Some of my earliest memories are of moments spent in the grass—St. Augustine grass to be specific—at the edge of my local pool in the Texas sun, with my sticky fingers wrapped around a quickly melting Popsicle. You might assume this brings up fond, fuzzy feelings, but it’s actually the opposite.
I’ve got a bone to pick with the American lawn, all estimated 40 million acres of it. It’s sucking up 30 to 60 percent of our water supply annually, taking space away from natural habitats, and doing little for our soil. It’s particularly frustrating because there’s a readily available alternative right at our fingertips: meadows.
The U.K. has products like meadow turf readily available for purchase; the EU is unveiling the creation of urban meadows as a key part of its climate change strategy; and European designers like the Rich Brothers, Dan Pearson, and Tom Stuart Smith regularly install meadows and prairie gardens in people’s yards. But the U.S. just can’t quit the lawn. If you, like many, are dubious as to why you should make the swap, I’ve got three reasons (beyond their ethereal beauty and the obvious benefits for pollinators).
A Meadow Saves You Money
A core tenet of the all-American lawn is that it must be green. While it’s easy to keep it so at certain times of the year (think: spring and fall, when temperatures are cool and the precipitation is high), most of the time it’s not. In places like the Southwest, it’s estimated that outdoor irrigation accounts for up to 60 percent of overall water consumption. When you consider the average household water consumption in the U.S. is 300 gallons, that’s 180 gallons per day (and 64,800 gallons per year!) just to maintain your “average” lawn, not accounting for the pervasive issue of over-irrigation.
By contrast, a meadow by its very nature is made up of plants that thrive in extreme conditions, and while irrigation is required initially (and certainly beneficial from time to time throughout its life), by and large it requires little to no water. Because you can also skip the typical mowing, fertilizing, and aerating regimen, the Conservation Foundation found there’s an average savings of $7,000 per acre within the first year of converting a lawn to a meadow—and $85,000 per acre after a decade. Plus meadows are also typically started from either seeds or plugs, which are much less expensive than containerized nursery plants. Your wallet will thank you doubly.
A Meadow Is Low-Maintenance
Say goodbye to the vast majority of upkeep, from pesticides to weekly trims (sorry, lawn guys!). Believe it or not, a meadow thrives in soil that is nutrient deficient. There’s no need for any of the extra nitrogen, potassium, or phosphorus required to keep grass looking good.
Did you know that, according to Doug Tallamy’s book Nature’s Best Hope, something like 40 percent of the chemicals we use for lawn maintenance in the United States are outlawed in other countries because they’re known carcinogens? Tallamy also notes that more than 75 separate studies have shown a correlation between lawn pesticides and lymphoma, yet another reason to nix them.
Surprisingly, a Meadow Helps With Pest Management
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When you increase the variety of plants and pollen in your garden, you’re also increasing its biodiversity and effectively creating a more robust food web that mimics what’s found in nature. So when you plant a meadow, you’re essentially inviting all kinds of critters in and actually increasing the chances that an annoying pest will be kept in check by its natural predator. A great real-world example: planting flowers with umbellifers such as cow parsley or angelica to attract parasitic wasps, whose larvae eat common vegetable garden pests like aphids. It turns out what Jeff Goldblum said in Jurassic Park was right: Nature really does find a way.
If you’re curious about how you can start a meadow of your own, there are some great resources on how to begin. To be clear, I’m not saying that you need to completely get rid of your lawn, because who doesn’t like a game of croquet or badminton. But do you really need so much of it?