My Prairie Laboratory, Part 1 – The Field

My Prairie Laboratory, Part 1 – The Field

By Dan Greenberg, ASLA

Stepping stones in the meadow. /Photo: Dan Greenberg

My lawn is modest by most design standards. But it’s a wonderful 1,000-square-foot experience that actually welcomes birds every day.

How wonderful? In one growing season in Raleigh, North Carolina, measured from April to November, and compared to the turf industry’s standard practices for healthy turf management, my lawn saved more than 10,000 gallons of water, 6 gallons of gasoline, some motor oil, and 8 pounds of grass seed. and 9 lbs of pre-emergence fertilizer/herbicide. It also saved me from the tedium of 30 hours of walking back and forth with the lawn mower or seed spreader.

My expectations are already building for next year. Established grasses will grow larger, shade out more weeds, and welcome more creatures. My role will change from farmer to agent, from master to friend.

This meadow is special to me for a number of reasons. I love nature and this brings a part of it closer to my life. It allows me to walk my talk as an environmental and landscape architect. It eliminates a lot of wasted time and resources.

Part One: Planning and Mobilization (Finally).

The benefits of planting meadowsweet are well documented, and they grow higher. They save water and reduce the need for chemical inputs. It has deeper roots that resist drought and draw water deeper into the soil. They provide food and habitat for the butterflies, birds and pollinators we love. They provide stress and anxiety relief with their breezy textures, colors and movements throughout the seasons. They do so naturally, without all the extra effort it takes to forcefully control a non-local monoculture.

I wanted a meadow but didn’t know exactly what to expect. I spent months reading blogs, articles, and plant catalogs, and discovered dozens of herbs that thrive in hot, dry soils that are clayey with annual drought. These grasses can be planted in drifts to create a matrix into which the perennials can be sprayed over time. With several options, I was able to select the design qualities I wanted: authentic, wildlife-friendly, and up to 30 inches in height for a suitable residential scale. I was willing to live with a fair amount of aggressiveness, which would help establish and overpower the weeds. I have selected six types to explore further:

Next I looked at farming methods. Sowing offered the cheapest option. I resisted this because of the ingenuity it takes to succeed, especially on my first attempt. The mature plants were attractive, but they cost more than my budget. Plugs are the most logical. They are younger plants with a bullet-shaped root mass, turbo-charged for growth. Although they are smaller than container plants, they can grow quickly and reach a similar size by the second season.

The final piece to plan was the grass and how to kill it. Regardless of the method, the grass should be completely removed to keep out crab plants and reduce competition. It has eliminated the use of chemical herbicides, prioritizing organic, non-grass life in the soil; Preserving these beneficial organisms will help establish new plants. Alternative methods included mechanically stripping them, baking them in plastic, and covering them with cardboard. The last approach seemed more logical, which was to use moisture and darkness to make the soil uninhabitable for plants.

All of this research was helpful and exciting, but it also created a huge barrier to doing the work. I waited until my budget aligned with the seasons, and I used a lot of my free time to set up plants. While I delayed the project for 3 years, native clover slowly crept through the lawn, offering a cheaper alternative.

The beginning of 2022 changed everything and my dream of the meadow came true. Many books have brought about a paradigm shift in my knowledge of plants. Farming in a post-wilderness worldwritten by Thomas Rainer, ASLA, and Claudia West, International ASLA, taught me about planting in communities and using that “green mulch” to combat weeds. The hidden life of treesPeter Wohlleben showed how trees communicate and support each other through an underground network of fungi attached to their roots. Doug Tallamy Bring nature into the home Putting a new spin on native plants as habitat and food for disappearing wildlife. The spark that ignited the plan came when our energy company killed the alfalfa running in our backyard, allowing crab and Bermuda lovers to spread.

The barriers quickly disappeared and I marked my meadow area. I made enough room for a bucket truck to drive through the easement, but using cut logs, I clearly marked where that access would stop. Cardboard boxes were collected from friends, stores and recycling bins.

Initial clearing and application of cardboard. /Photo: Dan Greenberg

On September 17, I mowed the lawn one last time, using the lowest possible height, watered it well, and started laying the cardboard. To reduce the gaps, I used larger boxes, overlapped the edges, and added weights. I completed the initial 400 square feet of my lawn by soaking the cardboard so it would stick to the ground.

Wet carton in the upper north area. /Photo: Dan Greenberg
Many edges need a lot of weight: logs, boards, flooring. /Photo: Dan Greenberg

Throughout the rest of the summer, I watered the cardboard every day there was no rain. On hotter days, some of the cuttings dry out and curl up, exposing the soil below. I moved the weights, added water, and ignored the inside jokes.

While the cardboard was doing its thing, I got my plant order. Contacting the friendly folks at Hoffman Nursery, I learned that October 15 is the deadline for most grass plantings, but they have had success with a number of hardy varieties. I ordered two apartments each Andropogon virginix, Chasmanthium latifoliumAnd Carex Beckenelli (From left to right below).

Delivery trays are ready for planting! Andropogon, Chasmanthium, and Carex. /Photo: Dan Greenberg

Reality began to set in on October 22nd. Plugs arrived. The weather has been cooperating. And I’m tired of watering cardboard. I unwrapped the first trays and took them in my hands. Each plant has been precisely cut. Each root mass was plump and firm, ready to be in the soil.

With great anticipation, I lifted the first rows of cardboard, finding a fairly clear surface of soil. The surface vegetation has died and the soil has become dark and workable. However, the work was not done, as the toughest contestants remained. However, I was excited about the progress and got to work.

Soil under the removed cardboard / Photo: Dan Greenberg
Grass runners below the surface / Photo: Dan Greenberg
Lots of runners removed! /Photo: Dan Greenberg

I used a hand cultivator to dig into the soil and isolate and remove the centers of the plants. In the loose, thin soil I planted the plugs in the back. theCarex AndChasmanthium The roots could be easily separated from each other for planting, but the roots of the andropogon were thicker and more compact. For those I used a weeder to pull them apart as best I could. I made my way down the slope, removing the cardboard, pulling up the weeds, and installing the plugs. I arrange the plants in drifts or clumps, grouping 7-12 plugs together to create small communities that will hold together as the meadow matures.

Primary matrix cultivation. I arrange the plugs in groups or drifts of 7-10 plants. Recycled paving sets the edge. /Photo: Dan Greenberg

I spaced the plants 9 to 12 inches apart, which is a little closer than the industry standard, so they grow together and overlap to cover the soil surface. The soil was well irrigated while I worked, and the reclaimed paving was laid as a solid edging against weeds in the lawn. Even at this immature stage, the new plants show a wonderful variation in color and texture.

With the planting operations complete, I prepared the lower portion of the meadow for winter. I laid out the cardboard as before, and added additional weights to keep it in place.

The view from the top. Plants in the ground! /Photo: Dan Greenberg
Cardboard placed on the lower half of the meadow / Photo: Dan Greenberg
Delivery of wood chips. I kept branches and larger pieces for kindling. /Photo: Dan Greenberg

A few weeks later, we received a drop of wood chips from our local arborist—a perfect mulch full of organic matter and complex textures that retains moisture without becoming gritty. I covered the cardboard with 3-4 inches of foil, which helps keep the cardboard moist and in place all winter long. I sprinkled an inch of chips over the new lawn grasses, and ruffled our leaves in the bed to provide additional organic matter that would decompose more quickly.

The first phase of Marj is complete! Over the winter, I will learn proper maintenance, prepare for spring planting, and watch the story unfold out the window.

Meadow ready for winter. Wood chips and leaves surround the weeds and cover the cardboard behind them. /Photo: Dan Greenberg

Stay tuned for part two of this series, appearing here on The Field next week!

Dan Greenberg, ASLA, is a senior landscape architect at Surface 678, working on parks, recreation, campus, and municipal projects in his native North Carolina. He holds a master’s degree in landscape architecture from the University of Colorado at Denver which includes a year of foreign study in Helsinki, Finland. His travels instilled a deep respect for landscapes and an appreciation for their powers to heal, restore, and inspire people. He is passionate about plants as green infrastructure and environmental building blocks. Dan’s Marj project is a practical exploration of these ideas.

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