I consider myself quite fortunate to live in an area where neighborhood decrees do not prohibit grass from growing to the height nature intended, and one of my first landscaping activities after I moved in was to begin an experiment in transitioning a lawn to a woodlot. The first step of this process was quite simple: I stopped mowing a section of it.
There were several reasons behind this decision. To start with, I wanted to see if the local mature trees would be able to self-seed and complete the forest to farmland to pasture to lawn to forest cycle, and I wanted to see what a lawn would actually grow into given a chance. I also wanted to see how the various seeds from nearby plants would do if allowed to grow and compete with the grass, and it also seemed a good way to reduce the time, cost, and environmental impact of lawnmowing.
After a couple of weeks of not mowing I decided to give the experiment a name and some semblance of organization. That section of the yard became “the meadow” and I mowed a network of paths through and around it to enable easier walking and observation opportunities without disturbing the remainder. The first season was not overly interesting as it was mid-summer by the time I started the experiment and what might have tried to grow in the spring had already been mown down. Watching the grass grow to 2-3 feet high and go to seed was similar to watching wheat fields through the season, but there were no spontaneous eruptions of wildflowers or seedling trees. My nieces and nephews did not seem to mind, though, as the network of paths quickly became a maze for them to play in whenever they visited.
Watching the grass dry to straw in the autumn and collapse in the winter gave me the idea that I could use it as mulch, so the next year I expanded the experimental area to include a transition section which I would allow to grow until just before it set seed, then cut down and use for mulch in the orchyard. In the original test area, the second year provided the first real glimpse of what was waiting in the lawn for a chance to grow. The matted down straw from the previous season led to the grass growing less densely, and the lack of mowing favored those plants which previously were mown over, so by mid-summer large portions of the meadow were covered with a mixture of grass and native wildflowers along with a few unfortunate wildflowers (such as Canadian Thistle) officially classified as noxious weeds. Recognizing the necessity of weed control in my largely agricultural local environment, I modified my initial plan to be minimally intrusive by making an exception to spray noxious weeds with targeted applications of weedkiller. Although not visible during the spring and summer, several black walnut, box elder, and sugar maple seedlings grew and became visible in the fall as the grass dried and settled. The orchyard benefitted greatly from the straw mulch as well.
By the third season the meadow had fully ceased to be a lawn – the fine growth of lawn grass had been replaced by the coarser growth of meadow grass, the wildflowers from the second season had gone to seed and created another season of wildflowers to be visited by a variety of insects, and the seedling trees were entering growth spurts.
One mystery remains… The meadow naturally receives seeds from sugar maple, box elder, black walnut, hawthorn, red oak, and black cherry trees. In addition, as part of the “reforestation” program any cherry pits or apple seeds left over from processing the fruit get distributed throughout the meadow. So far I have not seen any seedlings aside from the first three, though I would have expected a more representative seedling mixture, particularly in the areas away from the black walnuts.