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A meadow garden is a low-maintenance option to grow indigenous plants that support biodiversity, stimulating extensive ecosystems for sustainable life.
Meadow gardening requires patience, research of local warm-season native grasses and native wildflowers, and about 400 square feet of garden space. To avoid frustration, know that it will take about three years to get your meadow garden fully established and functional.
Table of Contents
- What is a Meadow Garden?
- Before We Start – Reasons Meadow Gardens Fail
- The Importance of Diversity in Stability
- Why Are Native Plants Important?
- Planning Your Meadow Garden
- Choosing Meadow Plants
- Preparing Your Meadow Garden Site
- Meadow Garden Starting Timing
- Managing Weeds
- Maintaining your wildflower meadow
- In Summary
What is a Meadow Garden?
A meadow garden is a constructive way of restoring a natural ecosystem. As we’ll see later, a sustainable ecosystem depends on maximizing the number of symbiotic relationships within your garden.
Imagine what the land around you looked like 500 years ago, long before the human population increased (and everything that went with that). Most importantly, there were meadows, and all great and small, co-existed.
Wherever you are, things look different now than 300 years ago. In this article, I would like to join Prof Doug Tallamy of the University of Delaware, inviting you to take back nature one yard at a time.
Your meadow garden will be a place that simulates a natural environment filled with native plants and native grasses waving in the breeze.
Together, we’re going to create the dots that connect healthier ecosystems and springboards to reclaim some of what has been lost.
Natural landscapes shouldn’t be restricted to parks, conservation areas, and nature reserves. You can have your own, filled with beneficial insects, pollinators, and butterflies.
Natural meadow gardens are low-maintenance habitats with high biodiversity that bring beauty and value to your garden.
Before We Start – Reasons Meadow Gardens Fail
One of the leading causes for meadow gardens failing is the abundance of bad advice on the internet. Other factors include
- Using the wrong plants.
- Not including enough diversity.
- Confusing meadow gardening with growing a traditional garden.
In this article, I give you quality advice, linking you to resources that will increase your chances of growing a successful meadow garden. We will consider
- Why growing a meadow garden is a good idea.
- Why using native plants and grasses is essential to success.
- How to plan your garden.
- Starting a mini meadow for expansion.
- Plants to consider, both wildflowers and grass.
- Plants to avoid in meadow gardens.
- Finding a good seed supplier.
- How to do site preparation.
- When to plant wildflowers.
- When to plant grasslike plants.
- Avoiding weed seeds and managing invasive weeds.
- The role of fertility in managing weeds.
- Maintaining your wildflower meadow
- Managing tree seedlings and wooded area encroachment
- What to do when things go wrong.
The Importance of Diversity in Stability
Think of a mathematical calculation with a single variable to solve (x). It’s a relatively easy problem to solve—isolate x. However, as the number of variables increases, so does finding a solution. The common problem with being alive, in its basest form, is avoiding death for as long as possible.
If you are alone, facing a single foe, the contest’s outcome is binary – win or lose. The likelihood of losing diminishes as soon as there are more participants, each with their respective objectives, including forming symbiotic relationships with you and others.
As the extent of interrelatedness expands, the more stable the system becomes. The system’s stability is only affected when one element becomes too strong – like humans in this case.
Our general sense of supremacy allows us to eradicate swaths of Earth’s co-inhabitants, little realizing that life, at a foundational level, depends on the creatures we destroy.
I realize I’m being abrasive, but consider what happens every time a farmer sprays land with pesticides and the effect that has on birds. A nest of finches can consume as many as 6,000 worms before becoming independent. No worms, no surviving chicks.
Why Are Native Plants Important?
Native plants are essential because natural adaptation is a slow process and most insects are specialists. It takes hundreds of thousands of years for different species of plants, animals, insects, and microorganisms to form stable, sustainable interactions with their environments.
Each bird species has a special diet of insects, and the insects, in turn, only eat specific plants or other insects. Predators have unique hunting methods, camouflage techniques, and particular diets. You can extrapolate the intricacies up or down the food chain for different predator/prey relationships.
Some plants need specific pollinators to do the job; specialization is common in nature. Symbiotic relationships abound in nature, forged over hundreds of thousands of years. Remove a single element, and you have a chain reaction of effects with implications we can’t start to imagine.
Let’s take as an example the Monarch butterfly, now close to extinction. Monarchs only lay their eggs on the butterfly milkweed (11 plants from the Asclepias genus). This is because the Monarch caterpillar has specially adapted skills developed over millennia, allowing it to circumvent the latex-like milk the plant exudes.
The leaves also contain cardiac glycosides, compounds that affect heart functioning, making them toxic to most birds and mammals. Eating the milkwood leaves makes the Monarch caterpillar toxic, an established deterrent to potential predators.
The monarch caterpillar doesn’t eat anything else. No milkweed; no Monarch butterfly. It’s a single example, but it applies across thousands of species, all interrelated in a complex cycle of life, a life that includes yours and mine.
Planning Your Meadow Garden
Before starting your meadow, slash wildflower, and slash pollinator garden, there are a couple of things to consider. Some basic gardening factors like the daily hours of full sun, soil drainage, soil moisture levels, and garden size matter. Let’s look at these, respectively.
Before we do that, remember that if you want to design for aesthetics rather than let nature do the design, grow a conventional garden. If you want a garden that is neat instead of wild and woolly, or want to use non-competitive species, or want shrubs and annuals in the planting, then plant a conventional garden.
General Pollinator-Friendly Garden Guidelines
For an ecosystem to become sustainable, it requires sufficient diversity and population size to accommodate that diversity. According to Dr. Cathy Neal or the University of New Hampshire, that size is at least 400 to 500 square feet (20 x 20 feet).
Select flowers that match your environment. As I mentioned earlier, there are several resources to help you find the plants that will do well in your area. Look at the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) site’s Native Plant Finder app to find a list of wildflowers and grasses that will do well in your meadow garden.
Not all wildflowers are good for every situation. Many plants prefer full sun and good drainage, but others may tolerate partial shade and moist environments. To choose a good wildflower mix, thoroughly consider your site’s soil conditions and full sun availability.
It’s ideal to start small, but smaller than a 20 by 20 feet (6 by 6 meters) garden would be too small to sustain a diverse range of wildflower species. Some wildflowers grow pretty tall and may lean or flop, but if planted densely in an area where they will not interfere with walkways or other landscape elements, they will help keep each other erect.
A wildflower meadow is unruly by nature and can appear wild and untidy at certain times of the year; therefore, place it where it can be seen from several meters or more. Purchase small transplants rather than starting from seed for a neater, more intended meadow look, and plant in intentional groups like in a garden.
Starting a Mini Meadow for Annual Expansion
You can always expand your meadow garden annually. Do your first planting of meadow plants, then see what thrives and what doesn’t, and add meadow plants accordingly.
Choosing Meadow Plants
Getting the Mix of Wildflower and Grasses Right
Most meadow builders propose that meadow gardens contain 60% types of grass and 40% of wildflowers. The exact percentage is unimportant, but including more grass than flowers will help the ecosystem self-sustain.
You’ll want perennial grasses, but for flowers, include some native annuals, particularly those that will likely self-seed, such as black-eyed Susan.
Your Wildflower Garden
You’ll need to consider your neighbors, especially if you live in a city or a suburb.
Your own backyard meadow will be more acceptable than a meadow that extends to the street or is grown curbside. Check if any homeowners association ordinances or restrictions are related to your property.
When buying wildflower seeds, keep it native to get the right flowering plants. Beware of commercial meadow mixes and ensure they are native. Below is a non-exhaustive list of candidates to consider.
|Lavender Hyssop||Agastache foeniculum|
|Nodding Wild Onion||Allium Cemuum|
|Wild Columbine||Aquilegia canadensis|
|Common Milkweed||Asclepias syriaca|
|Butterfly Milkweed||Asclepias tuberosa|
|Smooth Blue Aster||Aster laevis|
|New England Aster||Aster novae angliae|
|Upland White Aster||Aster ptarmicoides|
|Canada Milk Vetch||Astragalus canadensis|
|Blue False Indigo||Baptisia australis|
|Wild Indigo||Baptisia tincloria|
|Partridge Pea||Cassia fasciculata|
|Wild Senna||Cassia hebecarpe|
|New Jersey Tea||Ceanothus americanus|
|Lancewood Tickweed||Coreopsis lanceolata|
|Showy Tick Trefoil||Desmodium canadense|
|Pale Purple Coneflower||Echinacea pallida|
|Purple Coneflower||Echinacea purpurea|
|Rattlesnake Master||Eryngium yuccofolium|
|Joe-Pye Weed||Eupatorium purpureum|
|Bottle Gentian||Gentiana andrewsii|
|Ox Eye Sunflower||Heliopsis helianthoides|
|Roundhead Bushclover||Lespedeza capitata|
|Rough Blazing Star||Liatris aspera|
|Prairie Blazing Star||liatris pycnoostachya|
|Dense Blazing Star||Liatris spicata|
|Cardinal Flower||Lobelia cardinalis|
|Wild Lupine||Lupinus perennis|
|Wild Bergamot||Monarda fistulosa|
|Wild Quinine||Parthenium integrifolium|
|Foxglove Beardtongue||Penstemon digitalis|
|White Prairie Clover||Petalostemum candida|
|Purple Prairie Clover||Petalostemum purpurea|
|Virginia Mountain Mint||Pycnanthemum virginianum|
|Uright Prairie Coneflower||Ratibida columnifera|
|Yellow Coneflower||Ratiba pinnata|
|Orange Coneflower||Rudbeckia fulgida|
|Black Eyed Susan||Rudbeckia hirta|
|Sweet Black Eyed Susan||Rudbeckia subtomentosa|
|Brown Eyed Susan||Rudbeckia triloba|
|Flat Top Goldenrod||Solidago graminfolia|
|Early Goldenrod||Solidago juncea|
|Stiff Goldenrod||Solidago rigida|
|Showy Goldenrod||Solidago speciosa|
|Ohio Spiderwort||Tradescantia ohiensis|
|Blue Vervian||Verbena hastata|
Adding Native Grasses
These plants help keep the land from eroding and provide cover for native bees to make nests. They are often drought tolerant, require little maintenance, and are pest and disease free.
Grasses make wonderful backdrop plants for garden beds and can provide privacy screening. They provide shape and form to an otherwise desolate environment during winter. Grasses in the breeze offer texture, motion, and even sound.
Size and shape variations add complexity to habitat gardens, as do a variety of colors, such as gentle greens, blues, reds, and purples. Switchgrass is mentioned in the list below, but it may be invasive, so you may want to avoid it.
Except for the far western coastal areas, the little bluestem grows well throughout the U.S.A. and is a great ornamental grass. Like most plants in meadow gardens, the little bluestem grows best in full sun and infertile soil. Avoid compost and nitrogen additions.
Groundcovers help to control weeds, preserve moisture, and prevent erosion. Different varieties are better suited to shade or sun. They provide excellent cover for tiny mammals, insects, and other fauna that live near the ground.
The species listed below and their respective genera, like the carex spp. and the andropogon spp., have hundreds of potential tall grasses to choose from, but some are not native to North America. Check out sites like the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the NC Cooperative Extension for more info on native grasses.
|Native Grass||Botanical Name|
|Big bluestem||Andropogon gerardii|
|Bushy Bluestem||Andropogon glomeratus|
|Splitbeard bluestem||Andropogon ternarius|
|River cane/switch cane||Arundinaria gigantea|
|Wavy Hair Grass||Avenella flexuosa|
|Sideoats Gramma||Bouteloua curtipendula|
|Pennsylvania sedge||Carex pensylvanica|
|Plantain-leaved sedge||Carex plantaginea|
|Wild Sea Oats||Chasmanthium latifolium|
|Oat grass||Danthonia compressa|
|Poverty Oatgrass||Danthonia spicata|
|Crinkled Hairgrass||Deschampsia flexuosa|
|Bottlebrush Grass||Elymis hystrix|
|Wild Rye||Elymus spp.|
|Purple Love Grass||Eragrostis spectabilis|
|Red Fescue||Festuca rubra|
|Annual Rye||Lolium multiflorum|
|Pink Muhly Grass||Muhlenbergia capillaris|
|Prairie Switch Grass||Panicum virgatum|
|Little Bluestem||Schizachyrium sciparium|
|Indian Grass||Sorghastrum nutans|
|Prairie Dropseed||Sporobolus heterolepsis|
|Eastern gammagrass||Tripsacum dactyloides|
Plants to Avoid in Meadow Gardens
As mentioned above, switching grass in a meadow garden can soon become a problem. Other gardeners have also mentioned Goldenrod, but that only applies to plants with a rhizomatous root system – avoid these in general.
Finding a Good Seed Supplier
Finding a good seed supplier is critical, especially if you’re a purest for native meadow gardens. Here are a few links to start with. A reputed supplier will guide your location and suggest plant combinations that work.
Suggested Suppliers of Meadow Garden Seeds
Dr. Cathy Neal has an excellent resource for suggested wildflowers to plant, a product of years of research.
Preparing Your Meadow Garden Site
Remember me mentioning that meadow gardens take about three years to establish and stabilize. Year one is dedicated to deducing fertility and removing any lawn or weeds. There are several ways of achieving this. Herbicides are an option I avoid, like the plague.
It’s hard work if you do it manually, but digging up the turf is one way. Other ways include smothering or solarizing. Solarization (transparent plastic sheets) works well when summer temperatures are high.
Smothering involves placing large black plastic sheets over the site for several warmer months – from late spring until early fall. Not very pretty, but effective in killing all plants. Remember to weigh the sheets to avoid them blowing away and interrupting the process.
After removing and chopping to the ground a section of invasives in my own yard, I employed solarization. I used thick sheets of clear plastic to allow the sun to “cook” those troublesome weeds and their seeds, as the University of California Cooperative Extension instructed.
My experience taught me the necessity of getting the plastic smooth and tight over the soil surface; in spots where it was loose, some undesired plants thrived. Univ. of California Cooperative Extension, “Soil Solarization for Gardens and Landscapes,” ucanr.edu/sites/Solarization
Another option is selective weeding, which is viable if you have a small site and especially if you have a patch with some indigenous that are already thriving.
What if you have a vast space that you want to make into a meadow? According to the Penn State Extension Service, the best technique to prepare a large site is to till the soil and plant a cover crop, such as buckwheat, which will shade the current vegetation.
After harvesting the cover crop, till once more in hot, dry weather to dry out the roots of any residual weeds and grasses.
You must be ready to plant once your site has been cleared; otherwise, you invite weeds and invasives. If you prepare your site in the fall but intend to plant in the spring, you must be able to cover it with mulch or plastic, for example, until the spring.
Meadow Garden Starting Timing
If planting plugs, start in early spring after the last frost. Early spring gives the plants an entire growing season to flourish.
The Benefit of Winter
I used to gripe about the cold and its limitations on my gardening until I realized the vital importance of chill hours. Chill hours is the phrase used to quantify the hour’s plants or seeds are exposed to temperatures below 45°F/7°C and above freezing point.
Peaches, for instance, don’t blossom until they’ve got their share of chill hours. Non-annual strawberry plants need to be removed from their beds, trimmed, cleaned, wrapped and stored in freezers to boost second-year growth.
Seeds need frigid temperatures to stratify, failing which they may not germinate. The combination of cold temperatures and some moisture helps wildflower seeds germinate in spring.
When to Plant Wildflowers
When to plant wildflowers depends on whether you use plugs or meadow seeds. If you’re using the expensive option, plant plugs, then you should plant these as soon as the last frost is behind you.
If you’re planting seeds, they will benefit from freezing weather, as explained above. You can plant seeds in late fall or early winter, even after the first snow has fallen.
When to Plant Native Grasses
Perennial forbs or wildflowers, such as Black-eyed Susan, Maximillian Sunflower, or Illinois Bundleflower, benefit most from fall planting in September. It is also effective for cool-season perennials such as alfalfa and clovers.
Dormant seeding works well for warm-season grasses and perennial or annual wildflowers from December to February.
There are some advantages and disadvantages to fall seeding.
- Natural reseeding is imitated by fall or “dormant” seeding.
- Moisture and frost action both contribute to good seed-to-soil contact. Germination will most likely take place in the spring. Warm-season grasses and most forbs sprout in the spring, but some cool-season species grow over the winter.
- Frost sowing is dispersing seed over frozen soil after the first deadly frost. Natural stratification occurs; natural modifications to the seed and seed coat occur during the winter, which improves germination.
- During the winter, some seeds may be lost due to decomposition and wildlife consumption.
- Weed competition that begins in the winter may impede establishment. Mulching is a crucial part of planting since it protects the seed and soil while retaining moisture.
High fertility is one of the leading causes of weed problems in your meadow garden. Native plants have a competitive edge in low-fertility landscapes. They do this by having deep root systems that tap resources unavailable to competing weeds.
Do not fertilize or compost your meadow garden.
Maintaining your wildflower meadow
Dedicating the first year to bed preparation has significant advantages to the health and sustainability of your meadow garden in later years. Maintenance is a breeze as the plants take care of themselves – at least, that’s the idea.
Don’t shoot the messenger, but it has been shown that mowing meadow gardens every other year help improve plant growth and manages wood areas encroaching on your meadow garden.
Meadow gardens significantly contribute to nature’s health if you have the space. Stick to native plants and include at least 60% native grasses – several ornamental species look great.
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