I once took this naive notion to stop mowing a portion of my backyard and let it become a “natural” meadow. Just a small, experimental 5-by-10-foot sliver. 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. (Heck, maybe there’d be leaping salmon and Sasquatch peeping out of the forest!)
My wife rolled her eyes and within a few weeks I did too, as the clumpy grass grew thick and matted. It wasn’t pretty. No wildlife sightings. I shaved my lawn’s sad little soul patch.
Fortunately, there is a right way to grow “naturalistic” — if not strictly natural — groupings of native grasses and wildflowers in your yard. An upcoming online video session called “Meadowscaping in the Home Garden” (hosted by the WSU Clark County Extension, the Clark Conservation District and Clark County Green Neighbors) will explore the beautiful possibilities and practical challenges.
Don’t take those challenges lightly, advised Beth Goodnight, a former graphic designer who became a WSU Master Gardener and professional landscape designer. All that expertise — her design and planning skills as well as her gardening knowledge — proved useful when Goodnight made the move from standard landscaping to meadowscaping. (Goodnight moved to Idaho recently, but she’s still active with the local group of master gardeners.)
For starters, growing a healthy meadow is not just a matter of letting your lawn go, she informed me with a chuckle. (I pleaded ignorance. I’m from New Jersey.)
“The grass in 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.”
That’s because it requires a lot of water, especially in summer. We sure have a lot of water here, but summer isn’t when it falls.
So, we irrigate. And fertilize. And apply herbicides and pesticides. All to keep our lawns looking uniformly and unnaturally green.
Fighting Mother Nature takes a lot of work, Goodnight said. And for what? If you want birds, she said, you need insects. If you want insects, you need tall grasses and flowers. If you want flowers, you need pollinators.
The key benefit of meadowscaping is welcoming in Mother Nature, Goodnight said. “Meadows are beneficial to the ecosystem in general,” she said. “They provide habitat, they filter water and sequester carbon.”
Other benefits are personal and aesthetic, she said. “Once they’re established, they require less maintenance. They become beautiful and restful in a way people find surprising and different.”
Getting all the way to beautiful and restful takes a lot of front-end work.
“It takes time,” Goodnight said. “Think of your meadowscape garden like one of your children. Children go through phases and they are messy. Every parent knows that.”
It took Goodnight three years for her large Idaho meadowscape to “start to look like something,” she said.
Parents also know it’s usually easiest to raise children one by one. You may be eager to redo your whole landscape, but consider taking tiny steps. Start by replanting a small, contained section of your yard with native grasses and wildflowers, Goodnight said. Starting from babies, rather than seeds, will save you some work.
“People who are out there advocating replacing your whole lawn right now are too simplistic,” she said. “There’s a lot to learn and a lot to know. Growing from seed can be difficult.”
Unfortunately, she added, finding specialized expertise and alternative or native plant suppliers also can be difficult. Most urban and suburban greenhouses and nurseries don’t have the supplies, nor the knowledge, she said.
“Industry doesn’t make it easy,” Goodnight said. “They follow the money, and natives are not where the money is.”
Check the accompanying list of Goodnight-recommended resources, including the nonprofit, all-volunteer NatureScaping of Southwest Washington, which maintains a demonstration garden that’s open daily in Brush Prairie.
Should you want to be “jaw-droppingly inspired” by modern, sophisticated meadowscaping designs, Goodnight recommends viewing New York City’s elevated High Line Gardens and The New Perennialist, maintained by renowned natural landscaper Tony Spencer.
“It’s a feast for the eyes for all things meadowscaping,” she said.
A steep learning curve and a lot of work aren’t the only challenges you’ll face. Others might be your unaccustomed neighbors and your community’s codes and standards, both written and unwritten.
“There are planned communities where you simply can’t have a meadow,” Goodnight said.
America’s preferred residential landscaping look remains the golf course — that Kentucky Blue Grass carpet — and folks on your block might be taken aback even by a baby mess.
Goodnight recommends charming them by starting with an ornamental meadowscape that’s compact and carefully designed.
Natives don’t always pack the Technicolor punch of other plants, she said, but the right design will underscore the beauty of the whole.
“The nursery industry has all these plants that are wow, pow, big, fabulous!” she said. “Natives are more subdued. The aesthetic appeal is more in the overall.”
Plant your natives carefully, with an eye toward pleasing design, she said, and you’ll start sneaking new ideas about a wilder kind of beauty right under your neighbors’ noses.
“Doing this gets neighbors used to the idea that natural is beautiful,” she said.