Convert some lawn into meadow or prairie, expert advises

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – If you want to do something good for the environment, consider not mowing so much grass, advises an expert in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.

"Although lawns can provide benefits, large expanses of lawn displace other diverse natural habitats that most wildlife species find appealing," said Dana Rizzo, a renewable natural resources extension educator based in Westmoreland County.

Rizzo describes a lawn as a rather hostile, sterile environment because it is clipped short and consists of very few species due to its lack of food and places to hide or nest. More than 24 million acres of this type of environment surround our homes in the United States, and it continues to spread, which causes a continual loss of native vegetation and wildlife habitat.

As suburbia spreads, Rizzo urges consideration of lawn alternatives, such as meadows or prairies, to surround homes so that native wildlife can thrive. She pointed out that both prairies and meadows contain a mixture of native grasses and wildflowers, although prairies generally have a higher percentage of grasses.

Rizzo does not suggest getting rid of lawns altogether, but rather deciding the minimum amount of lawn that is needed and then considering how to convert the remaining lawn into a space where natural habitats can grow. One way to create this space is to remove existing lawn or vegetation and plant certain types of annual and perennial plants and grasses.

"An alternative to planting a meadow or prairie is simply to stop mowing and allow nature to take its course," she said. "This natural method of establishment is inexpensive and will result in a meadow that is attractive to many wildlife species, from butterflies and birds to rabbits and red foxes. The only disadvantage is that you have little control over which species will colonize your meadow."

According to Rizzo, the first three years of a meadow or prairie garden require the most time and money. Once established, however, the meadow or prairie will be essentially maintenance and expense free, besides the occasional need for weed inspection and mowing once a year.

Homeowners should consider local ordinances before deciding on lawn alternatives, Rizzo advises. Property owners should research local laws, and if any exist that interfere with their goals for the property, they can apply for a variance.

"Also, share your plans with your neighbors and explain to them the benefits of what you are doing," she said. "They may follow your lead to preserve native vegetation and wildlife, which is a significant step toward improving the environment."

More information about transitioning a lawn to a meadow or prairie is available online in a free Penn State fact sheet, "Meadows and Prairies: Wildlife-Friendly Alternatives to Lawn," authored by Margaret Brittingham, professor of wildlife resources.

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Last Updated November 01, 2013