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My house has both front and back lawns, but I'm not really a lawn fan (high resource use, low utility, ecological issues, blah blah blah). I want to do something else with that space; the question is what. Part of the space has a raised garden bed and a fire pit; for the rest, I'm thinking about some kind of meadow situation (non-manicured growth, flowers, trees, maybe a beehive).

My question is: how much work would that entail? Can I just stop maintaining the lawn and let nature reclaim my property (apart from planting new trees, obviously)? Or do I need to plow under all that turf grass and sow the entire plot with new vegetation? (If it's relevant, we're talking about maybe 3800 ft2 / 353 m2, plus the area in the front (which I haven't estimated), so this has potential to be a sizable project.)

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You cannot just let a yard "go" and expect it to return to a meadow. I have a non-nearby neighbor who thinks that's the way to garden "naturally" and has done just that, after initially planting native perennials and grasses. Now, they have an impressive collection of weeds mixed in with/dominating their plantings. Among the beauties on display are Creeping Bellflower (Campanula rapunculoides, which has now seeded itself in all the neighboring properties), crown vetch (same as the bellflower), quack grass, dandelion, johnsongrass, pigweed, horseweed, lamb's quarters, and many more. The word rampant does not begin to describe the mess they have. Unfortunately for the neighbors, they do pull the ragweed or the city would cut it all down for them.

So - what to do? Research. I could give you a strategy here that would perhaps get you to your goal, but your local weather conditions will play a large role in whatever you plant, and my advice could be useless. I recommend going to your local Extension's web site and see if they have any information there that would help. If your yard is in full sun (which it better be if you're thinking "meadow"), and if you're in the northern tier of US states, I also recommend reading at least one or two of the many books about prairie conversion. Also, companies like Prairie Moon Nursery in Winona, MN and Prairie Nursery in Westfield, WI have tons of helpful information on their websites. But - if you're in the Southern US, then this information may not all be applicable to your site.

Now, I still haven't answered your question about "how much work..." The answer is: A lot, especially at the beginning of the project. For example, you'll have to remove the old lawn, prep the area for planting, plant the grasses and (assuming a prairie-like planting) the forbs (flowers), water water water, and hand-remove unwanted weeds (for at least a couple of years, until the grasses have established). You'll also need to decide how you're going to handle tree leaves blowing into/onto your meadow, as too many leaves (especially during the first couple of autumns) could kill your plants. Finally, you won't be able to burn, so you'll also have to figure out how you're going to cut grasses that are four to eight-feet high (depending on species). A BrushHog reportedly works well.

If you decide to go with a chemical lawn-removal strategy, then it's less work overall, because even if you later till the dead grass, there will be no living roots to come back and infest your meadow.

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  • If I'm in New England, would the prairie model apply?
    – crmdgn
    Jul 15 '20 at 14:28
  • Yes, the prairie model would work, but given New England's average rainfall you may want to stick to a Tallgrass Prairie model, with the appropriate plants (for example, Big Bluestem grass rather than Little Bluestem). If you go "tall" with your plants, then you'd have to make sure that a tall meadow is okay with your city/township's property use rules. Another point - some authors recommend planting the grasses first (no flowers at all) and growing only them for two years. During that time, you can use broadleaf herbicides to kill the weeds.
    – Jurp
    Jul 15 '20 at 19:28
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Good idea but not without some work.

  1. Consider your location as clearly this will only be feasible in certain parts of the world.
  2. Consider what tools and work will be required to maintain the meadow. As meadows are largely man-made as a result of harvesting practices and by pre-/after-grazing by different stock animals. Sheep, cows and horses crop to different levels. Meadow flowers often grow and do best in poorer soils. Rich and aggressive grass species that maybe in situ on your land, [as lawn spp], could slow or prevent the establishment of such species and work may need to be undertaken to mow, [and importantly remove the grass from], the area to reduce/remove these species. As the nutrient levels in the soil are gradually impoverished, the finer and more desired species will arrive. There may be residual wildflower/native seed or species in the soil that have been unable to germinate/grow/thrive due to the lawn care. I have early two spp of early purple marsh orchids growing now that were never present when it was farmed. The seeds were present in the soil waiting for an opportunity.

[Consider how to cut the longer grass, {different machinery/scythe,brushcutter/'billygoat mower'} and how to move/where all the cut grass will need to go.]

  1. The timing of the cut will affect the species that survive. You can cut early for a spring meadow, or later for a summer meadow. As you want the seeds from annuals of the meadow species to be retained, ideally you need to let the grass lie and dry for a few days if possible, to let the seeds fall to the ground. [You are wanting to replicate manual haycutting of old.] After the main cut, you will need to maintain the grass with a cutting regime to keep the nutrient level in the meadow low, [recreating the harvesting and subsequent after grazing by animals of earlier generations]. It doesn't need to be shorn like a lawn but at a level that allows cut perennial plants to recover and some other wildflower spp to 'have their time in the sun' and to stop aggressive or unwanted species to be held in check.

  2. You can increase diversity by cutting paths through the meadow creating different habitats due to the shorter grass; white clover and other species can tolerate this so would be good for bees. The paths can be moved and vary from year to year.

Not sure where in the world you are, but in the UK, I added yellow rattle, [Rhinanthus major] to a former farmers field, to reduce the vigour of cultivated grass spp. This is a plant that is semi-parasitic on grasses. It is known as 'hay rattle' as the seedheads rattle when dry and ripe indicating that the hay was ready for harvest. This has worked quite well and in a few years has almost eradicated them in the meadow. Please investigate what may be suitable for your location.

Old slabs/bricks placed on the grass will after a period of time create a bare layer for planting native wildflower seeds or a ready-made bed for plug plants, [small grown plants]. Don't forget where you placed these before you start to mow !

Be cautious in what you put into the meadow as some plants that might benefit wildlife, [Oxford ragwort/Cinnabar moth] can then become a 'pest' due to their spreading. Also be careful not to introduce cultivated plant varieties that could escape into the wild/other areas and cause a problem.

Longer grass and herbage can be allowed to grow around hedges and trees it you plant these around the meadow or parts of it. This will bring in nesting birds who can feed on the insects feeding on them. Remember to consider how light levels in the meadow may affected by these and how shadier/sunnier areas will provide home to differing spp. Consider planting to feed your bees and other native bee spp. Willow species can be coppiced/pollarded as they grow but their catkins are an important early food source for bumble bees.

It goes with saying that as a potential beekeeper, you should desist/stop using chemicals as a meadow is a community of animals that would be negatively affected by their use. Be patient as it will take a few years to create a meadow from scratch but over time you will see new plants and species arriving, some with your help and some by natures guiding hand.

As regards keeping bees, please consider your location in terms of neighbours, spraying regimes of farmers or local authorities etc to avoid causing problems to people and/or harm to the bees. A hedge/fence around the hive would make the bees fly upwards before foraging and so take them away from potential conflicts.

Best of luck !

PS: If you wanted a 'naturalistic planting' scheme, try reading about the Prairie planting/New Perennial model as exemplified by Piet Oudolf a Dutch garden designer. Dense initial planting to prevent weeds establishing, plants chosen to keep the ground 'covered' with foliage, look good through winter, [bronze stems and stalks], and minimal workload to clear all the old stems in spring and let it renew again ....

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I sort of did that, except I did not start with lawn but forest understory. I still have a lot of trees but I planted hundreds of azaleas which was work,but a hobby. I have 8 ft of grass along the street but I have heard my house described as the "one with no lawn". So it is easy if it your hobby. For New England you would need something other than azaleas; Look at rhododendrons .Look around your neighborhood and see what you like and what seems to grow well . Some small fast trees like redbuds will give shade so you don't need all "full sun" shrubs/plants. I never paid any attention to the native grass like stuff, most of it died out in the shade. My problem is that I planted some asiatic jasmine and it has spread everywhere. Be careful of stuff that is described as "very easy to grow" = invasive. Depending on your objective ,you may want to put in a sprinkler system first . It will help water new plantings.Maybe some productive plants , red currants and red raspberries grow easily and would only be work if you harvest them. Four O'clocks are almost invasive but have a long blooming season making a 4 ft shrub.

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I live in the UK, so this may not apply to your location. The easiest option is to keep your grass but think about cutting different areas at different frequencies. For example, you could have three regimes. (1) - not cut until summer, then cut every couple of weeks or so. (2) - not cut at all. (3) - cut normally throughout the growing season. You could maintain the bulk of the area using (1). You could have a smaller "wild" area not cut at all using (2). To keep your garden not looking abandoned and unkempt, have a perimeter grass path and maybe crossing paths that you cut regularly. You could also maybe have a small regularly cut area near the house. Plant flowering bulbs to naturalise in the turf for added interest.

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