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 was certainly 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. We were informed that a lawn is non-native turf grass that is mowed frequently. A meadow is an area that consists of perennial native wildflowers and grasses.

Then, Drew O’Neill from Weeds Inc. spoke to us about the process of 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?

 There are four barriers:

  • Our collective interpretation of what a lawn should be
  • Local ordinances
  • Maintenance
  • Concern for wildlife (ticks, mice, snakes, bees)

These are valid points. Thankfully, with education and a lot of cheerleading, these barriers can be overcome. This is where PEC’s presentation came in. Neighbors that are unaware of meadows may think the once neatly manicured lawn had stopped being taken care of. To address this, Susan Myerov and Paul Racette from PEC highlighted 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 cues to care 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. After the meadow is established, there is little maintenance, but it is especially important if the meadow is in a public space to determine who is caring for it.

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 restore the natural cycle and create a healthy habitat for animals. Drew mentioned that if you have a good meadow, mice are less likely to want to go into your house. PEC also noted that having a buffer between your house and the meadow can also reduce wildlife concerns.

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