Manicured Maintenance to Natural Natives

By Samantha Zrillo, PEC Graduate Fellow – Temple University

On October 25, Brian Winslow from Brandywine Red Clay Alliance hosted an event exploring lawn to meadow conversions. Municipal officials, homeowners associations, private landowners, watershed stewards, and others gathered to hear presenters from the Pennsylvania Environmental Council (PEC), PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), and Weeds, Inc.

The “Lawn to Meadows” workshop was held at Shadyside Park, located in West Bradford Township. While the weather was dreary, the conversation certainly was not. Upon arrival, we filled up our coffee cups, grabbed apple cider donuts, and headed to the park’s meadow where we began our conversation.

First things first: we needed our definitions. A lawn, we learned, is non-native turf grass that is mowed frequently. A meadow is an area that consists of perennial native wildflowers and grasses. Drew O’Neill from Weeds Inc. then spoke about the Shadyside Park installation. Here, he noted, the meadow was on a slope, therefore it was not usable for active recreation, but it was an excellent location for capturing stormwater. He also reminded us that patience is a virtue– meadows take up to three years to fully establish.

We then moved underneath the pavilion for three very engaging presentations.

Kelsey Mummert and Alyssa Swartz from DCNR were up first and started with a surprising statistic: there are two million acres of lawn in Pennsylvania. Recognizing the benefits of conversion, in 2018, the state announced a goal to convert 10,000 acres of lawn to woods and meadows. To help reach this goal, DCNR launched its Lawn Conversion Initiative in 2020 to help with funding and/or technical assistance.

So, what are the benefits?

The main benefit of converting lawns to meadows is improved water quality, but that’s just the beginning. Other benefits include:

  • Minimized mowing = cost saving, less air pollution, less labor
  • Serves as therapeutic landscapes
  • Improves soil health
  • Minimizes flooding
  • Functions as a carbon sink
  • Helps lower atmospheric temperature
  • Increases diversity of plants and animals
  • Serves as a habitat for pollinators and other animals

Wow — so many benefits! What are the barriers?

Not every lawn-to-meadow conversion goes smoothly! Some projects may encounter difficulties with:

  • Cultural attitudes about what a lawn should be
  • Local ordinances
  • Maintenance issues
  • Concern about wildlife and pests

These are understandable and valid concerns. Thankfully, with education and a lot of cheerleading, these barriers can be overcome. This is where PEC’s presentation came in.

Because neighbors who are unfamiliar with meadows might mistake one for a neglected lawn, Susan Myerov and Paul Racette from PEC stressed the importance of “cues to care” to let people know your meadow is intentional and cherished. Included in this can be fencing, a mowed buffer strip, signage, certifications, bird boxes, and more. Having a statement of intent along with these visual cues can help code officers understand the meadow. Local ordinances can also be modified to add language that defines and accepts meadows. The statement of intent will cover your plan for maintenance. Once the meadow is established, little maintenance is necessary, but identifying who’s responsible for maintenance is still important — especially if the meadow is in a public space.

As for wildlife, thinking about the food chain can ease concerns. Ticks are inevitable, but opossums eat them. Snakes eat the mice. Bees pollinate the plants. The meadow is helping to restore the natural cycle and create a healthy habitat for animals as well as people: as Drew pointed out, mice with access to a good meadow are less likely to want to go into your house. For extra peace of mind, PEC’s presentation recommended having a buffer between your house and the meadow.

Overall, the benefits greatly outweigh the concerns.

By the end of the event, I was fully immersed in my imaginary meadow– singing with the birds, smiling at the butterflies, and smelling the beautiful flowers all around me. If you are also imagining yourself in your perfect meadow wonderland, keep the creative juices flowing by clicking this link for more information: How to Create a Meadow