I once took this naive idea to stop mowing part of my garden and let it become a “natural” meadow. Just a small 5 by 10 foot experimental chip. Let nature take its course and surely, I thought, my little patch of grass would grow tall and flowery, a healthy new home for insects, pollinators and birds. (Damn, maybe there would be some jumping salmon and Sasquatch coming out of the forest!)
My wife rolled her eyes and within a few weeks so did I, as the bushy grass was getting thick and matted. It was not pretty. No wildlife viewing. I shaved the sad little soul corner of my lawn.
Fortunately, there is a good way to grow “naturalistic” – if not strictly natural – groupings of native herbs and wildflowers in your garden. An upcoming online video session titled “Meadowscaping in the Home Garden” (hosted by WSU Clark County Extension, Clark Conservation District and Clark County Green Neighbors) will explore the great possibilities and practical challenges.
Don’t take these challenges lightly, advised Beth Goodnight, a former graphic designer turned WSU master gardener and professional landscaper. All of that expertise – his design and planning skills as well as his gardening knowledge – came in handy when Goodnight moved from standard landscaping to grassland landscaping. (Goodnight recently moved to Idaho, but is still active with the local group of master gardeners.)
For starters, cultivating a healthy meadow isn’t just about letting your lawn go, she explained with a chuckle. (I pleaded ignorance. I’m from New Jersey.)
“The grass on your lawn in Vancouver is not native wild grass,” she said. “It’s probably Kentucky Blue Grass. Kentucky Blue Grass shouldn’t even be in Vancouver. It does not grow well in the Pacific Northwest.
This is because it requires a lot of water, especially in the summer. We certainly have plenty of water here, but it’s not summer that falls.
So we irrigate. And fertilize. And apply herbicides and pesticides. All this to keep our lawns uniformly green and unusually green.
Fighting Mother Nature takes a lot of work, Goodnight said. And why? If you want birds, she said, you need bugs. If you want insects, you need tall grass and flowers. If you want flowers, you need pollinators.
The main benefit of grassland landscaping is the welcome from Mother Nature, Goodnight said. “Grasslands are good for the ecosystem in general,” she said. “They provide habitat, they filter water and sequester carbon.”
Other benefits are personal and aesthetic, she said. “Once installed, they require less maintenance. They become beautiful and relaxing in a way that people find surprising and different.
Getting all the way to beauty and rest takes a lot of upstream work.
“It takes time,” Goodnight said. “Think of your meadow garden as one of your children. Children go through phases and they are messy. All parents know this.
It took Goodnight three years for its great Idaho prairie to “start to look like something,” she said.
Parents also know that it is usually easier to raise children one by one. You may be anxious to redo your entire landscape, but consider taking small steps. Start by replanting a small, confined section of your garden with native grasses and wildflowers, Goodnight said. Starting from babies rather than seeds will save you labor.
“The people who advocate replacing your entire lawn right now are being overly simplistic,” she said. “There is a lot to learn and a lot to know. Growing from seed can be difficult.
Unfortunately, she added, it can also be difficult to find specialist expertise and suppliers of alternative or native plants. Most urban and suburban greenhouses and nurseries lack the supplies and knowledge, she said.
“The industry doesn’t make it easy,” Goodnight said. “They follow the money, and the natives are not where the money is.”
Check out the attached list of resources recommended by Goodnight, including the nonprofit and all-volunteer NatureScaping of Southwest Washington, which operates a demonstration garden open daily in Brush Prairie.
If you want to be ‘breathtaking’ by modern and sophisticated grassland landscaping designs, Goodnight recommends that you visit New York City’s elevated High Line Gardens and The New Perennialist, maintained by renowned natural landscape designer Tony Spencer.
“It’s a feast for the eyes for anything to do with grassland management,” she said.
A steep learning curve and a lot of hard work aren’t the only challenges you’ll face. Others could be your unusual neighbors and your community’s codes and standards, written and unwritten.
“There are planned communities where you just can’t have a grassland,” Goodnight said.
America’s favorite residential landscaping is still the golf course – that Kentucky Blue Grass rug – and people in your neighborhood might be baffled even by a baby mess.
Goodnight recommends charming them by starting with a compact and carefully designed ornamental meadow.
The natives don’t always have the Technicolor punch of other plants, she said, but the right design will emphasize the beauty of the set.
“The nursery industry has all these plants that are wow, pow, big, fabulous! ” she said. “The natives are more discreet. The aesthetic appeal is more on the whole.
Plant your natives carefully, with an eye for a pleasing design, she said, and you’ll start sneaking new ideas on some sort of wilder beauty right under your neighbors’ noses.
“Doing this accustoms the neighbors to the idea that the natural is beautiful,” she said.