All the talk about meadows we're hearing these days is great, but let's get real – practically no one wants a meadow out their front door. Or out their back door. Or anywhere they have to walk through. Which kinda leaves the back 40 for real meadows, or at least the back five or so. That's the size of the American Hort Society's lovely meadow on the banks of the Potomac, and the size of most client lots of famous meadow-maker Larry Weaner in Pennsylvania.
Now to make my case, starting with aesthetics. Meadows look great some of the year and not so great the rest of the year, which is fine from a distance but not in our front yards. And judging by the ones I've seen, even at their best these suburban meadows looks suspiciously like a weedy, unkempt yard at an abandoned property. Neighbors are not amused.
Then there's safety, especially safety from the ticks that carry Lyme Disease. What's the number one advice we hear about that? Avoid tall grasses! And that's exactly what U.Md. entomologist Michael Raupp said on the radio the other day, so I emailed to ask him to put some meat on those bones – How tall is tall? He wrote:
here is to have a "lawn" or ground cover that will discourage small
rodents like field mice. I imagine that a mouse feels well
hidden from a predator like a raptor in grass 18" tall – this is about the
height of the meadow where my study site is and my crew and I pick up one to three ticks per day when walking through the plot. But I think that 6"
would make rodents feel a lot less comfortable.
The other piece of the
puzzle will be distance from a forest edge. They further away, the less
likely you will be to have small mammals in your lawn. Hope this helps.
I posed the same question to plant expert John Peter Thompson, and he recommends 4-6" as the maximum plant height for safely walking on or through, noting that this is something he thinks about a lot. (Unlike some, adding that "The meadow folks aren't thinking about human health.") His solution is a layered garden, with fairly controlled vegetation close to the house, with more layering of plant heights and types at a distance, and at a distance is where meadows are fine.
John Peter also referred me to USDA websites for tick-fighting info, and there I found pages of mind-numbing info about insecticides and acaricides, and a mention of the fact that many of us don't want to have to spray our gardens with toxic stuff. On that note, here's Cornell weighing in on a natural tick control – the nematode. I also found some scary info about what ticks can do to pets and other animals we care about.
Finally, there's the problem that as boring and uncreative as lawn care is, homeowners can generally figure it out, and mowing requires no experience at all to do it right. Contrast that with the largely unknown and misunderstood methods of creating and maintaining meadows. It took the American Hort Society years and one completely failed attempt to do it right, after all.
So as much as I'd love to see suburbanites replacing their lawns with something, I'd be shocked to see them turning to meadows for the answer. Not in my lifetime, anyway.
Discuss among yourselves.
Photos taken at River Farm, headquarters of the American Horticultural Society.