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Sow Wildflowers Now for Next Year’s Meadows

When we think of fall planting, most of us think about lawn renovations or spring flowering bulbs. But late fall is also a great time-possibly the best time-to begin or enhance a flowering meadow.

And though meadow seeds should be sown Nov. 1 and Dec. 15, now is the time to begin preparations.

"Success with fall meadow plantings comes down to timing, patience, soil preparation, and careful seed selection," says Mark Lavoie, a partner in Colonial Seed Company of Granby (www.colonialseed.com), a company that specializes in meadows and grassy habitats.

One of the most important considerations, he says, is to create a "clean canvas," meaning that the planting area is free of unwanted seed or vegetation. Approaches to that may involve both chemical and mechanical methods. But whatever method you use, "Be prepared to clear the area three or four times before planting," he says. "And however you clear the canvas, start now, in late September."

Experienced meadow planters advise "top-down" weed removal, such as raking, hand removal, or weed-killing sprays. But many first-time planters ask about machine-tilling, which turns and mixes soil.

Catherine Zimmermann, author of Urban and Suburban Meadows (www.themeadowproject.com) provides a cautionary tale on this topic. She worked with an outdoor music venue that prepared a large area for conversion to a flowering meadow using herbicide and tilling.

"On planting day, they had 80 volunteers on-site, and we planted literally thousands of plugs," she says. "But when I went back three weeks later, weeds were clogging the field, competing with the newly planted flowers and grasses. And there were only three people on hand to battle the weeds." Zimmermann offers this rule of thumb: "Never till an area before planting a meadow. Tilling brings long-dormant seeds to the surface, where exposure to sunlight helps them merrily sprout a bumper crop of unwanted weeds in no time."

Zimmermann adds, "If you must till due to soil compaction, take the extra time to kill off the weeds that will follow. Then plant. Patience is its own reward!"

What about the seed itself?

"Some people are surprised to learn that grasses are the primary ingredient of a successful meadow. Most meadows in this part of the country are comprised of a mixture of cool- and warm-season grasses-as well as a collection of flowering plants called 'forbs,'" says Lavoie. "A wildflower seed mix with no grass is likely to fail after the first season. Grasses crowd out weeds and stabilize the soil."

A good meadow mix, he says, is often 40 percent to 70 percent grasses.

Herein is one of the biggest caveats for first-time planters: Many seed companies offer wildflower seed without the grasses. If you have a grassless mix, Lavoie says to add both cool-season and warm-season grasses.

"A mixture of several fescues, hairgrass, and little blue stem work well throughout southern New England," he says. "Other possibilities include side-oats grama, broom sedge, Canada wild rye, or riverbank wild rye."

And how should you choose the flowers? Just because something is labeled a wildflower does not mean it is native to our area. In fact, many wildflower mixes contain a large number of non-native annuals, biannuals, and perennials. These flower in the first to second year and provide color, but some will not persist beyond the first year. Examples include poppies, cornflowers (aka bachelor buttons), and cosmos.

"If you want your meadow to support birds, bees, and butterflies, you really need to look at the number of native species in the wildflower mix," says Zimmermann. "Native plants are best suited to supporting our native pollinators. That's because 90 percent of our native insects are 'specialists,' which means they can only eat a particular native plant or family of native plants that they have evolved with over time, and I'm talking about a long, long time.

"For instance, when a butterfly lays her eggs, she lays on a plant that her youngsters can actually eat. That plant is, most often, a native plant."

Here are some southern New England natives for a sunny open meadow: Milkweed, butterfly weed, goldenrod, asters, black-eyed Susan, Culver's root, New York ironweed, golden Alexander, bee balm, lavender hyssop, foxglove beardtongue, ox-eye sunflower, and partridge pea. There are many others.

Whether you have a space as small as 10' x 10' or several acres, fall is a good time to begin the meadow journey. Aside from its benefits to local ecology, some have compared these landscapes to "a massage for the soul."

Kathy Connolly is a landscape designer from Old Saybrook. She will give a seminar on meadow planting on Saturday, Oct. 18 from 10 a.m. to noon at the Connecticut Forest & Park Association headquarters in Middlefield, cosponsored by Connecticut Forest & Park and New England Wildflower Society; for more information, call Kathy at 860-510-2136 or visit www.speakingoflandscapes.com.

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