Grace Farms has restored nearly 80 acres of land to include 10 bio-diverse habitats, including native meadows. This restoration has helped bring back more than 120 species of birds. In addition, we have installed thousands of pollinator plants to provide food for our pollinators including bees and butterflies. Grace Farms is a founding member of Pollinator Pathway in New Canaan, a nation-wide movement of public and private pesticide-free corridors of native plants that provide nutrition and habitats for pollinating insects and birds.
Throughout the year, we offer over 30 nature-related programs, inviting people of all ages to learn and experience our work related to our Nature Initiative, the place of Grace Farms, as well as our other initiatives. Our intentional restoration and sustainable landcare practices also serve as a hands-on educational classroom, where we welcome schools, organizations, and people of all ages to learn and experience sustainable landcare methods, including growing food in our Community Garden.
To illuminate how we can all become better environmental stewards, we invited our Horticulture Advisor Kimberly Kelly to discuss the importance of stewardship and native meadows.
Can you describe your work with advocating for native meadows and what exactly are native meadows?
What a wonderful “gateway” question to so many important topics, as meadows are a highly functioning natural system. I have heard them referred to as “green infrastructure”!
By advocating for less turf grass and more meadows we are not only paying it forward for the environment, but receiving health benefits for both us and the natural world. Importantly these benefits extend well into developing an understanding for something that is referred to as ecosystem equity or the equitable treatment of all living things.
Meadow is a general term referring to a grassland habitat, which is not a common sight in New England. The USDA defines it as an “ecosystem type composed of one or more plant communities dominated by herbaceous species.” The term meadow is great as it is very “user” friendly. Most everyone would understand or can visualize an image of a meadow.
Most grasslands today here in the New England area are from land clearing and are managed. Any grasslands left unmanaged will transition back to shrubs, trees, and eventually forest. Traditionally these grassland/meadow habitats were created by beaver and Native Americans managing the forest.
So what is a native meadow? Generally it is referring to those plants, and plant communities that are native to the region and require infrequent mowing. They are also the plants that are the happiest in a meadow setting!
Most of us like to have a well-manicured lawn that consists of non-native turf grass. But over the years due to the push to save water and cut down on pesticides, there’s been an emerging movement toward installing native meadows. Can you discuss in more detail?
One of the hardest things to do is modify or change existing behaviors and perspectives. The American obsession with the lawn is a great example of this. Until something impacts us in some tangible way, it can be very difficult to achieve change.
In the case of the lawn, we seem to be seeing a move towards more environmental responsibility. Lawns are biological deserts that require more irrigation than any agriculture crop in the USA. They require enormous inputs of water, fertilizers, herbicides, maintenance and money. As we are starting to feel the impacts of vanishing insect populations, drought and climate change it is critical that we start to recognize and change our impact on the environment. And it is happening! We have the tools and the knowledge!
There are exciting examples of municipalities incentivizing less lawn, which has resulted in a new dimension in the family home/landscape. It is freeing from the clutches of the perfect lawn. People can start to “play” with their landscapes and get creative. During the “lockdown” years of Covid it seemed that people were starting to recognize that contact with nature reduces stress and anxiety. Many stories were told about the sights and sounds of nature families enjoyed in their own backyards.
Another exciting milestone is the National Wildlife Foundation, which has a backyard habitat program, has registered over one million habitats, including Grace Farms.
For homeowners and organizations that are so used to having traditional lawns, but want to transition part of their lawn into native meadows, do you have any suggestions?
Even today I had someone ask me how to lessen their lawn, “and can you tell me in five minutes as I have to catch a bus!” And yes I was able to point him in the right direction and assure them it would be a very rewarding effort!
There are so many wonderful resources and books available for the homeowner. It really is not a one size fits all approach. Even being a strong advocate for less lawn, I do understand the value of green space for recreation. You can always start small with a small patch of lawn, or go big as some of my friends and colleagues have done and eliminate all your lawn. It is really quite creative, amazing and beautiful! As a member of the CT Master Gardener Association, in 2022, we had Owen Wormser lecture on transitioning to less lawn. He is an excellent regional resource with a great book Lawns to Meadows: Growing a Regenerative Landscape.
Organizations and large tracts of privately owned land may want to hire a professional to recommend methods of installation and maintenance. The first couple of years are critical to the success of a meadow. There are many excellent horticulturists and landscapers who can advise on meadow installation and management.
As droughts become more and more common across the country, and the world, how can native meadows help mitigate the amount of water used to maintain lawns?
Plant choice is very important as the plant communities suited best for meadows are exactly that … communities. They work together well both above the soil and below. They are adapted to live together and thrive in the region they are native to. This also means less input from us. There is little to no need for fertilizer after site preparation.
No need for pesticides, and they should not require any irrigation after installation. All of those inputs not only impact water amounts but water quality as well.
Nature is the best engineer on earth. In the case of meadows they provide a natural stormwater filter, carbon storage, nutrient recycling, soil building, and provide food and shelter for diverse flora and fauna. Native meadows provide incredible ecosystem services that includes water conservation.
Ecosystem services are those processes and outputs that nature provides for us indirectly or directly. In 2022, the Journal Nature had an article that referenced a valuation done a quarter century ago that estimated the annual global value of ecosystem services at 33 trillion dollars.
A recent New York Times article addressed how to nurture nature in your yard or community garden without getting overwhelmed with the process of designating a portion of space to start a native meadow of plot. Any suggestions?
I have an 80/20 rule. This is to plant 20% for us, and 80% for the rest of nature. This is something that can be started small. Every little bit can make a difference, from the smallest patio and lawn, to larger gardens and landscapes. It also results in a more restorative and sustainable landscape, meaning you can spend more time enjoying it!
Doug Tallamy has some wonderful books on the ways we can make big impacts with small changes. I love to tell folks, “If you plant it they will come.” It is amazing, even in city centers, to see how butterflies and birds find even the smallest oasis of plants.
If you want advice on how to incorporate some native plants into your landscape or even patio planters, reach out to your local UCONN Extension Master Gardeners office. There is an office in every county in CT. They are amazing volunteers and a wealth of information!
Can you also address our use of pesticides to make our lawns stay green and lush and how meadows can eventually eliminate the use of them.
Lawns cover nearly 2% of the land in the U.S., which is about 40 million acres! All of that replaces what could be diverse habitat for wildlife with a non native plant that requires enormous inputs to stay alive. The amounts of pesticides and herbicides that are applied every year are staggering!!! There are many statistics that show it is significantly more than many agricultural crops.
And to think this is where our families and pets play. The herbicides that are applied are meant to kill everything that is not turf grass, which includes clover. Clover is an amazing plant that ‘fixes’ nitrogen. That is not even taking into account the amount of fertilizer that is applied!
Meadows are such a wonderful, diverse celebration of nature. Plant communities that have co-evolved to ‘share’ spaces removing the need for any type of chemicals!
Anything else you like to add about the importance of native meadows in mitigating climate change or providing thriving habitats for wildlife and pollinators?
Meadows are full of plants that are taller than mowed turf grass, which result in deeper roots, creating more stable spongelike soil that acts as a ‘free’ filter absorbing water and trapping pollutants. This results in reducing sediment and non-point source pollutants from entering our waterways. Native meadows improve the soil by increasing the amount of decomposing organic matter and allowing more rainwater infiltration. They are also a carbon sink, taking in more carbon than they release. A far cry from a lawn! Meadows also provide incredible habitat for hundreds of species.
As mentioned in the beginning this is such a great “gateway” to so many wonderful topics on how we can continue to make changes that will have immediate positive impacts!
We need to develop a deeper respect for nature, more like a partnership. Learning and working together. If we are to make serious and impactful changes to mitigate climate change everyone has a role to play. Here we have something that is an easy step, anyone can do, and will have an incredible impact while bringing joy to your day.
Who wouldn’t enjoy sharing a small part of your yard with the birds and butterflies?
About Grace Farms
Grace Farms is a center for culture and collaboration in New Canaan, Connecticut. We bring together people across sectors to explore nature, arts, justice, community, and faith at the SANAA-designed River building on 80 acres of publicly accessible, preserved natural landscape. Our humanitarian work to end modern slavery and foster more grace and peace in our local and global community includes leading the global Design for Freedom movement to eliminate forced labor in building materials supply chain.
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Grace Farms members enjoy special access to member-only events, experiential activities, and thought-provoking programs — and the opportunity to be a part of our mission to pursue a more peaceful world.
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