Nature Notes: Lawns

Lawns are boring and wasteful of water and fertilizer. It’s much better to have a meadow. Tradition holds that ancient and classical gardens had green plots that were sprinkled with flowers, as if the gardeners had small meadows in mind. 

The Persians were celebrated for these flowery greenswards and their style of green interspersed with blossoms can still be seen in the design of Persian carpets. In the Middle Ages, lawns are often shown in illuminated manuscripts and paintings as being covered with delicate wild flowers. 

Instead of this ancient ideal of meadow, nearly everyone these days cultivates the closely manicured lawns brought about by the advertising of one Edwin Budding, the man who invented the lawn mower in 1830. Said he at that time, “Country gentlemen will find in using my machine an amusing, useful and healthful exercise.” We can blame this salesman, who convinced the landed gentry to use something they didn’t need, for beginning the custom of a close-cropped lawn.

One must wonder at the viability of a custom that requires millions of gallons of water to be wasted each year on something as little used as lawns. Water is becoming increasingly scarce in West Texas and Eastern New Mexico, and drought has caused the restricted use of water in many towns and cities. Some people are returning to the pre-1830 concept of a perfect lawn – the meadow. A number of entrepreneurs are now offering containers of seeds that promise a carpet of blossoming wild flowers from spring until fall.

Ranchers are fascinated by grass. They talk about grass and those who have participated for years in conservation projects are downright proud of their grass. When they speak of it, they compare it to the archetypical appearance of the grasslands before settlers arrived.

Many amateur naturalists think identification of grasses is beyond them. Those who can identify wildflowers often can name the prettiest grasses. With first an eye for the form of the seedhead, a beginner can then learn the differences of the nondescript apparent sameness of the blades. Seed heads of grasses are varied, but most give the feeling of airiness, softness and brightness.

Some are fun, like fall witchgrass, whose panicles of seed stalk and tiny seeds act like a hot air balloon and go floating for miles just above the ground. 
Some blades have a period of glory. Sideoats grama turns a delicate orange in the fall and winter. Sideoats is one of the most nutritious of grassses, and the orange is a bright banner bringing herbivores to the sweetest patches.
 
Both native grass improvement and meadow installation are helped by an awareness of succession. Here’s how to create a meadow:
Certain plants, such as tumbleweed, grassbur, goathead, kochia, and careless weeds need bare soil to germinate, so the first stage of creating a meadow is to cover the bare ground with mulch. The mulch can be wood chips, cotton burs or hay scattered about, preparing the ground for seeding. Seeding should not only be of native grasses, but also native wildflowers. 

An easy way to establish a meadow is to find locations on private property and get permission to run a mower with bagging capability over it, and then merely spread the clippings over the mulch bed. In our region, collect seeds of chocolate daisy, yellow aster, copper mallow, blue gilia, mealy blue salvia, sleepy daisy and other perennials to increase the diversity of the meadow. Instead of having one species of grass manicured to a carpet-like appearance, see who can create the most diverse meadow! 

Nature Notes is sponsored by the Dixon Water Foundation and is produced by KRTS Marfa Public Radio in cooperation with the Sibley Nature Center in Midland, Texas.