Do people really want meadows on their quarter-acre lots?


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:

The trick
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. 


  1. Many older neighborhoods never left the meadow: fescue, clover, moss, mondo, bulbs, what the wind blows in.

    Alas, newer neighborhoods have deed restrictions against them.

    Meadows are made formal by their mowing. 3 mowing heights have the most impact but many look formal at 2 mowing heights.

    The smaller the meadow the better your landscape design must be.

    Susan you are right about people not creating meadows. Follow the money. Why would Mr. Mow-Blow-Go want to sell a meadow? What’s in it for him. LESS MONEY.

    When water & gas are too expensive then we’ll see meadows.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  2. There is a corner of my backyard that I *call* a meadow, but it is really a disorganized wildflower garden that sometimes more closely resembles a weed patch. My backyard is surrounded by shrubs, which helps prevent complaints from neighbors. My problem is not mice but rabbits, who are not content with the clover and plantain in my lawn and regularly dine in my vegetable garden. None of the backyard habitat enthusiasts warn you about that! Re the front yard, the city is encouraging rain gardens, granting an exemption to the weed ordinance for those who participate in the program, but I would prefer a more attractive solution to less lawn and better drainage on the public side of my domain.

  3. Meadows also are not “natural” in the sense that people might think: a permanent, unchanging feature of the landscape. A meadow is a successional feature, a transition from disturbed landscape to forest. The natural forms of “disturbance” – fires, floods and landslides – are generally things to be discouraged about one’s home. So we need to intervene, anyway, by mowing to retain the meadowishness. Ticks and Lyme Disease are a serious risk.

    I’m planning a rain garden of native plants for my front yard, replacing 1/3 of what’s left of my lawn. Adjacent to the sidewalk, and in line-of-sight with all the other lawns up and down the block, it will be conspicuous, let alone visible. It can’t be worse than the blasted patch of turf I’ve got now. As a demonstration garden, I hope it inspires some of my neighbors to consider alternatives, as well.

  4. You’ve missed the point of a meadow. A meadow is not a lawn: a meadow is to be looked at, not walked through.

    Because we didn’t need all of the open grass space, I have converted half of the lawn around my house into meadow. I live in the epicenter of lyme’s disease, and take tick safety very seriously. The meadow has wide paths around the edges and also right through it, offering safe access around the yard. The mowed edges also act as a visible frame, making the meadow look intentional and tidy.

    I’ll see about getting some photos up on my blog. . .

  5. What Tara said. That is my lawn in an old smalltown neighborhood. What about pushing the concept of “mowed meadows”?

    Dh always mows the lawn on one of the higher settings, and I’ve convinced him to mow one very enclosed space (so enclosed he has to take the mower down some stone steps, let me tell you he was not happy with that design) every other time.

    With a mowed meadow you can have a tidy look, less tick problems, and still have work for the mow and blow guys, they will just have to change the seting on their mowers and offer different kinds of weed and feed.

    Let us promote diversity on our lawn as we promote it in the rest of our society.

  6. Great post on an important topic. I think horticulture professionals, master gardener groups, etc. do homeowners a disservice when they fail to make real-world recommendations. Many people would love to garden more sustainably but they can’t figure out how to get the neat, usable front yard required by their families and their deed restrictions without the so-called “blow and go” helpers. Down here, with an automatic sprinkler system and a lawn crew, you can maintain a St. Augustinegrass lawn with a minimal investment in time and money. The same cannot be said of a rain garden, a native plant garden, a butterfly garden, a wildlife habitat, a meadow, a front-yard vegetable garden, or any other hort-trendy theme gardens. What will we recommend for the homeowner who has about a hour a week and $150 a month max to spend on his garden?

  7. Meadows will always be just plain ugly to some people and just plain beautiful to others. It’s sort of like a woman’s fingernails. Some people look at fingernails like mine — on the short side, generally clean but often with signs that they’ve been digging in dirt recently — and think “ugh-lee.” I look at bright red lacquered nails and think “ugh-lee.”

  8. Kudos to Susan – a very thoughtful topic to wrestle with publicly!
    Being in the wildflower seed biz I am often faced with public prejudice toward wildflowers in general and meadows in particular. As with all forms of prejudice – negative feels tend to stem from ignorance. People aren’t comfortable with what they don’t know about and likely have never seen.
    I don’t think meadows are for everyone. But I can tell you that more people are installing true wildflower meadows than ever before.
    And more people are looking to create a diversely populated lawn.
    I take exception to Xris’s comment. I regularly design meadows that are meant to be walked through! How better to appreciate it than to be immersed in its glory! I recommend a frame of Eco-Lawn around a meadow combined with a low maintenance Eco-Lawn pathway through the meadow. Thanks again for the great topic, Susan!

  9. I have a (buried) pipeline behind my house. The pipeline company is very concerned about anything growing big enough to have roots that might disturb the pipes (I understand there are actually 4 of them down there, going from Texas to New England). So they mow the area above the pipeline once or twice a year. So most of it looks a lot like meadow. Although some neighbors mow the part behind them and use the space as an extension of their yards. And a neighbor and I actually have vegetable gardens there. (Our yards are wooded and there is sun up there.) The pipeline company is happy with this situation because it helps keep trees from growing and disturbing the pipes.
    My father, who lives with me, walks our dogs through the meadowy part. He has taken to weed-whacking the path through it so that he doesn’t get so many ticks. (The dogs have already tested positive for Lyme disease.) Anyway, the other day he asked me about throwing some wildflower seeds in the meadowy part. Any thoughts?

  10. I, too, have a meadow of sorts (lots of wildflowers and native grasses) in the back quarter of 2/3rd acre lot. I like it, but realize it might not work in a newer neighborhood with a Home Owners’ Association.

    The up side of it is that I never have to water it and I let it grow tall for a large portion of the year.

    My neighbors are all okay with it, but my former boyfriend thought it was ugly and a maintenance issue, so Pam J above is right about beauty being the eye of the beholder.

    I’d be interested in knowing what lyme’s disease does to dogs long-term. I had a relatively young dog die years ago. An autopsy was performed, but the vets could never figure out what caused her to suddenly have pretty serious neurological problems.

  11. Hey Emily. I love to hear these stories about something we don’t like to think about — underground “pipes … going from Texas to New England” — actually resulting in something as nice as the gardens and meadows you describe behind your house. Unintended consequences aren’t always bad, I guess. If my dad had ever lived with me and walked my dogs (if I had dogs) I’d say “yes, dad, do whatever you want with whatever seeds you have.” What’s in those pipes anyway? Could it be… oil?

  12. Elizabeth Barrow, I think $150 a month on a lawn is a lot of money to keep your St. Augustine pristine. I shudder when the poison trucks rumble through my neighborhood to poison people’s yards. We don’t have a homeowners association that demands a lawn, so there is no pressure to do so. Also here in Florida, we have the new Florida Friendly law which states that no organization can demand that you maintain a landscape in a certain way if it doesn’t meet the Florida-friendly criteria–low water needs, no poisons needed, etc.

    We have let several sections of our property, which were formerly sodded with St. Augustine, grow into meadows, but we do mow near the house and a pathway down to the lake. We did invest in a riding mower, but that and its gas is our only expense and we don’t mow at all from October until March. Without the poisons, some St. Augustine still survives, but it’s been joined by blue-eyed grass, clover, Bahia grass, sedges, St. Johnswort and more. When a bare spot develops, it’s quickly replaced by other plants. This mixture of plants that we mow looks just a good, if not better than the neighbors’ lawns who spend all that money. The blue birds and blue jays feast on our lawn bugs, plus we are not polluting our lake.

  13. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder – I happen to think there is nothing uglier than the boring, ubiquitous monoculture of the tightly shorn front lawn. But most people want to uniformity. Unfortunately.
    I find that if a homeowner has the interest and inclination, they will find the time to maintain whatever garden they love. With proper plants in the right conditions, a mixed grass wildflower meadow could be easily maintained with a few interventions throughout the year, rather than the weekly shearing, mowing, and blowing that happens for front yards that focus on hedged shrubs and turfgrass.
    The tide IS changing – I find that what Miriam says is very true. Younger families are planting more adventurous front yard gardens and a blowsy, romantic meadow is a viable alternative! I wouldn’t underestimate the new generations of homeowners – from what I see, they seem to be more environmentally conscious and don’t mind taking a little extra time to re-think and maintain a garden that reflects their taste and ideals.
    As for meadows looking unattractive for part of the year – our eyes are used to perfection, all the time. Nature has its fallow times, and there is nothing wrong with allowing for it. Many front lawns go dormant over the winter and need to be overseeded, afterall. Same diff!
    Thanks for the opportunity to address this – great topic.

  14. Perhaps it is the look of a meadow that is so attractive? I sow seeds of annuals (California poppies, larkspur, nigella, rose campion, cornflowers) between the perennials in my garden for a “wildflower meadow look” in spring while waiting for the perennials to bloom in summer. The perennials — coneflowers, agastache, monarda, milkweed, joe pye weed, ironweed, liatris, Russian sage and such continue the “look” in summer. I keep grasses to a minimum and use carex, stipa and purple fountain grass (annual here).

    Deer are a huge problem for us and they are the tick carriers. We keep our “real meadow” grass, a former dairy pasture, cut below 9″ per our HOA covenants.

  15. I think wildflower meadows can provide a great alternative to parts of lawns. Here’s a WaPo article from last year about them:

    We have a demonstration wildflower meadow here at the Franklin County Cooperative Garden that can be viewed here:

    (taken in mid May 2010)and here:

    (taken in 2008)

    Ticks can be a problem, but keeping a mown path, and taking some basic precautions by following Dr. Raupp’s A.I.R. advice can mitigate your risks:

    More info here:

    and here:

    If your property is big enough, you can always establish a flock of guinea fowl:

  16. Hi Ginny Stibolt,
    I actually agree with you — although I have a bit of St. Augustinegrass, I never use pesticides or conventional fertilizers on it. The $150 I was talking about was to pay the “mow, blow and go” guys, if one were to choose that. Because I’m interested in it, we have things like rainwater harvesting, rain gardens, organic vegetable gardens, butterfly areas, etc. We had a little meadow in our old house. But I think we need to help those who aren’t INTO it understand how to garden while lowering their impact on the environment. I don’t think a meadow is practical for most of those folks. Perhaps a more environmentally-friendly way of maintaining the boring, ubiquitous monoculture?

  17. Someone else said it, but I’ll say it again.

    Guinea fowl and chickens keep the flea and tick problems to a minimum.

  18. My god you have invited a Rant of my own ! Where to start ? To begin with you must recognize you write from the bias of someone on the East Coast where summer rains give you an entirely different aesthetic than the West.

    You live in a region where the climax ecology is a deciduous forest, where mowing whatever motley assortment of weeds and grasses that might accumulate in the clearings you a call a yard is a necessity for those who don’t like to garden. In other parts of the gardening world, grasses dominate the ecology and meadows are more easily understood.

    For those who DO like to garden there are choices, and meadows is one of them. For someone who professes to have appreciated my book “The American Meadow Garden” I am aghast at your statement: “even when they’re at their best, a meadow in a suburban development looks suspiciously like a weedy, unkempt yard at an abandoned property”.

    Clearly we in the Lawn Reform movement have much work to do in order to combat these sort of sentiments. True, there are not many successes yet in meadow gardening, especially in the East Coast, but if folks are to believe your rant they won’t even try. Meadows will never be for everybody, nor nearly everybody, but I will rant and rave that for those who like to garden, meadows “at their best” provide a chance to make a glorious difference.

    “In love with real, rambling, chaotic, dirty, bug-ridden” meadows.

  19. Hello? What? Between this post and the “Are Perennials Easy?” post, I sometimes wonder if we garden on different planets. Maybe we do. More from me on Wednesday.

  20. Hey, Californians, with your blooms in winter, bring it on!

    But Saxon, I DO love your book with its mainly Western meadows of short carexes – but they’re not what I’d call meadows. (They’re lawnLIKE, so I think of them as alternative lawns.)

    Here in MD the taller, poorly designed, amateur jobs I’m talking about DO look like crap much of the year and even at THEIR best look weedy and unkempt to most eyes. I didn’t mean to imply that well-done meadows look weedy and unkempt at THEIR best. (My unclear writing – sorry!)

    Left and Right Coasters can probably agree that good design and savvy plant choices are key. And alas, those factors are total mysteries to even experienced gardeners.

    Amy, til Wednesday.

  21. Ticks and tall grass? Ha! I think your knowledge on the subject is a lot off, actually I know it’s WAY off. Ticks ones that carry lyme and ones that don’t are all over. Ask me how many times I’ve seen them fall out of the trees! Oh and leaf matter yeah, they love that stuff, live in that nice natural mulch that we use in our woodland gardens. Do you not know that people that go camping in the WOODS get ticks? Ah darling there aren’t meadows in the woods! I don’t have a meadow in my yard as my yard and gardens are dominated by old growth oak and poplar trees, but I have my fair share of ticks. Meadows and tall grass aren’t the only places that ticks live!!

  22. To my eye, natural meadows look best when they are in context ; large expanses of undulating natural open space.
    Put a meadow in a small suburban front yard and it does not carry the narrative over.
    In your minds eye you may think it says meadow because that’s what your intention is, but it’s not. It’s a ‘cultivated’ metropolitan space trying to look like an indigenous replica.
    The difference is obvious. Authenticity trumps.

  23. Many years ago, when I was a young designer and working with the prince and princesses of Suburbia, I would suggest the replacement of backyards with meadow plantings. The look of horror and/or blank stares convinced me to drop the idea.
    I agree with you, not in our life time.

  24. The moment I read the word “ticks” in your blog, I understood how misguided it is to “sell” the idea of meadows as a viable option for lawns.
    With all due respect to Saxon Holt, whom I admire, just because some people believe that the meadow is a better option, doesn’t actually make it so. It makes it nothing more than somebody’s opinion.

  25. My small 8 x 40 prairie planting covers a dry clay hillside that literally could not have sustained a conventional lawn–it had some brave pioneer weeds, but mostly it just had pine needles and baking hot death. I could have terraced it out and trucked in dirt to make beds, but that would have involved a grueling amount of work and money, so I decided to put in a couple of clay-busting natives and see if they could make use of the space. It’ll be a few years yet before it fills in and I know if the planting is actually a success, but I think there’s an argument to be made for meadow plantings as a viable and desirable option on areas that can’t TAKE lawn.

  26. I would really hesitate to call anything in an urban or suburban tract a meadow.

    Maybe it would be good to redefine this so it fits more universally as space which is not landscaped heavily but allowed to grow as it will and is only minimally maintained so that it does not go completely feral.

    It is just not possible to do that where I am, because in the summer we get so hot and dry. When I think of meadows in CA, I actually think of the vernal pools (of which very few are remaining) where one sees a continual parade of different plants and critters inhabiting the ‘pools’ as the seasons progress. Complete ecosystem within a limited space.

    I could see planting wildflowers in my front yard, but it would still be contrived, and that space would be better suited to cover-cropping with clover or buckwheat at this point in time.

    Actually, I think this is a problematic topic because not everyone’s approaching it with the same soil conditions. I could very well plant a meadow sort of space in my front yard, but only after a few years of bermuda grass abatement and crowding out with cover crops that will turn the dirt back into soil. It takes years to grow soil, as opposed to growing plants in dirt, merely.

    Just thinking aloud.

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