letting a lawn revert to the wild

wreidhead(SW Switzerland)December 17, 2004


I just discovered Garden Web and it looks like a wonderful place. This is my first post and I hope I have the right forum.

My mother lives in rural upstate NY and has a one acre plot that we have been maintaining as a lawn for many years. Now that we are grown and she lives alone, she is thinking of letting a large part of it go wild. The obvious immediate benefit is that there will be that much less to mow and maintain. But she would also like for the local wildlife to be able to come closer to the house (our property is backed by former pasture now turned meadow) and would like to be enjoy local wildflowers. And there should be minimal maintenance required. So I have a couple of questions:

First, would this make it a meadow/prairie garden (and if not, which forum should I post to?)

And second, can you point to to some resources that would tell us how to proceed. I suppose the easiest thing to do is just to stop mowing it. But from what I read here, the tall grasses would quickly take over and crowd out wildflowers, and then there is the queston of having to resow the local species...

Any advice would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

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joepyeweed(5b IL)

i think you are in the right place. you are correct that if you just stop mowing the lawn - its more than likely that undesirable weeds will likely take over rather than the natural setting you are trying to create. however, some people do just that and they dont mind the mix of exotic weeds. they have a survival of the fittest kind of mentality. i think as long as their weeds are not aggressive/invasive then thats okay.

but generally when one reduces lawn area to reduce labor requirements, generate wildlife habitat, and be more in harmony with nature, there is some initial effort required to establish the natural flowers and grasses and minimize the invasion of exotic weeds. and there is also an ongoing effort to remove or prevent those weeds. now this weed control maintenance is still considerably less effort than the maintenance of a turf grass lawn.

you asked if you would create a meadow or prairie - the natural succession in the new york area would be a meadow then a woodland then a forest. and you can let this succession proceed with a guided hand by removing the exotic aggressives or invasive species as they present themselves. if the exotics are not kept in check, more than likely the progression would be to a brushlike thicket or monoculture of undesirable vegetation.

places to start - look for a new york native plant society. probably easily findable on the web. my favorite site is www.for-wild.org, however they are primarily in the midwest but they have lots of great information available on the web that is applicable for everyone. i have also found the local nature center a great tool for learning about the native vegetation and natural condition of the flora and fauna in my area. www.prairienursery.com is a great website with a good description of how to get a prairie started. their seeds are midwest based but their information on getting started and maintenance is applicable for whereever you are.

Here is a link that might be useful: grow it -dont mow it

    Bookmark   December 17, 2004 at 9:26AM
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John_Blakeman(z5/6 OH)

Many rural landowners think that merely allowing a patch of lawn, whether it be a few hundred square ft or even several acres, go un-mowed will result in a natural meadow or wildlife habitat area. It's a nice thought, but it never, ever works out that way.

Instead of a meadow with grasses and "wildflowers" the area quickly is overrun with aggressive weeds, followed in a few years with woody brush, usually of invassive, non-native species such as multiflora rose and Asian honeysuckles.

By the end of the fifth year the landowner is scratching his head wondering what evil natural force was unleashed on the land. It was supposed to be an ideal meadow habitat. Instead, it turned into an ever more impenetrable brush fortress.

In short, in the humid Midwest and East of the US, any land not mowed or burned or grazed, by nature, turns into brushland, then decades later, into real forest. Meadows can persist only when mowed, burned, or grazed.

An alternative is to mow the area only once a year, to suppress the woody vegetation. But this has to be done by a large commercial brush mower. A lawn mower usually can't do this.

A prairie lanscape can be created, but this requires extensive site preparation (all existing vegetation has to be plowed or killed, followed by difficult seeding with proper prairie seeds). Prairies (which grow nicely in NY) supress woody vegetation better than other meadow species. But prairies, too, must be burned or mowed each year to keep out the weeds and brush.

I use little bluestem as the major grass in my prairie landscapes, and it is gorgeous.

    Bookmark   December 17, 2004 at 9:54AM
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If the goals are low-maintenance and improved wildlife habitat, I suggest that you encourage succession to woody plants, rather than attempting to create a meadow. My argument for goin this direction is two-fold:

1. To get a high-quality meadow with mixed grass and wildflowers, you would probalby need to kill off the current grass cover and plant native seed. And once the current cover is killed, weeds will become an overwhelming concern for several years, requiring more, not less, maintenance in the form of mowing, burning, and/or herbicides.

2. The area will naturally grow into a forest habitat unless you work hard to prevent it -- so why not go with the flow? Compared to starting a 'new' meadow or rehabbing the current meadow, planting trees and shrubs will be pretty easy. It will require buying and planting seedlings (often available from state forestry departments at low prices) and protecting them from grass competition (with mulch or herbicide) and from grazing (with various mesh or plastic tubes).

The third path, I guess, is to do nothing. Your field will probably turn into a nice-looking meadow for a number of years (albeit one dominated by non-native species), then it will gradually be invaded by trees and shrubs. Millions of acres in the northeastern U.S. have gone through this succession in the past century, and most of this area has turned into pretty high-quality forest habitat. It is true that there are more invasive woody species around now than there were in 1900, so the resulting forest would probably be more of a 'mongrel' community, unless you spend some amount of effort to remove aggressive invaders as they crop up.

Good luck!

    Bookmark   December 17, 2004 at 1:19PM
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dghays(Z10A FL Brevard)

I think a grass/wildflower situation is what she's looking for. The local library probably has a few books which show how to go about the conversion process. There is no doubt that to end up with a desirable landscape it will take a decent amount of work for the first few years. It would also need to be mowed once or twice a year. My library has several books concerned with this. Since viewing wildlife, and aesthetics are her objective, allowing it to grow out of control would probably not do what she wants. I am finishing my second year of my meadow, and there is no shortage of weeding. I am finding a decent amount of desirable plants popping up in my landscape without seeding, along with weeds. Take the neighboring properties plants into account in deciding how much seeding or naturalizing you will allow. I am amazed at the plant diversity on my 1.5 acres of property. Good luck with your efforts.

    Bookmark   December 23, 2004 at 10:41AM
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Flowerkitty(Z6 or Z5 SE MI)

Great advice from everyone. Here's my experience as an beginner with an acre. Trees, vines sprout rapidly anywhere you don't mow. In areas that already have trees, and too little sun for meadow I'm planting trees of my chosing before junk trees like white mulberry, maple get a foothold. I'll leave the leaves where they fall, add native shrub, ground cover, paths, and beat down the nightshade, PI, etc. But I love a sunny meadow. I saw a trailor park that had planted a small meadow with a picket fence around it and it was charming. (They even put up a sign saying 'MEADOW' so the city wouldnt ticket them) It lasted about five years and they cut it, but it was a beautiful thing to see. There is nothing like a field of mixed grasses rippling in the wind. I want to try something like that in the sunny center of my land. Should get at least a few years out of it before I get tired of fighting thistle, devils beggars tick. Open sunny areas get invaded the fastest by the worst plants. Also lots of great native plants don't bloom the first year. They look like, well, weeds. I didn't find out what I was missing until I let some noxious looking areas go wild. Many uglies turned out to be beauties. I also cultivated and mulched a giant patch of beggars devils tickweed - ouchie.

    Bookmark   December 25, 2004 at 6:50PM
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AdamM321(MA z5/6)


I have a little experience with letting part of my lawn go and not mowing. It was a small area that used to be a vegetable garden in the back. Probably 40x20ft size. It is a mess. It has been at least 5 years. Actually some of what popped up is pretty such as Adenophora confusa which is a Common Ladybell. White Flower Farm has it in their catalog for 3 plants for $19.99. It can become weedy, but not invasive and is easy to pull up. But among those are a few very invasive, ugly, hard to uproot plants such as Poke Weed which is poisonous and has a deep taproot, seedlings from neighboring silver and norway maples, an ugly crap apple tree in my neighbor's yard, seeded into the area and seedlings all over the place.

The longer I leave it go, the worse it is getting. I hope to get out there and clean it up this spring. I got the book 'Meadows' by Christopher Lloyd out of the library. Pretty photos, many of them from England though, where he lives. He also explains a meadow as needing management.It has to be cut to the ground at least once a year to keep the tree and shrub seedlings from getting a foothold. Which isn't easy to do when the grass and plants are 4ft tall. You would have to use a string trimmer or other device. Then what to do with what you cut down? It can't be left on top of the meadow.

I am rethinking my idea. I think I want to modify my idea of a meadow. Cutting the area back to the ground and getting out the tree and shrub saplings then perhaps planting the area with some wildflowers, some bunching grasses, some garden plants and maybe one corner of native shrubs.

I would actually enjoy experimenting with it, if it was a clean slate at this point and I didn't have to get all the unwanted plants out of it first.

Any other ideas or suggestions would be appreciated.

    Bookmark   January 24, 2005 at 12:35PM
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joepyeweed(5b IL)

easiest way to knock down tall grass and shrubby woody vegetation is to burn it. what stands after being burned can usually be sawed off. in a 20 x 40 area, once the vegetation is on the ground, i would probably smother the area with cardboard, grass clippings, coffee grounds and top it off with wood chip mulch (look up lasagna gardening). anyway the layers of stuff would kill anything underneath and leave you a clean slate to plant in. eventually the cardboard and other things will decay adding some organics into the soil.

what to do with stuff that is mowed down...compost it or leave it on the ground as mulch.

    Bookmark   January 26, 2005 at 10:01AM
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Your experience of letting an old garden plot go wild is probably the worst-case scenario. A plot of disturbed soil is a magnet for aggressive weeds, and the garden plot probably already had a good seed bank of weed seeds.

If you had sprayed your plots with roundup for a growing season, then planted an appropriate mix of perennial grass and forb seeds, you would have had a much better chance for a positive result. With a little help (periodic high mowing) in the first couple growing seasons, the perennials would resist weed invasion and would have provided a stable, attractive meadow planting after a couple years.

As others have mentioned, annual mowing or cutting with a string-trimmer to maintain a small meadow planting is not a major effort. And the trimmings can be composted, burned or put out for a yard-waste pickup.

    Bookmark   January 26, 2005 at 11:17AM
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dghays(Z10A FL Brevard)

I think for the first couple years the best method of management would be to walk the property periodically and simply yank out (with shovel if tough) undesirable plants. I bought/planted 4 elliott's lovegrass plants in my backyard, and now probably have 100 here and there. Also, purple lovegrass popped up on its own, and now thousands are all over the place. But besides all that, I had to walk around and yank stuff out, and go around and selectively 'roundup' different weeds. The hardest work will be establishment, previous to when weeds go to seed is critical. After that management should be liveable. Mostly bunchgrasses to crowd out weeds, with perhaps wildfllowers or whatever else is desirable. If a moderate amount of management up front can't be done, It'll be tough to succeed with it.

    Bookmark   March 6, 2005 at 7:11AM
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