A story unfolds after transforming a lifeless stormwater management system into a thriving pollinator habitat
What happens when you convert plain turf to a wildflower meadow? A lot actually.
Our home sits on the bottom of a downward sloping cul de sac near the outer edge of the Sourland Mountain region of New Jersey. We are one of eight members of a homeowner’s association whose sole purpose is to maintain two stormwater detention basins. One of those detention basins is directly behind our home, visible only to us, and takes over an acre of space.
It has two concrete low flow channels and one concrete riser. The below photo was taken April 2, 2015. This is what “our” detention basin used to look like. (Note the buildup of grass growing in the low flow channels, which is not supposed to happen).
After ten years of tolerating this sterile patch of land, we yearned for a more beautiful view. That desire is what inspired the idea of turning the detention basin into a wildflower meadow. We later learned this conversion would attract an abundance of birds and insects that we never had before.
Before we could begin, there was some “due diligence” required. First, we needed to get the permission of our homeowners’ association, since they own the property and are responsible for its maintenance. Convincing the association to approve the transformation was easy. We offered to pay the cost of conversion ourselves. In addition, the association’s maintenance costs would drop dramatically since the basin went from being mowed every two weeks during the growing season to only once a year in late winter. If we didn’t pay the upfront cost, we estimate the association would have broken even in about 5-8 years.
Township approval was also required. They have stormwater basin maintenance standards, and require that all stormwater landscaping be designed by a licensed landscape architect. In our design, working with a landscape architect, we chose to leave the concrete low flow channels in place in order to minimize our costs. This simplified the approval process. Since we were not modifying the stormwater management system, all that was required for township approval was proof that the party performing the work was a licensed landscape architect.
The plan was to use a seed mix appropriate to the growing conditions in the detention basin. The area is primarily full sun, with one corner in partial shade. The soil was compacted and dry, except when inundated with stormwater. We chose a seed mix of deer resistant plants suitable for a floodplain.
Before the meadow was seeded, two applications of herbicide were applied to kill the existing lawn. Then, we did the seeding in spring.
In a matter of months, the transformation began. While the growth may seem slow at this point, it’s the growth you can’t see under ground that is really taking shape. Unlike lawn grass, the roots of native wildflowers and grasses go deep,and therefore do a wonderful job of absorbing large amounts of rainwater. The plants we chose are also great at tolerating both dry and wet spells. A little drought doesn’t make the flowers any less showy, nor does the foliage turn brown.
By the following summer, we were no longer looking at a monotonous scene lacking any seasonal choreography, but instead a beautiful flowering meadow.
As you can imagine, a meadow doesn’t grow overnight. It’s an evolution, and it takes time. There’s an old adage that claims: “The first year it sleeps, the second year it creeps, and the third it leaps!” From year to year, different plants mature and begin to bloom, while others may become less prominent.
Even today, we know our meadow continues to evolve. We are even looking at ways to modify the edge so it can be more undulating, or add new potted perennials that grow tall like Joe-Pye Weed to add a little extra color and texture.
With the meadow taking on a whole new life of its own, the extra wildlife it was bringing with it was equally alluring. It was around that time that we realized our home needed a name. And so, Flutter By Meadows was born, as was my blog by the same name shortly after. We never looked out our windows without seeing something flying about. Either a butterfly, or even a bald eagle, and countless songbirds and woodpeckers. We very often have butterflies, like the one seen below, an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, about to land on wild bergamot. When the area was just grass, I didn’t see butterflies. Now I have noticed countless Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, Red-spotted Purples, Monarchs, Spicebush Swallowtails, Pearl Crescents, Red Admirals, Clouded Sulphurs, and Common Buckeyes to name a few. Inspiration for my blog is almost entirely from what I encounter on our property.
Here is the meadow in 2020:
And again in 2021.
And in case you are wondering, what happens to the grasses and flowers come fall? Well…it begins to look a lot like everything else around that time of year, shades of auburn, mahogany, hazel, amber, and sorrel that slowly morph into winter. Followed by juncos, field sparrows, and white-throated sparrows bobbing up and down on long stems of grass. Just after the last bits of snow have melted, the meadow gets mowed. Year to year, we alternate a small area that we leave uncut plus some small “habitat islands” so that overwintering insects are left undisturbed.
When the tree swallows re-appear in very late winter from their southern wintering grounds, the whole cycle begins anew and we look forward to a new year of growth and beauty unfolding at Flutter By Meadows!
Seeing the success we had with this meadow, we decided to install a second meadow in front of our home as you pull up the driveway. While significantly smaller in size, it is no less a biodiversity mecca. We affectionately call it, The Mini Meadow. In addition to wildflowers, this little meadow has evergreens and small trees planted throughout. The birds especially love the trees! And the butterflies are a welcome sight to come home to. Additionally, we planted a micro-meadow to hide the cover of our septic tank, and we have an additional meadow on the side of our property as well.
Our daughter was about 5 years old when we transformed the basin to a meadow. Now, going on nearly 10, she has grown up with a very strong affinity for the natural world. She sees the pollinators and birds that call our place home as very special creatures. I can’t imagine our home without meadows, and I don’t think she will ever lose her strong connection with nature.
Having spent countless hours in my yard photographing what I see, sometimes I feel like I’m living in a storybook. The changes in colors, the breezes across the meadow, and the biodiversity are all new chapters. The birds and the butterflies at Flutter By Meadows are wonderful storytellers.
Here is a short clip of the mini meadow in August of 2019: