A NEW BOOK came my way recently with a title that just said it all. “Lawns Into Meadows” is what it’s called, and its author, landscape designer Owen Wormser, gave me a short course on meadow-making in a recent conversation we had on my weekly public radio show and podcast.
“Lawns into Meadows: Growing a Regenerative Landscape” (affiliate link) is his book’s full title, and its approach is focused on sustainability, regeneration, and beauty, says Owen, who owns Abound Design, a firm based in western Massachusetts.
We talked about how to choose plants for a meadow or meadow garden; how to pick the right grasses and why they are the foundation of your meadow; the steps required for proper preparation without chemical herbicides; aftercare tips and more.
Read along as you listen to the August 24, 2020 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).
Plus: Enter to win a copy of the book by commenting in the box at the very bottom of the page.
transitioning lawn to meadow, with owen wormser
Margaret: I’m so glad to get the book, Owen. So to start, the book begins by making the case for meadows versus lawns, which I’ve talked about on the show various times with other guests—Doug Tallamy and so forth. But give us the scene-setting quick pitch on why meadows versus lawns before we dig into your really accessible how-to, especially your “how meadows store carbon” argument.
Owen: Yeah. A lot of people know about how lawns are biological deserts, and they cause a lot of environmental problems. That’s something that you’ve covered in the past. And meadows are really the opposite of that in that they create this level of abundance and one of the ways in which they do that is that they actually build soil, including sequestering large amounts of carbon.
So meadows are incredibly effective at drawing in carbon dioxide, like all plants, breaking that down, releasing the oxygen, taking that carbon and storing it in the ground. And unlike trees, which put a lot of carbon in their trunks, which eventually some of that or most of that’s released back into the atmosphere, meadow plants really park their carbon in the soil.
And their roots can extend as far as 10 or 15 feet into the ground, so they’re really carbon-sequestering machines. And this is a way that you can sequester carbon in your yard, and instead of contributing to global warming with mowing your lawn and using fossil fuels you can have a meadow and sink carbon right on your own property.
Margaret: Sounds like a very good thing to be doing at the moment, definitely. But I hadn’t really read so much about that part of the argument. I’d read about the lack of diversity, the monoculture, or the fact that we mow the lawn into submission so it doesn’t even produce flowers or seeds for insect benefit, blah, blah, blah. So that was a really good point.
Now, you talk about meadows and meadow gardens and you differentiate between the two. Explain what the two are.
Owen: The differentiation that I make in the book is that meadows are planted from seed, and meadow gardens are planted using live plants that are usually called plugs [above]. They’re basically baby plants that come in a tray, so they’re still native perennials, native meadow perennials, but they are planted into the ground and they establish faster than a meadow from seed. However, because you’re planting live plants, usually meadow gardens are only effective for smaller areas, and meadows from seed are generally a much more reasonable way to plant larger areas.
Margaret: Ah, O.K. When you go to see a prospective new client, are a lot of them home-landscape type of people? Small- to medium-size potential meadows that are sort of more meadow gardens, or …
Owen: It’s both.
Margaret: It’s both?
Owen: But I do deal with a lot of residential clients, and an area that’s maybe a quarter-acre or smaller potentially could be considered, but really small spaces are the best for meadow garden, so spaces that are courtyards or garden-size areas. And those can be cleared and prepped like you were planting a meadow from seed, which we’ll get into a little bit. But basically you’re just planting into a cleared area with live plants, spacing them depending on the species, 12 to 18 inches apart, and then they fill in really quickly, including the grasses, and they give you the effect of a meadow, even if it’s in a smaller space.
Margaret: You say in the book, “Designing a successful meadow is mostly about choosing grasses and flowers that will be happy where you plant them.” So, what makes them happy? What are some of the key things that you really evaluate and consider depending on where you’re working? [Below, even a relatively small piece of former lawn can be come vastly more diverse.]
Owen: One of the criteria for building meadows is that they get at least half a day of direct sunlight. And once you determine that an area has that, really you can almost definitely find plants that will match the site, and that’s one of the best things about meadows is that they can grow pretty much anywhere. But what we want to determine is what you’re dealing with on that site. What are those conditions?
And so soil quality, the type of soil. Is it clay? Is it gravel? Is it sandy? Those details have to be figured out, and then the moisture of the soil also has to… the ability for the soil to hold water has to be figured out. Does it dry out very easily?
So those are some examples of the factors that need to be considered, and it’s terribly important that you understand your site so that you can match the plants to the existing conditions.
Margaret: And there are so many different… even in nature there are technically wet meadows, for example. Ones that that’s their reality. They’re in a place where at least during one season or even longer, it’s a moist spot. But those are different plants than grow in a more xeric kind of a meadow, yes?
Owen: Absolutely, and so that’s what will determine the success of the meadow over time, or its ability to establish even, is whether or not the plants you’re using are matched to those conditions.
Margaret: Right. Right. You talked about prairie roots, the roots of certain of these plants going down 10 or 15 feet. I’ve seen some of those historic pictures. I’m just thinking of different sites and how the root systems work underground in different conditions. And I’ve seen some of the historic pictures of slices of the underground soil, looking at the roots of the plants of the prairie in the Midwest and so forth, done at the University of Wisconsin and their prairie restoration and stuff, and it’s just incredibly fascinating how some of those plants learn to adapt to that site by having these really, really deep root systems.
Margaret: Be resilient to that site.
Owen: Absolutely. It’s pretty astonishing how much root mass is below ground with certain meadow plants. It’s pretty amazing.
Margaret: Yeah. In the book you say that you always consider “which grasses?” first. Before the forbs, before the flowers, you think about which grasses, and that you always include two grasses or up to four in a design. Tell us a little bit about why grasses are your first thought consideration. Also, do you think about height and stuff, too? I mean, what are the other things you think about in starting conceiving the design?
Owen: Yeah, absolutely. Grasses are what create the character visually that reads like a meadow. Meadows include grasses, and people expect that visually, but not only is it what a meadow is. They really make a meadow more aesthetic and they soften the flowers that have gone by, and they fill out the meadow in a way that creates that basically the “grasses billowing in the wind look” that for meadows.
So they’re very, very important in that regard.
There’s two types of grasses and there’s grasses that grow in the spring and the fall primarily, and those are called cool-season grasses. And then there’s warm-season grasses, which like to grow in the summer, and usually I use both. The warm-season grasses are the ones that I focus on the most, and really in the book, I encourage people to generally focus on those, but usually I’ll also use maybe one cool-season grass as well.
The warm-season grasses bunch, so they allow other plants to grow around them without spreading too much. And so they really play nicely with other meadow plants.
And when I’m considering grasses and other meadow plants, I am considering height. And I’m also considering the other meadow plants’ bloom time and their color, and ultimately I want plants blooming throughout the course of the growing season, not just for aesthetics, but also for food for pollinators. So height and bloom time are really important factors as well.
Margaret: Just tell us a couple of species of warm versus cool. Just to give us a visual of like, I think little bluestem [above], for instance, is a warm-season grower. Is that correct? And it’s a bunch grass.
Owen: Yeah. That’s exactly the case. Little bluestem is one of my favorite warm-season grasses, and it’s something that I included a lot of times in meadows, because it’s something that really loves dry conditions. And it’s good to hedge your bets when you’re choosing meadow plants, so I’m choosing plants that can take a range of conditions. Then if it’s a very dry year, some of those plants will have a better year than others, and it all balances itself out over time.
And little bluestem is one of those plants that can just take dreadfully dry conditions and it’s perfectly happy, so I love to use that. It’s a beautiful plant and I think it’s important to point out that a lot of cool-season grasses are actually lawn grasses.
Owen: Cool-season grasses spread, and they are more mat-forming, and that’s why I don’t use a lot of them. I do focus on the warm-season grasses more because like I said, they’re bunching and they don’t compete with other plants as much. The spreading grasses, the cool-season grasses, are a little bit trickier to use because they can crowd out other plants, including meadow plants.
That’s why I often encourage people to start from scratch where they’re getting rid of their lawn grass, to make it a little easier for other plants to grow. But it’s not absolutely required but it’s really helpful to just understand that lawn grasses are cool-season grasses.
Margaret: O.K. So you talked a little bit about seeds versus plugs a few minutes ago, about maybe the scale of the project and it’s sometimes more realistic with a large project that you’re going to be using seeds and so forth. But do you sometimes use both?
And is there timing differences in when we would—I hate the word “install,” but you know what I mean, when we would plant this? Just using the word “plant” when I’m talking about do I use seeds or plants sounds redundant. [Laughter.] So yeah, just a little more about that seed versus plug stuff.
Owen: Yeah. Sometimes I do use them both. Plugs, basically a lot of times they’ll give much faster results because they’re just going to take off and start growing. So sometimes closer to a house or a prominent location, I’ll put in plugs to just give more color in the short term, but generally it’s based on area and larger areas I’m using seed.
When I’m planting from seed I’m basically prepping in the same way that I would be planting from plugs as well. So they’re interchangeable depending on how quickly you want results I guess is one way to look at it.
Margaret: And maybe the budget, too, in some cases. I don’t know.
Owen: Absolutely. Seed is much more economical, and you can cover much larger areas that way compared to live plants.
Margaret: Yeah. So you said prep, and so this of course is where those of us as home gardeners—I have a larger site than the average backyard, but nevertheless I’m a one-person show, a home garden. The prep, we all wonder how the heck do we transform this piece of lawn? You know, it seems daunting, and so take us a little bit through that. I mean, let’s assume that we’re not doing acres and acres.
Now, I have to confess that I did the most simple way of all when I first came to where I am 30-plus years ago. I kind of started “unmowing,” as I say, certain areas, because I recognized I knew something about native plants. I recognized little bluestem was present. I knew it was a warm-season grower and people who have listened to the show before have heard me say this, and I knew that I could knock back, if I waited till around the first week of May to mow where I am, I could knock back the cool-season mat-forming grasses and I could favor the little bluestem that was just beginning to emerge. And I could get more bluestem and less of the other guys in this meadow. That was my method. It’s not the best method, but it’s pretty. I love it, and the insects love it, and the birds love it. [Laughter.]
So I don’t know so much about the prep at all, and it’s always sort of frightened me. It looks daunting, but tell me, how do we do it?
Owen: One approach is the approach that you used.
Owen: And it’s the easiest thing to do, and ultimately you can let part of your lawn grow up. And you can also potentially seed into it either by using what’s called a drill seeder, which basically scores into your lawn and places seeds into the score marks so that they have soil contact. Or you can even just sprinkle seeds over the lawn, or you can even plant plugs into a lawn. Mow it one last time and plant those plugs, mark where they are, make sure that they don’t get overtaken by lawn grass as it grows up, and they’ll establish.
That’s one way to do it, and that can be effective. It depends on the situation you’re dealing with, but it’s still going to be far more environmentally friendly than having a lawn. And it’s going to still be able to park a lot of carbon in the ground.
So that’s one way, and really the other main way of doing this is to strip the grass out and till, or simply till repeatedly, and get rid of the grass that way. That’s an organic approach to getting rid of what’s there, including the seed bank. Because if you till repeatedly that allows you to really get anything, to kill anything that resprouts.
That’s important, because what that allows for is for the seed mix or the plugs that are being planted to really be in an environment where there’s little or no competition. And so if those plants can establish, then basically they can generally hold their own, with very little maintenance. You just have to mow once a year, and that generally does the trick. That’s the long and short of it, but there’s nuances of course and the book gets into that.
Margaret: Now you said till, and is it just a plain old home rototiller, and how repeatedly is repeatedly?
Owen: Tilling has to be effective enough so that the grass and vegetation that’s already there is really churned into the soil so that it can be eliminated so it doesn’t sprout. Repeatedly depends on how much the vegetation wants to resprout, so usually it’s two to four times, and also usually a home rototiller isn’t quite strong enough.
There’s a type of tiller called a hydraulic tiller that’s a little bit bigger, and they’re still a walk-behind, but they’re able to chew up the grass pretty effectively. And this can be really hard work so sometimes I really encourage people just to hire a local landscape company to come and actually do all the prep work if that’s easier, because a lot of times it is, because it can be very difficult work.
But basically it’s a matter of using the Rodale method of organic weed control. Repeated cultivation eliminates the seed bank and everything that resprouts.
Margaret: Right, and you said something else really important. You said mowing once a year, and for people to understand. I mean, a lot of times we think meadow, oh, you never mow it. You know, it’s not a lawn. We don’t. But you do, because a lot of them I guess in nature, they either had fire or for instance was one of the methods in certain regions that took down the debris, so to speak, occasionally. Otherwise woody plants start to come in and things can happen that are not as desired.
I think the timing of the mowing is really important. Like I would never mow … It breaks my heart when I see farms near me mow in early fall or mid-fall and not leave all that deliciousness there for the animals to eat all winter, and for important insects and other arthropods to overwinter in, underneath the debris, and so forth. So I do it after the winter, once everybody’s had the chance to wake up after some fair weather.
Margaret: In the early spring, but not too early, if that makes sense.
Owen: Yes, absolutely, and that’s really well-said what you just explained, and allowing the plants to overwinter gives the insects that have larvae on there, or eggs. It allows them to emerge in the spring, but also meadows are really beautiful in the winter and they also provide a lot of seed for rodents and birds and basically support the food chain. So they do that, but like I said, they’re beautiful and in winter sunlight, especially in the early morning and late evening, a lot of times meadow grasses are pretty stunning. [A lawn-turned-meadow project outside the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, MA.]
Owen: So it’s nice if you can leave them there in the winter. And the bit about mowing once a year is critical, and like you alluded to fire has historically been a huge input for maintaining meadows, and the other one was grazing animals like bison.
Margaret: Right. I forgot. [Laughter.]
Owen: But the point being that there has to be something that basically keeps woody plants like trees and shrubs from taking over. And so therefore if you have a meadow, you have to mow it once a year, and that cuts back the woody plants and puts them at a disadvantage, and allows your meadow to endure.
Margaret: Aftercare tips: I’ve just sort of brought up one of them, which is that raspberries or blackberries or whatever—something’s going to come in that’s woody that you don’t want. What’s Owen’s method of dealing with when woodies come in? What do you do? Besides the once-a-year mowing when you still are having the problem even with that, do you edit them out? Do you dig them out? Any tricks for that?
Owen: Yeah. Digging them out can work. Even just cutting them back repeatedly. If you have to cut them back once or twice a season and do some real selective cutting, that can work. Even raspberries and blackberries and cane plants like that, as an example of a weedy plant that can be fairly aggressive, usually if you mow once a year and then if they’re a problem in a certain area you trim them back maybe once or twice, that usually does the trick.
Margaret: O.K. We haven’t mentioned too many different plants. In the last couple minutes, just what are some of the ones you couldn’t live without? I mean, I know you have a palette of them in one chapter of the book, but a couple that you just want to shout out to us as among your favorite performers.
Owen: Yeah. We mentioned little bluestem, which is certainly favorite grass of mine, but butterfly weed is a plant that I couldn’t do without, which is Asclepias tuberosa. It’s a type of milkweed. It has these stunning orange flowers and it’s beloved by a lot of different pollinators, but it also supports monarchs, which are like a lot of insects, sort of hanging by a thread in terms of their well-being on this planet. So planting butterfly weed’s one way to support them, so that’s a plant that I love.
And I use certain plants like Echinacea a lot because they perform, and they do really well, and they can take a range of conditions. So that’s another plant that I really love to use. Echinacea purpurea, and I could go on and on in terms of meadow species, but there are certain ones that really just hit all the check boxes, and those are few that are examples of that.
Margaret: I saw you included one of the Pycnanthemum, the mountain mints, and those have sort of come from nowhere to become an “it” plant of the moment. Everyone’s talking about Pycnanthemum, so I was glad to see one there. [Laughter.]
Owen: Yeah, and they deserve that. That’s kind of funny how plants come and go in terms of popularity. But it’s great that it’s getting more attention because it’s a really rugged native plant that’s beloved by pollinators as well, and so it’s a really excellent plant to have in your meadow. These plants are tough, and they don’t need anything, and that’s the beauty of meadows when it comes to a maintenance perspective. And they’re completely opposite of lawns in that regard, and something like Pycnanthemum is a very easy to take care of plant.
Margaret: Well, the book is “Lawns into Meadows.” We’ve been talking to Owen Wormser. We’re going to have a book giveaway, as I said, with the transcript and I mean, the subhead of the book also says it all: “Growing a Regenerative Landscape.” So, thank you so much for making the time today Owen, and I look forward to meeting you in real life before too long if and when the conditions allow again, so thank you. Thank you, thank you.
(Photos from Owen Wormser, used with permission.)
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 11th year in March 2020. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. 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 August 24, 2020 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).