Massasoit seeded its 17,862.91 square foot Wildflower Meadow in the summer of 2010. The meadow, previously a regularly mowed lawn, was a gift from the 2010 graduating class and a significant addition to Massasoit’s sustainability efforts. Today the meadow is home to over three dozen native plant species and provides important habitat to native wildlife. Additionally, the meadow provides an ideal study site as part of Massasoit’s native bee research project, launched in the summer of 2014.
The history of New England’s landscapes provides context for the importance of Massasoit’s meadow. A meadow is a type of habitat dominated by herbaceous (non-woody) plants and supports plants and animals that require open and sunny environmental conditions. Historically, Massachusetts was dominated by old-growth Eastern deciduous forests. By the late 19th century, European immigrants had cleared much of these forests for farming and wood. (Harvard dioramas) The rock walls built by these farmers can still be seen throughout New England, including in forested areas. As people moved to the cities, the abandoned farms quickly succeeded into forests. While most of New England pre-European settlement was forested, patches of meadow occurred due to natural disturbances, such as storms and fires, and anthropogenic disturbances, such as cutting and burning by Native Americans for farming and hunting. However, due to the lack of small-scale disturbances, such as fires, meadows have become increasingly rare, leaving organisms that require this stage of succession without habitat. Thus, Massasoit’s meadow is an important, if small, ecosystem in the overall landscape.
Massasoit’s meadow is not quite established, as it is still young. In the early stages of establishing a meadow, the perennial meadow plants can be outcompeted by annual weeds, which are adapted to take advantage of disturbances, like exposed, disturbed soil, where they grow and reproduce quickly. A mature meadow is a mixture of perennial grasses and wildflowers, with root systems that sometimes extend over 10 feet into the soil. This means plants are able to absorb water and nutrients in periods of extreme heat and drought. In addition, the biomass of the plants above ground shade the surface of the soil, which helps reduce the growth of annual weeds. Therefore, mature meadows require very little maintenance.
Meadows are maintained by frequent disturbances to keep woody plants from establishing. However, since bison and fires are hard to come by on campus, we use mowing. At Massasoit, we mow in the spring for several reasons. First, we want to leave the plants standing during the winter to provide food and cover for wildlife. Second, most meadow plants are heat-loving, so they flower from mid-summer through the fall. If we waited until later in the summer to mow, we would slow their growth and keep them from reproducing. And finally, most annual weeds seed early in the year, so by mowing before they seed, we can reduce future weed outbreaks.
Replacing part, or all, of your lawn with a meadow is a great way to make your landscape more sustainable. Once established, it will require no water, fertilizer, or herbicides, and will only need mowing once a year. If you are going to use a seed mix, be aware that not all of them are created equal. For example, while well-meaning, Cheerios’ “Bring Back the Bees” campaign seed mixture not only contained introduced species, but also included documented invasive species. The same is true for many general wildflower seed mixtures found at horticultural centers.
For more information on establishing a wildflower meadow please visit this link.