Meadowscaping: converting your lawn into a meadow even bylaw officers will love

Before manicured lawns, with their chemicals, mowers, and blowers, there were ecological meadows, with their butterflies, birds, and bees.

~Penny Lewis, Ecological Landscaping Association

That gifts were being offered was evident in the general hum and flutter of insect life. The meadow was audible with bees and crickets; the mowed grass was silent. The meadow waved and nodded in the wind; crowds of leaf hoppers leapt to the brush of a hand. The lawn was deadly still.

Sara Stein, Noah’s Garden
Image: GreenWorks

Why meadowscape

Ben Vogt: Converting a Small Front Yard to Prairie Beds — 2014-2019 & Front prairie beds vs suburbia

As the years went by I felt ridiculous for having lawn. Just a few feet away was a 1500′ garden full of pollinators, spiders, frogs, birds, etc… I began to see the unused lawn as lazy and selfish, a place no one could call home, a place that did not amend the soil or sequester carbon or cool the air around my home.

~Ben Vogt, A New Garden Ethic

A meadowscape is a wildish garden designed using primarily native plants (though you can mix in a few companionable non-natives) leveraging the power of systems and managed ecologically. Benefits of meadowscapes include:

  • offer habitat and forage for birds, pollinators and beneficial insects (you’ll see birds and insects you’ve never seen before)
  • improve water infiltration and offer drought resistance via the deeper root system of native plants 
  • lower maintenance costs, save time and reduce or eliminate mowing costs 
  • reduce carbon footprint by eliminating emissions from mowers, blowers and trimmers as well as the petroleum inputs used in fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides
  • improve water quality by eliminating runoff from fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides
  • capture and store more carbon than a traditional lawn because of the deeper root systems of native plants
  • improve air quality by reducing emissions from lawn equipment and capturing particulate matter, absorbing gaseous pollutants and phyto-remediating soils
  • reduce damaging noise pollution from lawn equipment
  • connect us to the unique beauty of place reflected in the heritage of our local ecoregion

Designing beautiful meadows in small spaces

Thomas Rainer and Claudia West: Designing plant communities using layers 

If your city has an outdated yard bylaw, if you’re not yet ready to grow completely wild or you’re worried about complaints from neighbours you can use the principles of layered plant communities to design tidier, more legible meadowscapes. 

To design a tidier meadowscape: 

  1. Limit plant selection to 5-7 species. Restrict blooming species to one or two at a time, using a similar colour scheme. Aim for approximately 65% sedges or grasses and 35% flowering plants (you can play with that number depending on the number of pollinators you want to support and how tidy you want the end result to look). Larry Weaner, in Ten Elements of Natural Design, has this to say about the vital role of grasses & sedges: “Although there are many different types of native meadows, they generally have one thing in common. The plant group most vital for their stability are the warm-season grasses such as Little Bluestem (Schizachrium scoparium), Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and Panic grass (Panicum virgatum). Although wildflowers receive the bulk of attention and are certainly an important aesthetically pleasing portion of the mix, it is the grasses that provide the stability for successful long-term results. Only through a combination of warm-season grasses and tough native perennials selected for site adaptability can we create dynamic and colorful landscapes that can live up to the low-maintenance expectations surrounding the wildflower meadow.”
  2. Match plants to site conditions and biodiversity goals. Check the plant lists below for answers to questions like: What soil will it do well in? How big does the plant get in your specific soil, light, and moisture levels? How does it spread and in what time frame? How compionable is it? What wildlife does it support? 
  3. Think about plants as groups of compatible species that interact with each other and the site. Place plants in masses and drifts so that there’s a pattern to see and places for the eye to rest and follow. Space the centres of the plants close together (30cm) to quickly establish your meadowscape and reduce the risk of weeds gaining a foothold. 
  4. Plant a dense base layer (a living green mulch) to cover the ground, cool soil, increase biodiversity, provide cover for wildlife and prevent weeds. Sedges are a wonderful choice that keep your meadow from looking bare in early spring before other plants emerge. You’ll need a lot of sedges (50 in 9 square meters). Low growing native grasses (such as Sporobolus heterolepis or prairie dropseed) can also work as a base layer. Include flowering ground cover plants (approximately 10% of total plants) to nestle in and weave among the base layer. 
  5. For seasonal interest, layer in flowering plants that offer seasonal colour (aim for 1-2 bloomers in spring, summer, fall) and group them in clumps of 3-5 to increase visual impact. Aim for 20% flowering plants for clumps or drifts. 
  6. Choose plants that play well with each other such as well-behaved clumpers Since sedges have fibrous root zones, choose flowering plants with deep taproots (such as milkweeds or coneflowers) that can more easily access nutrients below the sedge roots or that are competitive enough to coexist with the sedges. 
  7. Depending on the size of your yard, choose one or more architectural plants that stand out. Possibilities include tall native perennials (such as Baptisia australis or blue false indigo), edibles (such as Asparagus officinalis) or small native shrubs found naturally in meadows and prairies (such as Ptelea trifoliata or common hop tree). Aim for 5% architectural plants.
  8. Include bulbs for seasonal colour. As with the flowers, plant in groups of 3-7. Alliums are a wonderful edible addition to a meadowscape and – as an added bonus – they’re a natural pesticide that deters ticks & mosquitos

For a sample plan, check out Ben Vogt’s suggestion for what to plant if you have 9 metres in half to full sun with clay soil that’s dry in summer but moist in spring and fall (much like our conditions here in Kingston). Here’s another of his modular matrix designs (4.5 x 4.5 metres) that you can multiply out to cover as much space as you’d like.

Modular matrix design, Ben Vogt

Designing wilder meadowscapes in larger spaces

Neighbors no longer ask us if we aren’t afraid of snakes and other critters in our plants. They instead tell us about the birds, butterflies, bees, and bats they saw darting in and out of our garden.

~Jennifer Ceska

While meadowscapes designed with low growing sedges or grasses and a small variety of well-behaved flowers results in tider, designed meadowscapes the tradeoff is loss of biodiversity. They’re at least 50% less botanically diverse, with a resulting decrease in the variety of supported wildlife. For a wilder meadowscape:

  • include more species with overlapping bloom times (natural meadows can have dozens of species in a square metre)
  • vary heights and textures
  • mix both grasses and sedges into the base layer 

Avoiding bylaw complaints with cues to care

Many urban dwellers view “a neat, orderly landscape as a sign of neighborliness, hard work and pride… people tend to perceive landscapes that exhibit biodiversity as messy, weedy and unkempt” because they tend to be mistaken for properties that are not cared for. But when biologically diverse gardens contain “cues to care” they become more acceptable to neighbours.

~Joan Nassauer, professor of landscape architecture
Signs, paths, rocks, colourful flowers, bird or insect houses, fences, pots, chairs, benches, sculptures, bird baths and focal points are all cues to care that signal your meadowscape is cared for

Our bylaws are outdated in the face of climate change and the steep decline in pollinators, birds and other species. While we’re on the cusp of a massive shift in how we see landscape – moving away from the conformity of mowed turf – it’ll take time to shift our urban policies. In the meantime, here’s how to pass weed inspection when converting your lawn into a meadowscape.

  1. Use cues to care that show intention
  2. Simply your plant selection to 5-7 plants that repeat, carefully choosing a mix of matrix, .. and .. plants For a smaller garden, choose shorter plants (60-90 cm) to make it look more look more approachable and intentional. Benjamin Vogt’s top mistake native plant gardeners make when designing a front yard meadow is mismatched planting. Specifically using plants that get too tall. 
  3. Create well defined edges (mowed strips, hedgerows, rock-lined edges, picket fences and gravel paths) 
  4. Talk to your neighbours, let them know what you’re doing and why 
  5. Use signage that helps neighbours understand that your meadowscape is intentional rather simply a failure to keep your garden tidy 
  6. Designing in clumps of blooms and restricting your species palette helps reduce the messiness quotient that some associate with informal, naturalistic gardens 
  7. Create a focal point (a tree, a boulder, a stump, a large pot, an inuksuk) to give people something to focus on 

Maximize ecological benefits through benign neglect 

“Plants are social and react to changes in their network. If you take them out of their network, they lose functionality and resilience.”

~Thomas Rainer

While we’ve been trained to control nature, meadowscapes benefit from a more conversational approach:

  • Learn to identify invasive species and remove them immediately if they seed into your meadowscape
  • Thin or remove aggressive species like Canada goldenrod or wild senna
  • Deadhead grasses that may take over (such as little bluestem) or choose sedges instead
  • Thin seedlings of some more architectural and seasonal-blooming plants to preserve a slight sense of order and rhythm that even in a wilder space our eyes look for. Clumps and drifts. Think about a prairie, and how the plants guide you, how we look for patterns to connect to and navigate the landscape. It doesn’t take much editing, and in the end, the plants are still allowed to move and do their thing — to show me what they want and need.
  • Experiment and play. Always remember that a natural meadow is constantly changing — not just from season to season but from year to year. Embrace and be excited by the loss of some plants and the spread of others
  • Cut back your meadow in late spring only after beneficial insects like butterflies, spiders, bees and beetles emerge from hibernation (ideally until apple trees are no longer in bloom
  • Chop and drop spring cuttings, leaving them on the ground to improve the soil and provide all the nutrients plants will need (no compost or fertilizer required!) 
  • Leave seed heads for the wildlife and to provide structural beauty in the winter (no more deadheading!)
  • Skip fall cleanup as withered stems provide habitat for overwintering bees, caterpillars and other wildlife
  • Grow and learn with your plants, letting them find their way in the world, knowing that some will move or die while others may spread enthusiastically. 
  • And if neighbours and bylaw officers are finding it too messy, here are some great tips on how to un-messify your garden


Plant selection

  • Prairie and meadow plants (Credit Valley Conservation) lists plants by height, flower colour, bloom season, value to wildlife, moisture and soil preference, and sun and soil.