Underneath the wildflower meadow

A recently installed wildflower meadow at Old Rough, Kirkby Knowsley, by Landlife

There has been much ado of late over wildflower meadows, prairie restorations, and the conversion of existing turfgrass lawns into less-resource-consumptive cousins. The rustic visual allure of the wildflower meadow is infectious, and its promise of using fewer natural resources – not the least of which being water – and ability to attract wildlife, make the meadow a seductive alternative to conventional turf grass. Even colleges and universities with their traditional quadrangle layout are reconsidering just how that quad is rendered green. Despite the seeming allure of the restored meadow or prairie, we need to take a look at what lies underneath and behind the end product.

It should be remembered that we are creating these meadows and prairies in a modern world of botanical hitchhikers and transplants, many of which can outcompete the dear meadow and prairie species we want to see flourish. While weeding out these invaders may be manageable on a small scale, the task becomes increasingly complex as the scale expands. Duke University recently ripped out large portions of its lawn and replaced them with “native meadows.” While the intial installation showed promise, over time weeds moved in, and the ever-increasing complexity of the planting areas and the task of discerning what was a weed and what was not proved too complicated for maintenance crews. The meadows were subsequently ripped out and replaced with turf and trees once again. Yes, it can, and should, be argued that maintenance crews need to be retrained to be able to identify new and unwanted landscape denizens vs. the species originally intended for the space. However, the amount of resources in both time and money required to do so are more than what many institutions are willing to pay.

The lovely Highline, a meadow/prairie planting with a multi-million-dollar annual maintenance budget

Then there is the simple issue of year-round visual appeal. Peak bloom time for wildflower meadows and native prairies tends to be in mid- to late summer. Outside of this period, the meadow or prairie can appear unkempt to many an eye accustomed to a more conventional landscape aesthetic. Additionally, as time wears on, the ratio between grasses and flowering perennials tends to shift towards significantly more grasses than perennials, thereby limiting the show of botanical fireworks most featured in photos of these retorations.

Aesthetic concerns aside, what we are most interested in tackling vis-a-vis the discussion over native meadows, prairies, and the wilder-looking landscape, is the question of whether we are in effect creating ecologically friendly islands of hyper-maintenance and skill amidst a sea of resource-consumptive lawns and landscapes that require minimal skill to maintain. Our attempt in asking this question is not an effort to pooh-pooh the idea of the native meadow and the restored prairie, but rather an attempt to understand how these restorations and installations can be replicated at a large, macro-scale without requiring inordinate amounts of labor and skill to maintain. There are countless examples of low-water and native landscapes that simply become overgrown and neglected due to poor and unskilled maintenance. If we are going to have any hope of seeing wilder landscapes become a part of the urban landscape on a macro level, we are going to need to move beyond the pure propaganda that native = low-maintenance, and figure out how to devise approaches to maintenance that are equally as efficient as they are effective. Perhaps the humble proposal of a nationwide program of weed identification is a place to begin.

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