In the garden with Felder: Nothing wrong with creating a midwinter meadow

December 15, 2018 10:00:32 PM



I love a nice lawn. I studied turf management at Mississippi State University and consult with professional turf and home lawn lovers regularly. Wrote the forward to the popular "Perfect Mississippi Lawn" book.


However -- and this is one of my career's defining mantras -- in all but the fussiest neighborhoods, a perfectly weed-free green carpet is neither practical nor necessary. It's a well-studied marketing strategy in how Americans were deliberately and largely successfully brainwashed with guilt-provoking advertisements, making those who don't toe an artificial line using expensive herbicides feel like bad people.


But recently, going against that ingrained Earth-unfriendly approach has become acceptable. True, a simple "mow what grows" lawn may not look perfect, but most folks already do it or secretly wish they could without being given social grief.



To those who see already-emerging and flowering winter and spring weeds as an intolerable bane, here's the bottom line for Southern lawns, based on lawn care truth: To control them all winter and spring, you gotta spray a liquid herbicide, and soon -- this month or next, while they're small and easier to kill.


However, chemotherapy alone simply won't work for long, or the weeds come right back; the best defense is dense turf. To get this, you have to, in order of importance, mow at the right height for your type of grass (higher than most folks prefer), water deeply every two or three weeks, and fertilize in mid-spring after the lawn greens up. Neglect or ignore these and weed killers won't work for long and can damage your lawn. Reread this paragraph.


But enough of next summer's chores. For now, please consider for a minute a far simpler approach that can be beautiful in its way, benefits wildlife, and doesn't harm next summer's lawn: Leave winter weeds alone.


I'm not talking about tending an unruly mishmash wildflower meadow in the front yard. I'm suggesting that you simply look closely at some of the little plants' flowers, and notice their beauty and how bees and butterflies swarm all over them every warm winter day.


Or take it a step farther, by deliberately tending them in a low-growing, colorful, pollinator-friendly winter meadow lawn. Like people have done for centuries.


It's easy, and good for everything including the pocketbook and the environment. Your year-round lawn can easily tolerate small winter wildflowers and still look good next summer after just a couple of mowings. Really.


I did it in my yard. Planted some of my great-grandmother's bulbs here and there, then added some small, rapidly-spreading Tete a Tete daffodils, grape hyacinth, and fragrant jonquils. Then I either allowed or actually transplanted some low-growing winter meadow plants like white clover (covered with bees on every mild midwinter day), edible orchid-like henbit, lyre-leaf sage, cheery yellow dandelions, purple violets, pink oxalis, wild onion and garlic, and pretty blue starflower (Ipheion).


They all grow well over the winter, and disappear with the spring's first mowing, leaving nothing but green summer lawn in their wake. And they come back the following winter.


What we need to get this going in earnest, without being shamed by neatniks, is an official foil to Yard of the Month. You know, a Winter Meadow sign. Or at least keep a neat mowing strip along the street and up the drive to signal to neighbors that you're doing it on purpose, not just being a slob. If nothing else, deliberately mow around a few patches of clover or oxalis, so the Easter bunny can find a place to hide eggs next spring.


Your neighbors will survive, and some may actually follow suit.


Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the "Gestalt Gardener" on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to [email protected]