Meadow making takes root in Charlottesville
“Here’s the prize,” John Hermsmeier says as he gently touches the blooming milkweed plant in the backyard of his parents-in-law’s house.
To some people, the native plants in the yard may appear to be rather weedy when compared with a crisp, manicured green turf lawn, but to Hermsmeier and others, such plants are part of an effort to bring natural beauty and more environmentally friendly lawn management alternatives to the area.
Hermsmeier is a “meadow maker” — one of a growing number in Central Virginia — and the owner of Meadow Maker Growing Service.
Hermsmeier came to the area in 1981 and graduated from the University of Virginia in 1985 with a degree in environmental science. After living in D.C. for a year, he returned to Charlottesville with his fiancé and now-wife, Kim.
Hermsmeier previously taught at Tandem Friends School and Renaissance School and was the executive director of the Environmental Education Center, which organized schoolyard habitat projects.
Although he didn’t start his one-man business until 2012, Hermsmeier has been creating lawn alternatives since his early days in Charlottesville.
“When Kim and I moved to our first home in the original section of Mill Creek, I decided to do a lawn alternative, so we planted a forest, which takes a little while to get going,” Hermsmeier said. “There was a lot of controversy, with folks saying, ‘These folks aren’t mowing their lawn.’”
Hermsmeier said the covenants of the neighborhood required “reasonable maintenance of lawn” and he considered it reasonable to grow a forest landscape that created bird habitat, controlled erosion on the property and limited the amount of mud running off into the neighborhood’s sediment pond.
“Fundamentally, I couldn’t see teaching Earth science in front of these ninth-graders at the time and talking about environmental management, and then going home and not doing things that I could on my own property,” he said.
Although not everyone was pleased with the alternative lawn, Hermsmeier said they sent a letter to every mailbox in the neighborhood and received support for their efforts.
Now Hermsmeier works to install small-scale meadows for residential clients. He does not use herbicides, and the meadows only need to be mowed once a year.
Some other benefits of installing meadow landscapes include better stormwater control, less erosion, greater biodiversity and fewer lawnmower-related emissions, he said.
Kate Hudgins is one of Hermsmeier’s neighbors and clients.
“John actually asked me to kind of be his first guinea pig,” Hudgins said. “I was happy with that because my husband made me promise that when we built our house that he would never have to do any yard work and we have a hill in front of our house — you couldn’t do yard work in it anyway.”
Hudgins said she enjoys the beauty of having flowers from spring through fall and anticipates her meadow will expand down her hill.
“He has had a permanent impact on our subdivision,” she said. “He has … greatly influenced what used to be cut grass areas in our subdivision, which are now being grown naturally.”
This spring, Hermsmeier installed a small meadow at the intersection of Second Street Southeast and Monticello Avenue as part of Charlottesville’s Streets That Work initiative and the city’s Adopt-A-Spot program.
Ludwig Kuttner, the owner of the Ix Property across the street from the meadow installation, funded the project.
“We started the project and then I asked him to execute it,” said Kuttner, who thought the Second Street site — which is also part of the city’s Strategic Investment Area — could be improved with some more greenery.
“Nobody does anything on Second Street,” Kuttner said. “And I said, ‘Why don’t we just plant something? Plant something that is organic and grows, that is low-maintenance, that would make this area nicer instead of having [it] just neglected.’”
Kuttner said he hopes the project will be part of an effort to create a sense of place and community in the area.
“Normally, I’m working alone, which is fine, but this was just so great,” Hermsmeier said. “The little kids across the street [at Friendship Court], they shouted, ‘Mister, can you do that at our place?’ Which I hope to do in some form or another.”
The small meadow is Hermsmeier’s first public project and includes a mixture of some non-native annuals, native wildflowers and warm-season grasses.
“My niche is to work with what you’ve got and accept that this is a semi-native meadow,” Hermsmeier said.
Because installing fully native meadows can be expensive, Hermsmeier said he works to do something rather than nothing to improve the ecological impact of local yards and physically change the landscape for the better.
There are several other local efforts underway to grow native plants and turf alternatives.
Devin Floyd, director and founder of the Center for Urban Habitats, has worked to create ecosystem installations in Charlottesville, such as at the Ix Art Park.
Floyd said he thinks native landscaping, in general — not just meadow making, specifically — is becoming “significantly more popular.”
“People are wanting to do more than just satisfy that sudden gratification of having a wildflower garden and they’re thinking about other things and one of them is conservation — they’re thinking about future generations, and so they want to have something that might support biodiversity,” Floyd said.
Floyd said a challenge of meadow making and growing native plants is the discrepancy between the expectation of what a meadow should be and how much installing a meadow ecosystem should cost.
Another challenge is convincing people that not all weeds are bad and some can be desirable for supporting biodiversity, Floyd said.
Floyd said the key to meadow making is installing local native plants that pollinators are adapted to.
The Thomas Jefferson Soil & Water Conservation District encourages meadow making through two cost-share programs — the Virginia Conservation Assistance Program and the Charlottesville Conservation Assistance Program.
“There is an upward trend of people wanting more native landscapes in their yard,” said Michael Ramsey, an urban conservation technician with the conservation district.
Ramsey said there are at least five meadows currently being installed in Albemarle County through the cost-share program and that some local residents are installing meadows to educate others about turf alternatives.
“One of the main things that we try to do is prevent sediment pollution,” Ramsey said. “The thing about native plants and native grasses [is] they have longer roots and are stronger, and they hold into the ground a bit better and stabilize any kind of surfaces and reduce those sediment loads.”
Although Hermsmeier’s semi-native meadow projects are not covered by the cost-share programs — which require most, if not all, plants to be native — he said officials tend to be supportive of what he is doing.
“It’s sort of a changing perspective on landscape, which I think the public is open to right now,” said John Mann, landscape manager for the city of Charlottesville. “The [Second Street] triangle itself is sort of a unique approach.”
Mann said Hermsmeier’s recently installed meadow is part of a larger city effort to grow more native plants and grasses. That effort includes a pollinator garden on the John W. Warner Parkway and several Adopt-A-Spots in the Belmont neighborhood that feature native Piedmont plants.
“So there’s a lot of approaches, a lot of scales, a lot of reasons, a lot of outcomes — a whole diversity — so my very tiny business is just one part of that,” Hermsmeier said.