The colorful chaos of a wildflower meadow is a much “greener” alternative to a perfectly manicured patch of grass, according to a team of researchers led by the University of Cambridge.
Cultivating a lawn is a very popular age-old tradition in much of the western world. Yet, as great as these uniform blankets of greenery are for, say, playing sports, they don’t support the healthiest natural habitats.
Maintaining an even grass garden is more expensive, time-consuming, and worse for the environment than simply letting nature take over.
And when nature does what it wants, the view is damn beautiful.
To prove it, a King’s College team broke a long tradition. In 2019, they kept almost half of the college’s iconic back lawn from being mowed for the first time since it was laid in 1772 and planted a wildflower meadow mix in that area’s topsoil.
A sprinkling of poppies, blueberries and daisies then came to life. According to new findings, the football field-sized patch of color now harbors more than 3.6 times more plants, spiders and insects than nearby lawns.
Indeed, the biomass of invertebrates living in the meadow is 25 times higher than that living in an ordinary lawn, comprising twice as many species to be preserved.
The researchers say the grassland was home to about four times as many declining plant species in 2021 as it once was as grassland.
With the flowers, insects quickly followed, and with them came their predators. Local bats now feed three times more often in the meadow, according to the researchers.
“I was really surprised, actually, at the magnitude of the change for such a small area,” wonders plant ecologist Cicely Marshall of the University of Cambridge.
“For species that could forage for insects for several miles in a single evening, it is incredible that our little meadow has had an impact [bat] behavior,” she adds.
Initially, the meadow was only sown with 33 species of plants. Already, it is also home to at least 51 other species.
Best of all, no gardener needs to mow, fertilize, water, or spray these plants with pesticides.
Because gardens can store carbon over time, it saves a lot of potential emissions.
The researchers estimate that grasslands could save around 1.36 tonnes of carbon emissions per hectare per year, mainly due to wasted mowing and a lack of fertilization.
This is equivalent to a return flight between London and New York. And this experiment was conducted only on a small plot of land.
Previous studies also showed that even mini grasslands can have a positive impact on wildlife. Imagine if these results were replicated in many job sites and public spaces.
“A lot of people mow their lawn because that’s what they’ve always done,” said Cambridge University horticulturalist Steve Coghill.
“There is a perception that a closely mowed lawn shows that you care more about the garden.”
But breaking with that tradition might be a more benevolent act. Coghill says he’s not afraid to be contrary for “the right reasons.”
“Britain is one of the most deforested countries in Europe. Anything we can do to bring back some biodiversity is worth the effort.”
Cambridge students and staff certainly don’t seem to care. In a survey of a few hundred residents of King’s College, researchers found that many students preferred a mixture of meadows and lawns to lawns alone.
Some said they found the lawns “pretentious” or “sterile and unattractive”. Most found the wildflower meadow to be more aesthetic.
“There will always be people who prefer the aesthetics of the lawn”, said Marshall, “and lawns definitely have their place – they’re tough and good for recreation – you’re not going to play football in a meadow!”
But she says the UK’s urban lawns are a great opportunity for biodiversity conservation.
Compared to a lawn, for example, Cambridge Meadow reflects much more sunlight, which the researchers say could help “maintain a cooler urban microclimate under future global warming”.
“People taking the first step can help others see the benefits. Important and respected institutions like King’s College can serve as role models who can sway public opinion.”
The study was published in Ecological solutions and proofs.