Lawns are not only water-hungry wildlife deserts, they are also high maintenance. So why not replace your lawn with a meadow of native plants that provides food and shelter for wildlife. By doing so you will create a natural refuge that will attract wildlife to your garden.
Wildlife Habitat Lost to Urban Sprawl
In the US, suburban homes are surrounded by more than 24 million acres of lawn. As towns and cities continue to grow, and suburbs spread out into open land and forests, natural meadows consisting of native plants that provide natural wildlife habitat are being lost to development.
But we can do our bit to restore some of this lost habitat by replacing at least some, if not all of our lawn with native plants that attract wildlife by providing them with food and shelter. By doing so, you will not only help wildlife survive in the ‘urban jungle’, but you will also be afforded the opportunity to watch wildlife and learn about different creatures as they go about their business in your own back yard, which can be very rewarding for the young and old alike.
While lawns do have some benefits, a large expanse of lawn displaces natural habitat and reduces biodiversity of both plants and animals. A nice neatly mowed lawn offers little in the way of food or shelter to wild creatures. Lawns are also high maintenance, requiring regular watering and trimming to keep them looking good. This has an impact on the environment too: lawns require a LOT of water, and the energy (both fuel and manpower) used to keep your lawn trimmed could be better spent. Many homeowners are now becoming more aware of the economic and environmental costs of maintaining a lawn, and are choosing to convert their lawn to a wildlife-friendly habitat.
Before you dash outside and start ripping up the lawn, give careful thought to how much, if any, of your lawn you wish to keep. If you have children or pets, you may wish to reserve a patch of lawn for them to play on. Once you have decided what is staying and what needs to be replaced, you can begin the conversion process.
Meadows and Prairies: a Wildlife-Friendly Alternative
If your garden gets a lot of sun, you may wish to convert your lawn to a meadow or prairie garden – both consist of a mixture of native wildflowers and grass species, with prairies typically containing a higher ratio of grasses to wildflowers. Prairies tend to be dominated by grasses that grow well in the warm-season, when the weather and soil conditions are warm, while meadows tend to be dominated by grasses that grow well when conditions are somewhat cooler. However, there is much overlap of species in both meadows and prairies, and both terms are used to describe a wild garden consisting of native grasses and wildflowers.
Types of Meadows and Prairies
Meadows and prairies are classified as either annual or perennial.
An annual meadow grows rapidly within the first year and quickly produces a colorful display. However, in order to retain the original mix of species and color, an annual meadow will need to be replanted every year. Commercially packaged meadow mixes typically consist of a mix of annual plants but may include some perennial plant species too. However, commercial mixes may include non-native species that have the potential to spread into local fields and natural meadows. If you opt for a commercially packaged meadow mix, check that the species are native and/or not aggressive plant invader species.
Perennial meadows take a little more time to grow – usually requiring 2-3 years to become established. In the first year of growth, perennial plants establish their deep rooted systems, extending roots deep into the soil. The second year sees the roots and shoots spread out laterally as the perennial plants spread both above and below the soil surface. The meadow becomes fully established by the third year, whereafter it requires very little maintenance. You can establish a perennial meadow by carefully choosing and planting perennial species native to your area. To increase diversity you may wish to add some annual species to your meadow.
Adding native grasses to your meadow not only makes it a more natural habitat, it also helps reduce maintenance, provides additional habitat for wildlife, and can be aesthetically pleasing. Grasses tend to be deep rooted, which helps prevent weeds from taking hold and thus reduces the need for weeding. Grasses provide seeds for rodents and birds to feed on, as well as nesting material and cover from predators. Grasses change color with the seasons providing a beautiful display of bronze, golden hues in autumn.
Selecting Species for your Wildlife Haven
By converting your lawn into a meadow or prairie, you will create a wildlife haven that attracts a wide variety of creatures to your garden. The more variety you have in the plants you select, the wider the variety of wildlife species you will attract. Wildflowers provide pollen for bees and a source of nectar for butterflies and hummingbirds, they also provide a source of food for larvae of insects such as butterflies. Wildflowers and grasses provide seeds for birds and rodents to eat, and a refuge for insects. These insects provide a source of food for insectivorous birds, frogs, lizards and small mammals.
A meadow or prairie garden offers a wildlife-friendly alternative to lawns that will compliment any green home. For more information on selecting native meadow and prairie plant species that are best suited for your environment, or to order native plants, seeds or seed mixes online, visit Priarie Moon Nursery.
This article is one of a two-part series — in the next article learn how to prepare, plant and maintain your meadow or prairie.