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Everything you need to know about flower meadows - an interview with Joanna Rayss

27 of June '22

Every now and then, flower meadows come up in discussions about shaping urban and rural greenery. We are moving away from the trend of a low-cut lawn, which raises many concerns - from allergies and ticks to aesthetics and finances. We talk to Dr. Joanna Rayss, president of the Society of Landscape Architects and also founder of Zieleniarum Rayss Group, about everything you need to know about flower meadows.

Wiktor Bochenek: Let's start with a definition - is the term "floral meadow" correct? Some biologists suggest that we should just say meadow? Are these flowers a greenwashing marketing ploy?

Joanna Rayss: Actually, meadows in biological or ecological terms are rather defined as fresh meadows, dry meadows or periodically flooded meadows, for example, and plants commonly referred to as "flowers" can be found in any of these types. Therefore, from such a point of view, this addition does not make sense. However, I would not be categorical in claiming that flower meadows are greenwashing, which, by the way, we have already discussed in the past (you can find a previous conversation with Joanna Rayss on the A&B portal - see here).

I'm still convinced that the determinant ofgreenwashing is the size of the outlay compared to the ecological and natural effects in a situation where we call a given solution ecological or "green". If the size of the financial outlay, resources and PR associated with a given investment far outweighs the ecological and functional effects, then it is clearly greenwashing. In this way, and a flower meadow could be greenwashing, however, happily usually it is not...perhaps I would actually wonder if "micro connectors" in expensive pots do not mess with this crossing of the scale of reasonableness....

Personally, I think that as long as the addition of an adjective that speaks of florality, does not translate into a scheme that these flowers are mandatory, in huge numbers, etc., the name does more good than harm. Because, after all, it is well known that the issue of meadow floricity serves to promote it widely and foster better acceptance of meadows as such, which is not an easy process. Unfortunately, one actually encounters a superficial understanding of this concept, which leads to an emphasis on the presence of flowers, often alien species, annuals. As in everything, it is a question not only of the expression itself, but also of its adaptation to functionality, and it is this that we should promote above all. Then it is difficult to call a flower meadow a plot of several square meters sown with annual flowers - it is an annual bed, which we should not call a meadow.

In conclusion, biologists and botanists stick to their nomenclature, which is correct - but let's not forget about other functional-branch contexts. Calling a meadow a flower meadow is a simplification, but that doesn't mean it's a bad simplification, because popularization involves simplifications. It is only necessary to take care of their scale and not to lose the sense of the basic concept - the source term.

łąka kwietna stają się coraz popularniejszym rozwiązaniem

Flower meadows are becoming an increasingly popular solution

gailhampshire, CC BY-SA 2.0

Wiktor Bochenek: We can increasingly hear about reducing the mowing of meadows and grassy areas, is this a step in the right direction?

Joanna Rayss: Absolutely yes. I'm a fan of evolution not necessarily revolution. Reducing mowing as a way of gradually transforming a lawn into a meadow is probably the cheapest and often the most appropriate method.

Of course, only in a situation where the lawn in question is suitable for a meadow, because let's remember that this is not a solution that can be applied everywhere and always. For example, we may face a lot of public opposition when we stop mowing a lawn commonly used as a space for loose games or picnicking, because these are uses of space that require grass communities with high resistance to trampling and relatively low plants. Then we may face the accusation that this is simply saving money on mowing or even neglect, rather than an intentional action of an ecological nature. In a city, where by design there are few recreational areas, such an internal division with an adapted form of greenery to the use is enormously needed. Therefore, the reduction of mowing and the creation of urban meadows in general should be done in conjunction with a broader spatial policy, and not as actions detached from the scale of the city.

łąki sprzyjają przede wszystkim bioróżnorodności

Meadows primarily promote biodiversity

Of course, in the case of private land, reducing mowing is always the best way! I myself have been limiting the mowing of my heavily used lawn to an average of four, maximum five times a year (with the first mowing only in June!) for several years, and I dare say that my lawn is the most resistant to periodic droughts and the most lush in the immediate area. Therefore, let's limit mowing not only if we want to create flower meadows. Lawns should also be mowed less frequently, as this increases their natural species diversity, making the entire community more resilient to the stress of use.

Returning to the creation of meadows, the abandonment of mowing is not the only way towards the formation of a meadow community from a lawn. For example, ethnobotanist Luke Luczaj, who is my absolute meadow Guru, recommends that those limited to 1-2 mowings per year be done in a given space in a mosaic fashion. This allows you to manipulate the target species composition. For example, it is worth dividing this transformed lawn into two or three zones, which are mowed alternately. Then we mow differently plants at different stages of development, allowing them to spread from one side, while at the same time not exposing those residents who are more sensitive to the "order" of the space.

Because, of course, it should be remembered that all meadows are actually mowed - just limit this activity from one to three times a year. Experts recommend performing the first mowing no earlier than early June. This recommendation also applies to lawns, even those that we mow regularly. By then, the plants are already past their first growth effort, and many of them will have had time to spread, thickening up - which is important especially for plants other than grasses. By mowing too early and too short, we run the risk of dying parts of the plants, which we often see in cities in the form of bald patches "mowed" to bare ground.

In this way, the best inspiration and model for urban meadow care are centuries-old agricultural practices. Two-cut meadows - the most popular ones - should actually be mowed during the period of regional haying by farmers. The first swath in late June/early July and the second around September/October (and even through the changing climate of November) - with regional variation. For three-cut meadows, the first rooting can be brought forward to early June or two fall mowings can be introduced. However, it is worth bearing in mind the different mowing periods, the aforementioned mosaic mowing, and the fact that we should not harvest the swath immediately after mowing. The hay should be left in the meadow to dry out, as this is how the mowed perennials and annuals, or "flowers" of this flower meadow, are sown. This is often forgotten - mowing meadows just like classic lawns. This is a waste of a natural and free seed base.

jak często należy kosić łąki kwietne?

How often should flower meadows be mowed?

© Pexels

It is worth adding that the transformation of the lawn into a meadow is best to start in winter and autumn. Then it is advisable to scarify it combined with the reseeding of meadow perennials, which are to be found in the target meadow. Such seeding can even be done in the snow (here I recommend a fantastic Youtube video by the aforementioned Professor Lukasz Luczaj about establishing meadows in winter J, but not only this one, of course). I have heard opinions that convince me that this is the best way.

Victor: For snow?

Joanna: Yes. You can reseed then during the period when the snow melts, because then the seeds have access to water and germinate more easily. This is also what is done with reseeding in traditional lawns. At this point I must also necessarily mention the untapped potential in the form of wild boars, which we can, in a way, "employ" in meadow-making processes... Yes those "evil, wild and scary" wild boars.

In the media space, there are more and more reports of wild boars destroying urban green spaces and especially lawns. As a resident of the Osowa district of Gdansk, I very often encounter these animals in our neighborhood and I know that this is not an isolated situation. Significantly, these wild boars usually feed in lawns, which actually do not have much recreational potential. These are often roadside lawns with low aesthetic value - spaces that are just worth converting into urban meadows. In such cases, instead of fighting wild boars, it is worth taking advantage of their work - no scarifier can replace the work of a wild boar, believe me. Then sow the seeds of a meadow into a lawn ripped up by wild boars, instead of persistently fighting such a spontaneously and freely generated nature-based solution. Back in college I was taught that wild boars and moles are hugely important soil-forming creatures!

 Joanna Rayss

Joanna Rayss

© Joanna Rayss

Victor: Do meadows require special treatment? Does their care pose a problem and higher financial costs for city greenery boards?

Joanna: A properly maintained meadow is associated with reduced expenditures, primarily labor, as a result of reduced frequency of mowing. Greenery boards sometimes talk about the need for costly changes in mowing technology, techniques, changes in contracts with subcontractors, but these costs decrease over time. Regarding this need for changes in technology, I personally hope that the meadow-grass revolution will eventually eliminate trimmers as the primary tool for "tending" city lawns, but trimmers, leaf blowers, etc. are a matter for a separate conversation.

Ultimately, on the other hand, by reducing mowing, we reduce the problem of drying out huge urban stretches of lawns, because even lawns that are mowed less frequently retain water better. A short-cut lawn is much more expensive to maintain or it turns into a desert. That's why flower meadows can allow for real savings over the long term, which will allow for other purposes.

The savings also apply more broadly to inputs and raw materials. For example, the starting soil for creating a meadow does not need to be specially fertilized at all. On the contrary, the use of artificial fertilizers is discouraged, because of course compost cannot be abused. Overfertilization, especially with nitrogen, is inversely proportional to biodiversity. If we artificially raise nitrogen levels, we will only favor the growth of grasses, leading to monoculture. Therefore, meadows and urban recycling of green matter, is primarily a saving of raw materials precisely: water, fertilizers, maintenance expenses.

Speaking of costs and benefits, it is also necessary to raise the issue of hay and the widely understood "spoils" resulting from the care of urban greenery. Fantastic if cities recycle green parts properly, producing compost. Then all the material obtained from mowing is recycled in this way, and after some time the city gets a fantastic material for mulching and enriching other green areas in the city with humus. In Gdansk, for example, there is an annual campaign to distribute compost - or "gardeners' gold" - which is produced in the city's composting plant. It's a fantastic action and a step towards adapting cities to climate change, taking advantage of biosequestration and soil carbon and water storage by enriching urban soils with humus!

I have the impression that meadows are, to say the least, rarely talked about as a potential carbon store.

Victor: So the meadow also has carbon trapping functions?

Joanna: Yes. Very often when it comes to this phenomenon, we tend to simplify it by saying that only or mainly trees produce oxygen. Vegetation in general is a storehouse of carbon not only because it builds it into its tissues, but also by putting it into the soil. Plants, including shrubs, perennials or grasses, are a kind of carbon transmitter to the soil. Swamps and marshes are the most effective in storing carbon, but meadows also have such functions. These are not insignificant areas whose ecosystem functionality can also be valued by the amount of sequestered and stored carbon that remains in the litter and humus layer!

łąki służą również do sekwestracji dwutlenku węgla

Grasslands also serve to sequester carbon

Tony Hisghett, CC BY-SA 2.0

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