Urban meadows are a gardener’s best option to add some beauty to a barren urban landscape. If the love of nature is deeply rooted in your heart but you live in an urban or suburban setting where the only flower you’ll see is the one painted on the side of the feeder bus, you need not despair. You can still grow a lively meadow in the most unlikely of places, in the heart of a concrete and steel jungle.
The size and scope of the urban meadow you have in mind depend on many factors. An urban meadow in a garden bed for example doesn’t require the same resources and planning as a large urban meadow for the whole community. But for the most part, the design concepts and even the plants you grow in the meadow are usually the same.
What are Urban Meadows?
An urban meadow is an oasis in a busy city. It’s a place for the butterflies to roam and local birds to congregate. It’s not just another green space because a manicured lawn fed with chemical fertilizers is also green space. An urban meadow on the other hand is a piece of nature where native flora grows and native fauna finds refuge from the urban jungle.
“Native” is the operative word here. When designing your urban meadow, make sure to plant local species that grow naturally in your zone. This encourages animals, birds, and insects to flock to the meadow and start a healthy ecosystem. That’s the main difference between an urban meadow and a regular garden. You’re not just creating a green space, you’re designing a natural habitat that would have probably existed if not for the urban development and agricultural encroachments.
Another aspect that sets an urban meadow apart from your average lawn or garden is that you try to use natural components and recycled elements as much as you can. This means fewer plastic items, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers in favor of organic compost, hay bales, and sustainable elements. The more “natural” urban meadows look, the more they thrive and fill with wildlife.
Benefits of Urban Meadows
The very concept of urban meadows implies a return to nature. You’re creating a slice of nature in your home or community to take a break from the busy life in a condensed urban environment. This slice is more complex and seasonally variable than a lawn or a park. Here are some of the main benefits of urban meadows.
- Biodiversity: Nature is basically biodiverse. Different plant and animal species live side by side and create a self-sustainable ecosystem. An urban meadow brings that natural balance and biodiversity back to the urban landscape. Instead of planting the popular species, you’re growing the natural species native to your area.
- Weather Regulation: The idea is when the sun beats down on the pavement and the concrete, the temperature rises. The plants in the urban meadow absorb the water in the soil and release it as vapor through the pores on their leaves. This helps cool down the temperature and reduce the heat in the urban jungle.
- Erosion Control: Slopes and hillsides are exposed to the elements. Rainfall, wind, and snow all take their toll on the exposed slopes. The result is often land erosion. Plants protect the soil and offer an environmentally friendly measure of erosion control.
- Better Aesthetics: Although the aesthetics of urban meadows are in dispute due to their natural and wild look, you can still put some thought into your design and create a beautiful meadow teeming with life, scents, and colors.
- Education: There’s no better way to teach people about crucial topics such as climate change and global warming than by introducing them to a genuine piece of mother nature. You can also teach children about the different flora and fauna species that are native to your area. Chances are you’ll meet birds and wildlife in the urban meadow you didn’t even suspect that were living practically in your backyard.
Urban Meadows Design Elements
The success of urban meadows doesn’t just hang on what you grow in them but also how you design them. If left to their own devices, urban meadows will turn into an overgrown abandoned field where weeds and grass grow in abundance. And that defeats the whole purpose of having an aesthetically rich and authentic slice of nature in your community. Here are the key design elements to keep in mind.
- Layered Planting: In an urban environment, only the toughest weeds survive. Combine that with an obscene amount of air pollutants and heat to only make it tougher for the urban meadow to thrive. One way to keep weeds at bay is to design your meadow in layers. This improves the airflow between the plants and gives you more room to grow plants tightly. Don’t leave space between your floral perennials for weeds to take over. You should have less than 12 inches between each plant and arrange them so that the taller and larger plants are in the back while the smaller ones are at the front.
- Go Native: Native plants and wildflowers are hardy enough to withstand the excessive heat and proximity to roads and sidewalks. They’re also used to the type of soil you have in your area so the chances of growing them successfully are much higher than growing imported plants. Native plants also attract native birds and insects much better.
- Keep it Tidy: When researching the types of plants to grow, try to include as many species as you can. But while biodiversity is important, you also don’t want things to get out of hand or put the practical over the aesthetic. One rule of thumb to adhere to is that half of the plants should be on the shorter side, between one and two feet tall.
How to Grow Urban Meadows
When designing urban meadows, you need to keep in mind who the target audience is. If you’re growing on in your garden, then you’ll have more liberty to “personalize” the meadow and create it to your own liking. But designing a large urban meadow for the whole community is a different matter and chances are you’ll need to put your personal preferences as to what goes where in the meadow on the back shelf.
Urban Meadow in the Garden
Starting urban meadows in a garden bed is not much different than growing any other plant in your garden. You’ll still take care of watering, feeding, and weeding to keep the meadow thriving. But that’s as far as the similarities go. Here’s how to start the meadow in your garden in easy steps.
- Choose a sunny area in your garden or repurpose a garden bed that gets between 6 to 8 hours of sunlight throughout the growing season.
- Buy your seeds from local stores to ensure you’re getting the native plant species that grow in your zone.
- If you have a local nursery, then buy seedlings rather than seeds since seedlings are easier to design and arrange than scattered seeds.
- Divide your garden bed into three parts. Lower front row, middle row, and back row.
- The lower front row will have small plants such as prairies smoke, wild strawberry, wild bergamot, and species of their ilk.
- The middle row should have species that are a little taller. Good examples are milkweed, asters, pearly everlasting, yarrow, beard-tongue, and black-eyed Susan to name but a few.
- In the back row, you can go big and wild. Plants such as blue vervain, sneezeweed, common evening primrose, and showy-tick trefoil are good examples.
- Keep the grass to the middle and back tiers of the bed. You can use native grasses such as Indian grass, little bluestem, switchgrass, and Canadian wild rye as ground cover.
- Don’t use nitrogen fertilizers since native plants prefer soil with less nitrogen to thrive and compete with non-native species.
Small Urban Meadow
A small urban meadow requires less maintenance than one growing in your garden. You’ll allow nature to take its course and let the plants ebb and flow one year after another. Most likely you’ll want to grow this small urban meadow in an empty space near the building where you live. Here’s how to go about it.
- Choose a spot that faces the front of the building or one that can be viewed from different angles.
- Design the meadow so that it contains seating areas and different walking paths that lead to the main focal points.
- Consider wildflowers, grasses, and a few trees to create an ever-changing and colorful landscape all year round.
- Native grasses should act as groundcovers and mulch at the same time.
- The denser the vegetation in the urban meadow the better.
- Before you plant anything, remove the turf and top four inches of the soil which contain seeds of invasive plants.
- Let the soil rest for a couple of weeks. If you notice any seedlings sprouting, remove them to keep the soil clean.
- Now you can start seeding your urban meadow. Begin with native grasses as the base.
- Plant flower seedlings in clumps or lines as per your design.
- Shrubs are good for the edges of the meadow to protect the plants.
Community Urban Meadow
Community urban meadows are more elaborate affairs. They usually involve more than one person doing the planning and design and they cover larger areas than the other two types. Here are a few guidelines to consider.
- Share your plans and designs with the rest of the community to get their support.
- Use paths, seating areas, and stepping stones as the corner of your design.
- Before you start, cleanse the soil off invasive and non-native plants by covering the area with plastic sheets. Keep the sheets on for about 5 weeks until the grass and weeds die out.
- Introduce native grass species to the soil along with beneficial bacteria and microbes.
- Plant native flower seedlings according to your design for the first two years.
- Weed out any unwanted plants regularly and prevent them from flowering. That way they won’t spread their seeds in the soil and grow back the next year.
- It will take years for the community urban meadow to finally take shape. The conversion is usually slow but with patience, you’ll manage to eradicate the invasive weeds and other undesirable plants.
- The established plants will need less watering and fertilizing after about three years.
- Focus on wildflowers since they are hardy and tend to take care of themselves.
- Introduce new species every couple of years to increase the biodiversity of the urban meadow.