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Grow Your Own Meadow: Easy, Natural, and Beautiful

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A wildflower meadow with a mowed path can be a lovely addition to your landscape.

Looking to replace your lawn, attract birds and pollinators, and achieve a natural, easy-care landscape? A meadow could be just the thing.

Meadows are great because they keep large areas open so trees don't close in. You will still have long sight lines across your landscape, but it will be a waving, rippling, and colorful sea of grasses and flowers. Oh, and it will be packed with birds, animals, butterflies, pollinators, and all manner of wildlife.

Did I mention the low-maintenance advantages?

Once established, you will only have to maintain your meadow once or twice a year. I'll share the easiest way to establish your meadow if you want to reap the rewards right away.

What is a Meadow, Anyway?

A meadow is an open area dominated by grasses and other non-woody plants (called forbs). Low meadow areas might have vegetation that is only knee-high, while high meadows could include plants that are shoulder-high or even sometimes taller. Meadows are beautiful swaths of landscape where wildflowers bloom. They can be acres and acres of countryside, or very small plots in an urban backyard.

Meadows don't have to be 100% open - you might have clusters of shrubs, or a tree here and there around your meadow area. So don't go out and cut down your favorite maple tree if it's in the middle of your intended meadow area. Meadows do require full sun, however, so be sure you have space that will be mostly sunny for most of the day (I'd say 6 hours of sun minimum).

Why Plant a Meadow?

Here are the top reasons why you should consider adding a meadow to your landscape:

Less maintenance and fewer resources required - No mowing, no watering, no deadheading, no-brainer.Beauty - What could be prettier than a view of softly undulating grasses responding to a summer breeze? Colorful swatches of wildflowers in bright yellows, reds, pinks, and purples will enhance the palette of your view.Four season interest - A meadow is a joy to behold at any time of year. In spring, it will green up nicely. Throughout summer and fall, various flowers add color. In late autumn and winter, leave the meadow unmowed, and the seedheads and grasses will continue to attract birds while they wave and bow in the snow.For the birds - Meadows provide crucial habitat for many species of songbirds who can't thrive without natural, open areas. Here in the Mid-Atlantic, Eastern Bluebirds, Savannah sparrows, Eastern meadowlarks, and Bobolinks are a few such species.Wildlife habitat - Many other animals besides birds benefit from meadows. Foxes, rabbits, voles, raccoons, and other small mammals find food and shelter in the low vegetation. With plenty of these tasty morsels in residence, birds of prey will also appear, including various species of hawks and owls.Pollinators - Both European honeybees and many species of native bees, beetles, and ants will populate your meadow in droves, once the wildflowers come into bloom. Our pollinators are in dire straits these days, so this is a particularly good reason to add a meadow.Preventing trees from shading out your property - In most areas of North America, forests are the natural end state, or final succession stage, when a piece of land is left unmanaged. Don't get me wrong - forests are great, and we need more of them! - but there are places in our landscapes where we like to keep things open. Developing a meadow is a great way to keep tall trees from dominating an area and shading out other things (like, say, your vegetable garden).

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Sunny coreopsis make a great perennial addition to a wildflower meadow.

Getting Started - Three Ways

Once you have identified the open area you want to turn into a meadow, you have three basic choices for establishment:

Just stop mowing.

Yup, that's it. Simply stop mowing the area and see what happens. This is what I did on about five acres of our property near the Chesapeake Bay. Within a couple of years, it has become dominated by little bluestem grass (Schizachyrium scoparium), with native flowers such as tall boneset (Eupatorium altissiumum), yellow crownbeard (Verbesina occidentalis), asters (Symphiotrichum spp.), goldenrods (Solidago spp.), and others.Pros: This is the least expensive, easiest method to starting a meadow. Cons: Depending on your soil's seed bank, you might not get a good mix of desirable grasses and forbs. If the area is former lawn, and has been treated with herbicides for many years, or the soil consists of developer's fill, it's possible that native plant seeds don't exist there. However, it may be worth trying for a season or two to see what comes up. If you are patient, something interesting is likely to turn up.

Clear the area of all vegetation and then sow with your desired seed mix.

To do this, you can either till the area with a rototiller several times over the course of a growing season to disrupt the growth cycle of existing vegetation and dormant weed seeds; or you can apply a wide-spectrum herbicide (one that kills both grass and broadleaf plants) to kill off what is growing there. You might need to make several applications, or you might decide to use a combination of tilling and herbicide application.

The key is to follow your chosen method up and kill the vegetation not once, but across an entire growing season.

Dormant weed seeds will keep sprouting, so you need to keep killing them. If you want a pure stand of your desired plants, you need to be more persistent than the weeds!Once you have killed all vegetation (yes, I know, it's a long and at times, unsightly, process), it's time to sow seeds. While you are waiting for the area to be cleared, you can spend a long time choosing the perfect seed mix.

The best time to plant your seeds will either be in the fall or in the spring, depending on what you are sowing and your growing climate. Consult the seed package for recommendations.You can sow seeds by simple broadcast method (tossing them out by hand), or use a handheld or push lawn seeder, the same way you would plant grass seed. Sometimes wildflower seeds are very tiny, so you can mix the seeds with some sand before putting them in your seed spreader to get a more even distribution.

Rake in your seeds lightly, and keep the area watered until germination. This is the ideal, but let's face it, if you are planting a large area, it's difficult to do in practice. This is where planting in fall can be a good idea, because the seeds will have the long, moist winter to snuggle into the soil and dream about their life ahead. Come spring, they will sprout naturally as the soil warms, when it is typically cool and moist from accumulated snow or rainfall.

TIP: Choosing a Great Wildflower Meadow Seed Mix

Be sure to choose a mix that includes both flowers and grass seed, or if you get one that only has flowers, buy a supply of native grass seed as well. Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and side oats grama grass (Bouteloua curtipendula) are two wonderful choices. Many companies will sell wildlflower mixes that are not truly native to your area. If this is important to you, be sure to look through the seed mix ingredients and note the species that are included.

Also, a lot of wildflower mixes are filled with both annual and perennial flower species. Because most perennials grown from seed will not flower in their first growing season, the annuals are included to give you an immediate pop of color. This is for instant gratification purposes, and there is nothing wrong with that. However, the annuals will not return in following years, and there may be fewer perennials than you were expecting. So, another thing to look for on the seed mix label is whether the species are annual (A), biennial (B), or perennial (P). For a long-lasting meadow that you don't have to keep overseeding, choose a mix made up mostly or solely of reseeding biennials and perennials.

The Xerces Society has great information and sources for seed mixes tailored to your area.

Clear the area of vegetation and plant plugs.Follow the steps above to clear existing vegetation, but instead of broadcasting seeds, buy trays of small growing plants, called plugs. It is much more expensive to buy plugs than seeds, BUT the advantage is that you have viable plants already growing, so they will establish faster. You might choose to use a combination of seeds and plugs, too - maybe pick a few areas where you want a bright pop of a certain color, and plant a tray's worth of a featured plant there.

The First Growing Season

The first year after you have planted your meadow (which might be the second year since you started this project), once your seeds are up and going, you can mow once or twice in the late spring/early summer at a high setting (4-6" on your mower) to clip any weeds that have snuck up and could shade out your desired species. This should not hurt your grasses or your perennials. Once summer really hits, don't mow anymore that year. Leave your meadow standing through fall and winter for wildlife. Birds and mammals use standing dead vegetation for cover, and many insects overwinter on plant stalks. Mowing late in the season can significantly reduce the wildlife benefit of your meadow.

The Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth...Growing Seasons

March is often the perfect month to mow your meadow, when plants are still dormant and birds have not yet begun their nesting season. Just mow once, and then you are finished with major meadow maintenance for the year! Wait until the following March to mow again, and enjoy the sights, smells, and sounds in every season.

Tip: Getting the Most Out of Your Meadow

One great way to be able to see what is happening in your meadow is to design one or more trails through the block. These can be kept walkable by regular mowing, and only need to be a few feet wide. It's so much fun to "wade" through a waist high meadow and observe who is visiting your flowers. These trails are perfect for birdwatching, butterfly spotting, and also checking on the health of your meadow. If you notice invasive weeds taking hold, go after them right away before they spread.

Have you developed a meadow area? What have you found to be the benefits? What has worked for you? Please submit a comment - would love to hear your thoughts.

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