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Luke Luczaj, botanist: Let's not mow meadows and grasses in cities so often! They produce as much oxygen as a forest

Katarzyna Domagała
15 of November '21

"Let's change the thinking along the lines that a nice urban area is mowed and neat. I remember the days when tall lawns grew in cities, they didn't bother anyone and at the same time brought many benefits to residents. Let's love meadows in cities! Let's allow ourselves to trample them and run on them," - says Lukasz Luczaj, PhD, botanist.

Katarzyna Domagała: In May you appealed to the Rzeszow authorities to stop frequent mowing of meadows in the city, because by doing so they deprive the city of many benefits. But this is happening not only in Rzeszow. Why don't we allow meadows and grasses in cities to grow freely?

Lukasz Luczaj: Meadows and grassy areas in Polish cities are generally mowed too often, and cities boast of being neat and smooth. What is there to say - there is a recent fashion in Poland for smoothed surfaces, short lawns....

Katarzyna: Where did this fashion come from?

Lukasz: It came to us from the US and the UK, among others. Besides, there is another source of this behavior: man by nature is a savannah creature and simply feels safe in an open environment. Besides, cities now have more money and better equipment, so they don't begrudge them for mowing grass. Well, I would like to say that it is not necessary! In our climate, this type of vegetation tends to be thick and tall, so let's not cut it by force. Anyway, now in the UK they are turning all the greenery next to highways into flower meadows, ba last year the green areas around Stanstead Airport only started mowing at the end of June. Lawns there have been eliminated altogether. Lawns are passé.

I think we should change the thinking along the lines that a nice area is mowed and neat. I remember the days when tall lawns grew in cities, they didn't bother anyone and at the same time brought many benefits to city life - both for people and animals, including insects.

A meadow at Stanstead Airport (near London).

© Private archive of Lukasz Luczaj

Catherine: Let's say more about these benefits then. What do we gain from meadows and tall grasses in cities?

Lukasz: Let's remember that too frequent mowing of meadows and lawns condemns many plant species to extinction. They have no chance to bloom again and be food for insects. For example, in a mowed lawn you will find only a few plant species. In an unmowed, or mowed once a year, there will be many more. It is a good idea to leave meadows and tall grasses unmowed for the winter, as they contain food for birds, such as seeds.

However, I would like to point out that the idea is not to not mow grasses and meadows at all and make the city a jungle! If we didn't mow at all, these areas would probably overgrow with trees. By the way, it is worth mentioning that sometimes in cities we have a problem with invasive plants - for example, Canadian goldenrod. It can happen that an unmowed area turns into a single-species goldenrod patch or a nettle patch.

Catherine: In that case, how often do you mow meadows and grasses in cities?

Luke: Two or three times a year is enough. Then the potential flora will have a chance to develop well and be a source of food for insects. The idea is to control this vegetation in the city in such a way that it's not just patches of one species, but a dozen or more. And I assure you that this has many positive effects on the environment. The more plant species, for example, the more butterflies we will have in the city.

There is another issue: walking in the meadows. Let's allow ourselves this pleasure! They are there for that too. I once saw a child who, while playing in the city, felt like running in the meadow, but was simply reluctant to do so.

Catherine: He was afraid of admonishment from adults. And punishment!

Luke: Exactly, that's why I'm calling not only for us to love meadows in cities, but also for us to allow ourselves to trample them, walk and run on them. And let's change the thinking that an area that is neat and pretty is one that is mowed a few times a year.

Catherine:And doesn't frequent running in the meadow destroy the plants and, as a result, deprive the insects of food?

Luke: On the contrary, it partially replaces mowing!

Catherine: How can we increase areas of wild vegetation in cities?

Luke: We can naturally allow plants to colonize by reducing mowing. By doing so, a great deal can be achieved. In Warsaw, for example, a decision was made in recent years to reduce the mowing of urban meadows. As a result, beautiful flower meadows appeared, among other things, parsnips grew in lanes next to roadways.

In addition to reducing mowing, we can also reseed floral meadows.

A meadow at Stanstead airport (near London).

© Lukasz Luczaj's private archive

Catherine: Well, that's exactly what it is. I know we can do it every year or sow a so-called perennial meadow. Which is better?

Lukasz: The latter option is better, because it gives the opportunity for more species to regrow. In a perennial meadow, really quite a lot of interesting plants can survive, for example, blue-flowering hemlock, pink dandelions or various species of purple cornflowers. With that said, when sowing a perennial meadow, we should use native plant species. Perennial meadows are also more beneficial for the cities' budget. We sow once, and the meadow will regenerate on its own every year!

In the case of annual meadows, the chances of revival of plant species are slim, although it is possible if we use cereal weeds like field poppy, cornflower or chamomile, and dig the meadow every year. If, on the other hand, we use ornamental mixtures with flax, buckwheat or flowers from warmer areas (cosmos, marigolds), then sowing has to be repeated every spring. And so it can be cheaper than mowing the lawn every week, and the flowers are food for pollinators.

Catherine: In what areas of the city is it best to sow meadows? Do they have to be expanses?

Luke: It is best to sow many flower meadows in cities, but smaller ones. For example, let there be at least one floral meadow in each housing development. What's coolest: some of these meadows can naturally spread further.

Catherine: In what way?

Luke: For example, someone can transfer seeds on their shoes or animals on their paws or fur. This is also one of the most natural ways of spreading greenery. Seeds are also carried by water, wind, cars.

The more flower meadows, the more benefits to nature and the landscape. And so that someone doesn't mindlessly cut it down, you can put up a placard on the estate with information that a young flower meadow is growing here.

Katarzyna: And how do you assess the approach of local governments in Poland to this subject? Do most of them treat greenery in the city like the Rzeszow authorities?

Lukasz: In general, I have the impression that city authorities are environmentally conscious, among other things, that we need wild vegetation in cities. Of course, there will be cases when city officials don't understand this, but in general I think that local government officials are more knowledgeable in this area than citizens. Sometimes just maybe they are not yet capable of acting radically.

Catherine: Well, why, at least in my opinion, are there still few such areas in cities?

Luke: Because it's a long process. We started talking about meadows in the city extensively five years ago, and yet it also takes several years to form a perennial meadow. Of course, there is a certain group of citizens who care about wild vegetation growing in the city, but it seems to me that they often face resistance from people who like nature smoothed out. I have the impression that these are people who are overly concerned with cleanliness, cleaning their house with germicidal preparations - they are simply afraid of nature and nature. I also have this reflection that these divisions between lovers of flowery meadows and wild greenery versus those from controlled simplified nature are not based on politics or age.

Catherine: And that's interesting.

Luke: For example, I know young people with a strictly left-wing worldview who are afraid of nature. They are far from walking in the woods or lying in the tall grass in the city. And I also know cases of the opposite. Or older people: some love to wander in the woods, others would like everything mowed. But frankly, it pains me that there is no understanding among young people.

Catherine: What could this be due to? Maybe from the fact that this young generation, such as mine, was already raised in the era of political transformation, when we took over the models of organization of public life from the West.

Luke: I think the source of such behavior may be the lack of contact with wild, familiar nature in childhood. Yes, children go on vacations, green schools, hang out in the woods, but this is not the same activity that I, for example, experienced. It used to be that children had contact with nature on a daily basis. They took part in hayrides, went to graze cows in the meadows. It's a completely different level of contact with nature. Of course, there are exceptions today, for example, parents who raise their children in the villages, close to nature, take them in a carrier for a walk in the woods. This is extremely good for children's health - when they can inhale all the pollen from the plants.

Lukasz Luczaj in a meadow (sown from his own seeds) in Sanok

© Lukasz Luczaj's private archive

Catherine: And what real impact do flower meadows in cities or tall grasses have on the air? You suggested in one of your videos that they can absorb a similar amount of pollution as a forest. Actually?

Luke: Yes, they do. The productivity of oxygen by grasslands and grasses is similar to that of a forest! Besides, unmowed grasslands, are a kind of brush that traps dust. However, there is a condition: however, it must be greenery at least a meter high. In this role, reams of shrubbery or hedges will work well. Another thing: meadows can act as a sponge to absorb precipitation. This function will work great at the moment, when many Polish cities are dominated by concrete, which does not absorb water.

Katarzyna: We already know how many times to mow, and what would be the best time?

Lukasz: If I were the mayor of the city, I wouldn't mow anything until the end of May. I would not mow some areas until June 1, another on July 1, August 1, and so on until September.

One mowing is certainly necessary, if only for fire safety reasons. Three times a year is the maximum. That's how many times representative areas, for example, should be mowed. For the rest, one or two times will be optimal - such frequency allows you to clean up the meadow area, and at the same time have a meadow quite rich in species.

Katarzyna: And how, in your opinion, to educate and at the same time sensitize the public on the issue of greenery in cities, including the wild growing one?

Luke: In my opinion, a specially delegated person, working in a city or municipal office, would do a great job. It wouldn't even have to be a botanist, but someone along the lines of a gardener with a mission. After all, we have plenty of horticulture graduates looking for work.

Catherine: What specifically would such a specialist do in cities?

Luke: I think to myself that such a gardener could monitor the city for greenery; take care of it; organize workshops and trainings for residents. In general: to infect people with the love of plants. There are many possibilities, but it certainly has to be a person committed to his activity.

I met with such a function in Sanok, for example. It turned out that the city's greenery supervisor is a man who wrote his master's thesis on the flora of the city. Thus, Sanok has a specific urban flora developed, and an educator on it. In my opinion, it is difficult to imagine a better person for this position. I would recommend the creation of such a function in every city. Imagine arriving at a place and immediately getting information about the plant species found there.

I thought further that, in principle, such an urban gardener, and in large and medium-sized cities his employees, could do the mowing. And maybe he wouldn't do it mechanically, but slowly, with attention and with careful observation of the plants - with love for them. And, even so, irregularly, adjusting the mowing according to what is growing, perhaps avoiding clumps of mullein or hemlock. Maybe we need just such a change of thinking in terms of mowing greenery in cities?

Lukasz Luczaj - botanist, PhD in biological sciences, university lecturer, professor at the University of Rzeszow, popularizer of nature. He writes about himself "a lover of flowers and plants in general". Author of scientific and popular science publications, including the books "Into the Wild," "Wild Kitchen," "Sex in the Big Woods." For more information, visit

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