Trading the Lawn for a Meadow
Earlier this month I visited the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, where orange and gold Indian blanket flowers were the stars of the field. There were other familiars in supporting roles: purple coneflower, black-eyed Susan, and downy plox.
Johnson once said, "My heart found its home long ago in the beauty, mystery, order, and disorder of the flowering earth." She was 70 years old in 1982 when she and actress Helen Hayes started what was then called the National Wildflower Research Center.
"Where wildflowers bloom, so does hope," she is quoted as saying. Our native pollinators would agree.
Thanks to the Wildflower Center and many others, the orderly chaos of the meadow is relatively well understood by ecologists and horticulture professionals.
For many, though, there are misconceptions to undo. One is that a meadow can be developed from a former lawn. It is not a place where we toss some seeds and hope for the best. Another misconception is that constant flowering can be achieved in the first year. It often takes several.
A self-sustaining meadow is a mixture of grasses and wildflowers. "Wildflower" is a general term that refers to flowering perennials and self-seeding annuals that volunteer in unmanaged spaces. Mixed grasses, however, are 40 to 70 percent of the plants in these spaces. If a meadow were a building, you might say that grasses form the frame. These are not the stuff of lawns, either, but a mixture of cool-season and warm-season bunching grasses.
Furthermore, in the nature of southern New England, a meadow is only one stage in a progression of natural ground covers. Left to its own devices, our local earth will almost always sprout a forest. Note to future meadow growers: Beware of woody upstarts.
And though we may think we're trading in the lawn for the flowers, a successful meadow is all about the roots. During the first three years, meadow success depends on strengthening what extends below ground.
Most meadows are mowed only once per year, usually around the first week of November when flowers are gone and seeds are finished. Late mowing is optimal for birds and insects that have come to rely on the area for food and habitat.
Ready to start?
First, choose the area based on sunlight. Full sun is best but part shade is possible.
Second, get a soil test. When filling out the submission form, state that you intend to establish a wildflower meadow planting. Request the percentage of organic matter-which should be around five percent for optimal soil health. Both of these will affect the recommendations. Generally, meadows require few amendments and very little fertilizer-sometimes not even in the first year. After several seasons, biologically balanced soil should develop on its own and sustain meadow plants indefinitely.
The next step is critical: Before any planting, create a clean slate by clearing all grasses and weeds. There are a number of ways to accomplish this without dangerous weed killers, as described in the highly recommended book and video, Urban and Suburban Meadows by Catherine Zimmerman (see www.themeadowproject.com).
Meadows are started from both small transplants and from seed. Spring is good for small nursery-grown plants-sometimes called plugs-in which the roots are well developed but the upper portion of the plant is quite small. The plugs need to stay moist in the first season but are otherwise carefree. The benefit of this approach is that you'll have more visible results sooner and an entire growing season to establish deep roots. Note to owners of sloping landscapes: Plugs are the preferred method of establishing a meadow on a hillside.
Alternatively, sow seeds after frost, from Nov. 1 to Dec. 1. The intervening winter helps them germinate on their own schedule in spring. When choosing seed, look for an all-native mix of grasses and flowering plants suited for the northeast. Additionally, choose a mix appropriate to the amount of sun on the intended area.
In reality, you'll probably use both plugs and seeds and both planting seasons the first year or two.
And though the lawnmower will be parked more than it used to be, don't sell it yet. Mow borders and pathways around and through the new growing area. This creates the appearance of an intentional garden, especially during the first season when fussy neighbors might wonder if they need to loan you some whirring blades.
Best of all, those pathways will help you traverse the area for maintenance, observation and the visual delight that a successful wildflower meadow can bring.
Kathy Connolly has posted pictures and resources from her wildflower travels at www.speakingoflandscapes.com/wildflowers. Kathy is a garden coach, writer, and speaker from Old Saybrook. Email her at email@example.com.