusetts, and we talked about the life of a meadow and its maintenance. Meadows are not an overnight project, nor are they something that remains static and unchanging, I am reminded.
Plus: Enter to win a copy of the second edition of his book by commenting in the box near the bottom of the page.
Read along as you listen to the April 17, 2023 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
making, and maintaining, meadows, with owen wormser
Margaret: We talked when the book first came out, and you’ve won prizes with it and it’s gotten great acclaim, which is wonderful. We talked then about sort of how to choose plants to make a meadow, how to pick the right grasses that are such foundational plants for a meadow and the steps for soil preparation and so forth.
But today I just wanted to talk a little bit more about then what [laughter]? Because there is a long life cycle of then what and in the book toward the end you say, “Part of establishing a meadow is also a lesson in letting go. Basic maintenance aside, once you’ve designed and planted your meadow, your primary job is to give it the space and time it needs to reveal its own character.”
So let’s talk about that. Tell us, is that something you explain to potential clients before the fact?
Owen: I spend a lot of time educating people about this, whether they’re clients or in workshops. Really every opportunity that I have, I try to mention this, because it’s a linchpin to this whole process. And it’s one that people tend to overlook because really building a meadow and a lot of ecological gardening is a collaboration with nature. And so you have to let these species and the environment unfold and sort of unfurl in the way that they will. And plants aren’t entirely predictable. They’re not mechanical.
Margaret: That’s to say the least [laughter].
Owen: And so, exactly. But people often not, to be fair, people aren’t exposed to this perspective or this information. And we come from a culture where people are essentially ecologically illiterate. No one shows them this stuff. So people have to really learn to be able to observe and watch what’s happening. Really, the key piece here is to engage in ways that really are founded on observation.
Margaret: Yes. Now I’m in a rural place and I say that as a preface because to what I’m going to say, because as you and I have probably talked about before: In a place that wasn’t turfgrass, sown as turfgrass, a place that was an old field or something, you can kind of make a meadow by “unmowing” I think, sometimes or a lot of times you can just see what kind of comes up, more than you can in a bluegrass lawn or a fescue lawn or whatever, which who knows what’s going to come up there [laughter].
So I have this sort of unmown meadow above my house, and in the 35 years or so, maybe 30 years that I’ve been not mowing it and watching, I mean it’s totally changed. Initially it was a lot of leftover pasture grasses, but also a lot of little bluestem. And then the goldenrod started coming in, and then there was one species and now there’s six species of goldenrod [laughter].
Margaret: It’s like, whoa, where are you all coming from? And that’s the thing is I just have to be okay with, it’s not what it was five years ago, 15 years ago, 25. Do you know what I mean? It’s got its own design like thing going. It’s designing itself.
Owen: It’s fluid. And that’s a really good example, because these things aren’t static. And as caretakers, we have the ability to steer this to some degree, but the idea is to also let the plants and the site and nature steer it as well. It’s a collaboration. So the idea that we’re imposing exactly what we want into a space is something that we kind of have to leave at the door, because that’s not what this is about. This is a collaboration, and that’s what you’ve been doing and you see what comes and goes. But you also, I’m sure do a little bit of editing here and there and do try to steer it to the degree that makes sense to you.
Margaret: Yes. And I want to talk more about the editing in a minute. But I think as gardeners though, and so down below that’s on the hill above the house and sort of down below in the areas right around the house, I’m more of a gardener. Right? And so I design a pot for the container design for the season, or I have a bed right near the walkway and I want the plants to be the plants where I want them, what I want, how many I want. You know what I mean? And I want to edit it as I want and deadheads it and this and that and the other thing. And it’s just the opposite. That is such gardening… Horticulture is such an act of control and-
Owen: Yeah. Absolutely. And with, I think permaculture has a good breakdown of this concept and they have different zones related to proximity to a residence. And so the zone that’s really close to a house, it does make sense a lot of times to have it be more curated and more fixed. And then as you move away from the residence, it makes a lot more sense to have it be more wild and more natural. And so there’s no hard-and-fast rule in that regard. But what you’re describing is the approach that I use as well, because I do create very curated fixed gardens quite a bit. That’s really actually my bread-and-butter, doing residential design. But with meadows, they’re relatively wild and it’s a very different approach.
Margaret: So a meadow also takes a long time. When someone says, “Oh, we want a meadow. We want to change our part of our law into this.” Why do you give them? And I suppose the timeline that you have to prepare them for also depends on the method of planting that seed, plugs, a combination, what you’re doing for prep, but what do you sort of give as the timeline of expectation?
Owen: When I’m planting with perennial native meadow seeds, I usually tell people it’s going to be at least two or three years before they really start to see those plants be a presence. And it often can be four or five years before a lot of those species are really present in a landscape.
So setting expectations is really, really important. And I try to do that as much as possible starting at the beginning of the design process, because people tend, in our culture, we tend to expect fast results. And perennial meadows take a while to establish.
And a couple of things that I do to kind of mitigate that is I’ve started putting annual seeds in with my nurse crops. So in the first year, there can be color, and often I’ll actually put down another round of annual seeds the second year to create color while the perennial plants are waiting to establish. And I also use plugs in prominent locations, even in conjunction with putting down seed.
Margaret: To sort of speed the process up a little bit?
Owen: Exactly. Plugs really will establish, if you put them in the spring, they tend to really establish and fill out as soon as the first year. So during that first summer, the color and the fullness of some of these plants starts to show up.
Margaret: So can you define “nurse crops” and also tell me some of the annuals that you are using in that first and maybe second year to help sort of visually make it look a little juicier earlier?
Owen: Yeah. So I use annual rye quite a bit as my nurse crop. That’s sort of my… And that’s a really common plant. And the nurse crop really just protects the little seedlings, the perennial seedlings as they establish. They keep the soil from eroding or getting sun, and they also provide much needed green cover. So that doesn’t look like a barren lot while we’re waiting for everything to establish.
That’s what the nurse crop does, but adding some annuals that flower really can provide color in that first year. And I’m new to this, it’s only been really three years or so since I started doing this because I was coming from a place where perennials and annuals and meadows sort of didn’t mix, which I think is kind of the mindset has been.
So my first go-around, I actually used non-natives. I used Cosmos and Gaillardia, and Helianthus, dwarf sunflower, some poppies, annual Rudbeckia, some zinnia’s. And it worked really well. But what I came to realize shortly thereafter is that there’s a lot of native annual seeds that are starting to become available. So that’s something that I’m turning my attention to. And so all of my subsequent plantings with annuals mixed into the nurse crop will be focused on native annuals.
Margaret: O.K. Any particular ones that you’ve discovered so far that you’re going to give a try?
Owen: I’ve been researching this and there’s a whole list that I’ve come up with and I’m trying to focus on things in my region. Something that really stands out are a type of Bidens [cernua], nodding bur marigold, and Indian paintbrush [Castilleja coccinea]; partridge pea [Chamaecrista fasciculata is an excellent one [above, photo by Alan Branhagen].
Margaret: Yes. Yes.
Owen: Corydalis sempervirens, rock harlequin is a really good one. And let’s see, so Lobelia inflata, which is Indian tobacco, Monarda citriodora, lemon beebalm, they’re all really excellent ones. There’s some really good salvias as well that seem to do the job.
Margaret: Interesting. So that’s one way to sort of ease people into it and get a little more visual interest. And then there’s this annual rye nurse crop, so we don’t just have bare soil while we’re waiting for everybody else, there’s some green. So that’s good. And it’s also, as you said, it shades the desired seedlings, and does other work. It probably prevents a lot of weeds from happening, too. It probably crowds out some weeds, I would think, but-
Owen: Absolutely. It offers competition for weeds for sure.
Margaret: So on the other end, kind of where I’m at with mine is that, after a few years, it became clear that there was—and you mentioned it at the beginning—the sort of editing thing. And the editing is really no matter how you started your meadow or what’s in it, any area that isn’t controlled, like the garden near the house that we were talking about [laughter] with constant weeding and so forth and cutbacks and deadheading, there’s going to be editing needed.
And I find that is kind of hard to figure out some of it, because there’s the chance for soil disturbance, especially if when you get woody invaders. And obviously I’m not telling you anything because you’ve been through it [laughter]. I mean, the worst for me is the, I guess they’re blackberries or something of the Rubus, that have underground runners and stuff like that. And it’s like, well, where do I disturb and not disturb? And do I just cut off the tops or do I rip it all up? Do you know what I mean Owen?
Owen: I do.
Margaret: And how much do I intervene when I’m doing more harm than good, or what is the greater good? Can you give me any advice on that? Because I think other people probably have this experience, too, with sort of wilder areas of their garden. [Above, a front-yard planting of meadow species by Owen.]
Owen: Absolutely. And a really good question, because everything related to this sort of care, this sort of editing, is predicated on the site and what’s happening. So there’s no hard-and-fast rule with any of this. And so for instance, if you have blackberries showing up or some sort of cane plant like that, and they’re going to spread, it does make sense to dig them out.
When a meadow’s establishing, if it’s really fragile, and you’re going to create a lot of disturbance (fragile in the sense that the perennial meadow plants haven’t established yet, because they’re still just sprouting from seed) it can make a lot of sense to just clip some of those blackberries back and keep an eye on them, maybe tag them and then come back in a year or two once those meadow plants start to establish and then dig them out when you’re not creating as much disturbance.
And that’s hypothetical, but that’s just an example of how you really want to steer things in a direction that is going to basically balance out all the factors. So you have to be able to understand what these plants are doing, how they behave. For instance, annual weeds often show up in the first year or two when meadows are establishing from seed. And they tend in general not to be a problem, but there’s also certain species that maybe you don’t want growing there just because they’re not attractive.
But in general, perennials will push out annual weeds once perennials establish. So really it’s a matter of kind of weighing these things against each other, and putting together your best guess. And I think this is something you’re well aware of, but I think it’s important to remind your listeners, that a lot of this is experimentation and really just seeing what happens. So if you’re skeptical about something like pulling blackberries, maybe just pull one and see what happens in a month or two.
Margaret: I think that’s a really good idea. And it’s almost like that should be our guiding principle for all our horticultural experiments [laughter] and land management experiments. Because if you’re not sure, if it’s the first time you’re doing something and you sort of do it 50 times over or 100 times on a large scale, and it’s not the right tactic: Oops. Yeah. So we ought to do a few more trials. Huh?
Owen: Yeah. And a lot of this is experimentation. We were talking about annual seeds, and I am learning how to use native annuals as in my nurse crops. It’s something I’m not able to find a lot of information about, because people haven’t been doing this. It’s been very limited if they have. And so there’s people like myself and a lot of other people who are essentially figuring this out. And that can include all of you, all of your listeners, because that’s how we kind of regain this knowledge is by playing around and experimenting.
Margaret: Right. And then sharing the insights that we have, what worked and what didn’t really.
Owen: Exactly. And there’s that whole adage that you don’t know a plant until you kill it [laughter]. And there’s a lot of truth to it because you really know what works and what doesn’t work when you fail. And so a lot of times people are really scared of that. But if you’re doing that on a really small scale, then that’s a really good approach, because you’re going to learn a lot.
Margaret: So then what about the sort of—aside from editing and making the decisions on how to intervene when it’s needed with invaders and so forth, and how aggressively—what about the sort of annual regimen of care? You have clients who have these meadows now that are in various stages of establishment. And so like mine, I tend to mow it once a year, not too early in favor of to try to protect all the creatures who are in there overwintering, as we’ve all been hearing about in recent years.
But also, I started doing that a long time ago, not doing it too early, because I wanted the unwanted—that’s a crazy way to structure a sentence, “I wanted the unwanted” [laughter]—I wanted the less-desirable plants to be up and growing, the cool-season growers, like a lot of those old pasture grasses and weedy things that got jumped up early before my desired crops, like my little bluestem, that was one of my foundational crops that I really wanted to favor, which is a warm-season grower. Right. It starts a little later. So I wanted the other guys, the bad guys, to get up a few inches before I mowed, or even a little more before I mowed just as the bluestem was coming through.
I know it’s a long way to describe it, but that was my strategy. And it turns out to be good for the wildlife probably, too, because it means I’m mowing a little later. So that was my thing. But is that what you do? Do you figure out a timeline based for everybody in terms of their sort of spring cleanup, if there is one, or when there’s a cleanup or? Because I think, I can’t imagine mowing in the fall, people mowing in fall, not just for ecology, but just because I love looking at the meadow frosted and under the snow in the winter and fall. [Above, bluestem and goldenrod in an unmown mini-meadow at Margaret’s.]
Owen: Yeah. Meadows are beautiful in the winter, and that’s one of their main attributes is that they have all of that color and texture in the winter.
In regard to maintenance and sort of how to go about that, when to mow, it’s really site-specific. So in the first couple years of a meadow establishing there’s probably going to be more editing and more involvement than there is once it’s established. And a mature meadow is something that tends to not need a lot of care. So when a meadow’s establishing it can be really helpful to do some spot weeding, weed-whacking, use a scythe, whatever it is. And keep things down that you don’t want to encourage, because really plants can outcompete each other.
And that’s especially the case with a little bit of help. So that’s really kind of how I see my role from a maintenance perspective. You’re really just encouraging the plants that you want to see and discouraging the plants that you don’t want to see. And once a meadow is established, it tends to be a relatively minimal amount of that, but it’s still very important to just observe and keep an eye on it. Because if something does come in that you don’t want, whether it’s blackberries or mugwort or whatever it might be, if you catch it early, then they’re relatively easy to get out. So a lot of the diligence is really observation and just being ready to do that editing if something shows up that you feel is pernicious or unhelpful.
Margaret: Mugwort, ugh, that’s one that’s no fun [laughter]. That’s one that is definitely no fun. Yeah, I have it in one spot, not in the meadow, but elsewhere. And it’s like, “Oh, you again, you’re up again. Can you just go away please, mugwort?” But it’s a toughie.
So I’ve been starting some sort of new experiments the last couple of years since we last spoke, kind of unmowing some other areas. And they’re not so far from the original older kind of meadow that’s established. But it’s really fascinating to me, these sort of test trips that I’ve been doing where I just haven’t been mowing them, creating sort of these islands, different things come up even a 100 feet away, or a quarter-acre away, let alone a quarter-acre away. I
t’s really, there’s so much potential diversity. And again, I’m in a rural area, so it’s not the same as if I was in a lawn that started a sod or seed or whatever. But it’s interesting to sort of also do some forensics sort of, to like see who comes up, and watch. And even in a conventional lawn, I think some of the lawn weeds are pretty great. Some of them are good pollinator plants and so forth.
Owen: Like violets.
Margaret: Yeah. I mean, violets are so important.
Owen: Yeah, they’re really important early season pollinator plant. And what you’re pointing to really is what I try to impart to people as much as possible, which is that nature wants to be diverse and abundant. And our perspective is coming from a place in our culture where we’ve essentially diminished that presence and to such a significant degree that we don’t even know that that’s the case because we don’t generally experience it or we don’t have first-hand contact with that kind of thing. And ultimately, plants just show up. I don’t think anyone even fully understands how this works. We have a vague idea.
Margaret: Yeah, I don’t.
Owen: But it’s pretty mysterious in some cases. And really what our role is when we’re creating meadows or doing any sort of ecological gardening, is collaborating with nature and trusting that it wants to be abundant. And that sounds maybe a little sort of vague to a lot of folks, but it’s literally true. So if we give it a chance and we watch what shows up, we’ll see that in action.
Margaret: It’s pretty great because again, even a place that I’ve known for so many decades, the same piece of land, when I’ve changed my methods or timing of interventions—there’s this one really steep spot, for instance, where it’s really hard for me as I’ve gotten older to take the push mower (it’s too steep for the tractor) which is 70 pounds or 80 pounds, and be on this really big tilt. And I’m like there with this giant thing, trying to out muscle the machine. So sometimes that area doesn’t get mowed very often.
And it’s the one place on the property that I have annual fleabane [above]. I get the Erigeron and it’s like I get this wonderful outburst of these tiny little white daisies every year because I’m doing something different. I don’t understand exactly why, but I’m just putting two and two together and making a conclusion .
Owen: Yeah. I mean, and ultimately the proof is in the pudding in terms of getting results like that. And so that’s why variation and experimentation is so helpful, but also letting things grow, letting things unfold, and observing that. We tend to think that we know what we’re doing as gardeners, but once you start getting into the ecological realm, the connectivity between things and the levels of interface is so complicated that we’ll probably never understand it. And so that’s O.K.
Because it’s happening anyways. We don’t need to be able to break every little detail down to its respective part. So what you’re describing is a good example of how these things work. And if something works—and I tell people this with meadow-making—if you can get results, then you did it right. There’s no one way to approach this.
Margaret: Yeah. It’s not exactly like baking, where either the dough rises or it doesn’t rise.
Margaret: Exactly like that, right? There’s lots of different, well, I mean you can still eat it even if it didn’t rise, but it does have a mind and a spirit of its own for sure.
Owen: It’s very different than most things we do except for raising other living things.
Owen: Whether they’re pets or children.
Owen: But with plants and ecology as well, because we’re talking about soil and all these other factors, it’s all alive.
Margaret: Yes. Well, I’m always so glad to speak to you, and again, congratulations on the second edition of “Lawns into Meadows,” which is just out, Owen Wormser.
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 14th year in March 2023. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the April 17, 2023 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).