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The Dirt | Meadowscaping: Benefits Above and Below the Surface

Meadows provide so many benefits that lawns just don’t compare.

Let’s take a quick look at the average American lawn: it’s green, uniform, well-manicured and perhaps surrounded by a white picket fence. It’s visually aesthetic and soft to the touch. Lawns can be financially and environmentally costly to maintain. Switching from lawn to meadow can reduce irrigation, curb the use of fertilizers, and cut carbon emissions associated with mowing. For a list of environmental impacts associated with lawn care, view this article by Bill Chameides, Professor Emeritus of Duke University.

On the other hand, the beauty of an urban meadow extends much further than the surface and better wedding reception venues! Urban meadows transform small areas of lawn into a celebration of native plant species, biological diversity, habitat for birds and insects, and environmental health and well-being. Meadowscaping revitalizes tracts the landscape with native grasses and other non-woody plants that provide ecological functions (Logalbo). What are some of these ecological functions?


Enhanced Biodiversity

Urban meadows enhance biological diversity. Enhancing biodiversity has many beneficial trickle-down effects: the variety in plant types provide habitat for a variety of birds and insects, including pollinators. By selecting wildflowers with different colors, shapes, and bloom times, urban meadows provide food for at-risk native pollinators all throughout the season (Logalbo). Biological diversity in plants also means that the natural nutrient cycle is enhanced. Different plants compete for different nutrients within the soil and accumulate nutrients differently within their biomass. In effect, studies have shown that diverse groups of plants have a better ability to use the natural resources available to them; these resources are used to increase plant biomass, which reduces nutrient loss from the ecosystem and leads to long-term increases in carbon and nutrient stores, which also directly contributes to increasing productivity (Tilman).


Healthier Soil

The soil is also positively impacted by increasing plant diversity. Different plants have different root structures, which vary in depth, size, and type (fibrous vs. taproot). In addition to improving the nutrient cycle and sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, root diversity improves the soil’s ability to allow water to infiltrate and filter through the soil profile (Selbig). When more water can infiltrate into the soil, less water is left to runoff. Runoff increases erosion and nutrient loss, and many contaminants are introduced into the larger hydrological cycle through runoff. In short, environmental quality is improved when water infiltrates the soil and become cleansed through the soil’s natural ability to filter.


Pollinator Support

Finally, urban meadows create habitat and provide food for pollinators and other beneficial insects. In the United States alone, land eight times the size of New Jersey has been turned into non-native monocultures – lawns (Logalbo). By converting some of that lawn space into urban meadows, landowners and caretakers are providing increasingly important “stepping stone” habitats and food sources. Native pollinators that benefit from urban meadows include yellow faced, blacktailed, and fuzzy horned bumblebees; California chap legged bees; mining bees; mason bees; and green and striped sweat bees (Logalbo). Other pollinators and beneficial insects include hoverflies, lacewings, parasitic wasps, pirate bugs, lady bug beetles, assassin bugs, and ground beetles, among others (Pendergrass). Pollinators serve an irreplaceably important role in agriculture, and beneficial insects will help to keep away other insects that damage gardens and flowers one bite at a time.
Meadowscaping is a great way to get outdoors and learn more about your local environment. By turning some of your lawn into urban meadow, you’re not only creating a visually appealing statement about yourself; you’re also providing a stepping-stone of habitat for native pollinators.

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Native checkermallows and Oregon sunshine are a couple beautiful natives that work well in an urban meadow. Get more native meadow plant ideas in the Meadowscaping Handbook by West Multnomah SWCD.