WHAT IS A MEADOW?

Meadows are a window into the beauty of the original American landscape. They have long captured the imagination of anyone resisting the cultural domination of the lawn. The meadow stands as an appealing cross between a wild-west prairie and the homogeneous lawn dominating our landscapes. In an age of sustainable gardening, its allure grows even stronger if we consider its ecological benefits including bird and pollinator food sources and shelter, erosion control and storm water runoff management.

A wildflower or native plant meadow is first a functional and interactive plant community teaming with and supporting life, and second a flower garden for all to enjoy. It is not a "meadow in a can" to be bought off the shelf, and while it requires care and planning, it is a worthwhile effort with many benefits. 

WHY DO MEADOWS MATTER?

In the United States, over 24 million acres of lawn surround our homes. As suburban development continues to spread into open and forested land alike, we lose more and more of our native vegetation and wildlife habitat.

By replacing a part or all of your lawn with native plants, you not only create a dynamic and beautiful landscape, you also provide critically important habitat, food and a refuge to attract a variety of wildlife.

MEADOW EXPECTATIONS

•  Once established, meadows are beautiful and require less maintenance.

•  Meadows are not as neat and tidy as mowed lawns.

•  Meadows, and even small plantings of native plants, provide important resting and feeding areas for birds and other pollinators.

•  Meadows can be established with seed or live plants. If using live plants, landscape plugs are a common choice as they are small, cheaper than large container plants and easy to install. A combination of seed and plugs can also be used to balance costs and create faster results.

MEADOW MAKING ADVICE AND STEP-BY-STEP INSTRUCTIONS

Site Selection

As most native wildflowers require full sun, the site should be located where it receives full sun for most of the day. There should also be good air movement through the site, as well as few weeds. An established field, garden or lawn are ideal.

If full sun is not available, you can look for more shade tolerant “woodland mixes”. These mixes are best suited to a shady site where tree branches are trimmed to allow some light to penetrate.

While a level site is best, a slope will work as well and will help with soil erosion and water runoff.  Site conditions should be a consideration as not all wildflower mix requirements are the same. Some native plants or plant mixes will grow best in well-drained or sandy soils, while others prefer; moist soils yet others need dry growing conditions. Whether your location is wet as dry matters.  Dry is better as wet will be hard to maintain and can easily revert  to shrubs/trees and attract unwanted wetland species.

Usually, each plant can tolerate a range of these conditions and trusted meadow mixes are created to handle such a range. While fertilization is discouraged for meadows, it is not a bad idea to understand what is in your soil. Soil sample kits are available through Penn State Extension (Email:  alleghenymg@psu.edu or call 412-482-3476). In general, fertilizing your meadow is not necessary and will only promote the growth of weeds.

Site Preparation

Proper site preparation is of vital importance to the success of your meadow.  Any existing lawn and/or vegetation must be removed.  One option is to cut and skim off the vegetation with a shovel or similar method.  Another method is to solarize, covering the area with black plastic, plywood or applying 20 sheets of newspaper and then covering with wood chips.  This method is best for small areas and should remain for two months, preferably in summer to prevent weed seeds from sprouting. 

Chemical methods may also be used to clean an existing site. The chemical Glyphosate (Roundup), for example may also be applied as an herbicide under the right environmental conditions for the product. It is important to read the product usage instructions or hire a qualified herbicide applicator.

Depending on the condition of your location, it may take 1-2 growing seasons to prepare the soil until the weed seed bank is exhausted or greatly reduced. After clearing the initial vegetation, new weeds may come in when their seeds are exposed to light. You might need to till or spray regularly, every 2-3 weeks, depending on your observations. You can also plant oats or buckwheat in the first season to prepare the soil before planting any meadow plants. These plants help suppress weeds, pulling nitrogen into the soil from the air and may be tilled into the ground prior to seeding.

Plant Selection

The key to a successful meadow is to have diversity, with a mix of grasses and wildflowers.  Native grasses and flowers create high quality habitat for birds, butterflies and other beneficial wildlife.  At least three different species of wildflowers should be blooming at the same time during spring, summer and fall in order to provide food sources birds, pollinators and insects from early spring to late fall. Grasses and sedges are important as they provide support and  protection for other plants, keep out weeds by filling in gaps around flowers, prevent soil erosion, and provide food for wildlife. These plants also serve as larval hosts for some butterflies and provide overwintering areas for bumblebees and other insects. 

When designing your meadow, it also worth considering the height of the various plants, once established. Choose plants that fill the lower or ground layer, the middle, and upper or top layer of your meadow. Tall plants, for example, often look better and are supported better when surrounded or mixed with shorter, mid-layer plants. Ground layer plants provide weed suppression and lend a more defined transition to the edges of meadows. A good meadow mix will include plants in each height and blooming season.

While using seed mixes offers a cost effective method especially for larger sites, landscape plugs, or established young plants may be used as well, or planted along with the seeds.  The benefit of supplementing or using plugs to establish your meadow is better customization and quicker establishments of plants.

Planting Time and Techniques

Meadow seeds may be successfully planted from spring to June or early September avoiding July, generally the hottest and often the driest time of the year. Both an early and late season planting have advantages and disadvantages.

When considering your seed mix as a whole, planting during the early season will tend to favor warm season native grasses and flowers that favor the heat. Those that favor or need at least one cycle of cold during winter will come up in the next spring.

Fall planting on the other hand will favor the germination of native flowers instead of the warm season grasses. Additionally, many of the warm season weeds will have slowed following July heat, giving fall germinative seeds a competitive advantage. Because most meadow seeds will benefit from overwintering or “stratification” a higher germination rate can be expected with fall seeding in the following spring when both temperature and moisture conditions reach optimal levels again.

When spring planting is preferred, seeds can be prepared using indoor stratification.  Seeds are treated by wrapping in moist paper towels, placing in an airtight container, then refrigerating for the required period of time before planting. Seeds may also be stratified indoors in a freezer or refrigerator, following the instructions specific for the seed or seed mix.

Planting

Seeds may be hand-broadcasted or sown with mechanical seeders. With either method, interplanting seeded meadow plugs (young seedlings) or more mature versions of selected native flowers and grasses will deliver earlier visual benefits  Neither technique is appropriate for all plantings and each has unique advantages and drawbacks. With either method, tilling the soil is not recommended in order to minimize soil disturbance and the establishment of new weeds.

Hand broadcasting is a more appropriate method for smaller areas and can generally be done by hand or with a crank seeder.  In general, it is best to mix the seeds with an organic medium such as peat moss in order to facilitate a better and easier broadcasting of seeds.

After seeding has been accomplished, a lawn roller should be used to ensure that the seeds have good contact with the soil.  Lawn rollers are available for rent from many local hardware stores.  Watering isn’t necessary unless there are drought conditions.  Once native wildflowers are established, they do not require additional watering and will survive on natural rainfall.

For larger sites, the use of a mechanical spreader is recommended.  A common mechanical seeding method is to use drill seeders, which plant seeds in rows after creating a small opening in the soil, minimizing soil disturbance.

Alternatively, you could sow the site with non-native annual wildflowers, and gradually add perennials. The perennials will take over as the annuals die back.

Maintenance

Mowing

Regular mowing through the first growing season helps prevent weeds from shading the new native seedlings. Mow each time weeds or the native plant growth reaches 8-10 inches and cut back to about 5 in inches. The height does not need to be exact, but the purpose of this is to give plants a chance to fill out crowns and build a deeper root system. Hand-held string trimmers are ideal tools ‘mowing’ since standard lawn mowers are not ideal for meadow plants and generally cannot handle the desired height. Though it may be tempting to let your plants grow to see them flower, mowing in the first year is critical to provide native plants a competitive advantage over weeds. Such a mowing regiment prevents weeds from shading out the natives plants while they are getting established.

You may still need to mow once or twice in the beginning of the second season if weeds are prevalent.

Once established, it is better to mow your meadow in the spring once the new growth appears. Leaving the meadow in place provides winter interest and food for birds who will feed on the seed heads. Additionally, many beneficial native insects use the hollow stems of many natives to lay their eggs for the following year. Mowing the plants in the spring time provides wildlife with the chance to overwinter in your meadow and emerge as temperatures rise.

Weeding

Diligent weeding during the meadow’s first two to three years is very important and can reduce aggressive weeds species to a manageable level.

Learn about the weeds that are common to your area and how to distinguish them from the young native plants and grasses that you have planted. In general, it is best to avoid pulling weeds as it creates soil disturbance and encourages more weed growth. Instead, cut the weeds at ground level. They will rarely have the chance to fully develop again that season. Eventually, as your meadow gets established, the natives will progressively shade out the weeds.

NATIVE SPECIES RECOMMENDATIONS AND PLANT PROFILES

Click on the plant name for more detail.

Photos courtesy of Ernst Conservation Seeds

PERENNIALS

Aster laevis (Symphyotrichum l.) - Smooth Blue Aster

Aster novae-anglia (Symphyotrichum n.) - New England Aster

GRASSES

ANNUALS

RESOURCES

If your local nursery does not carry the seed or plants you have selected for your meadow, below are additional resources that might be helpful:

Ernst Conservation Seeds

Sylvania Natives

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