Today, 32,000 Seedlings; Tomorrow, a Meadow
By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 13, 2004; Page H01
Peggy Bowers and Tom Underwood make beautiful gardens for a living. Then why are they so happy standing on the crest of a grassy hillside rendered dead by herbicides?
Step into this one-acre plant graveyard and you see it actually alive with wisps of grasses and plugs of perennials so small as to be invisible from afar. The day before, Bowers, Underwood and more than a dozen other horticulturists had finished planting the hill with more than 32,000 seedlings -- two grasses for every perennial -- that in a year or two will produce one of the prettiest wildflower meadows this side of the Mississippi, if all goes according to plan.
The meadow is at River Farm, a onetime plantation owned by George Washington and now the headquarters of the American Horticultural Society, on the Potomac River four miles south of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. For Bowers, a horticulturist at River Farm, and Underwood, the society's curator of plants, the meadow represents a chance to show people that nature is a gardener too: In time, the former lawn will be a dreamy flower garden in summer and a colorful tapestry of grasses and asters in the fall, and a place that butterflies, bees, other insects and various birds will call home.
The meadow's easy-going appearance and self-reliance in maturity belie the fact that creating one is initially expensive and one of the most laborious adventures in gardening. As anyone who has tried to cast a few wildflower seeds over a field can tell you, meadows don't magically grow by themselves.
This may seem odd, given the idea of prairie and meadow as the indigenous landscape, but centuries of clearing and farming along with the introduction of invasive weeds have reduced fields of purely native flora drastically. Ironically, one that is full and painterly needs human intervention, at River Farm in the form of Kurt Bluemel, chairman of the horticultural society and a nurseryman in Baldwin, Md., who has helped popularize naturalistic plants in American gardens. Bluemel's company donated the plants and seed for the project.
Last September, Bowers began a spraying regimen to kill off the old weedy lawn. Several applications of herbicide ensured the destruction of weeds that continued to sprout through the fall, winter and early spring.
The idea is that the new meadow plants are given freedom from weed competition to establish themselves, after which they will exclude weeds through their own vigor and self-seeding. The use of plugs has been popular for the past few years; it gives the meadow at least a year's jump over one started by seed, but it is expensive.
"There's easily $15,000 worth of plant material out there," said Bowers, surveying the field. And that doesn't count labor. Bluemel arrived with a team of six interns; Bowers and Underwood led their own posse; and Dean Norton, horticulturist at Mount Vernon, arrived with his own group.
Seeding a meadow would reduce costs considerably, but it "would take longer to establish," said Bowers. And if you till the ground, Underwood said, you would have to spray regularly for several months until all the disturbed weed seeds germinate and can be killed.
Using seedlings not only speeds the meadow's creation, it gives greater control over varieties of meadow plants and their placement in the landscape. The meadow has been crafted so that the flora rise in height at the back. The seedlings also allowed the crew planting it to tailor the plants to site conditions. In damp and low-lying areas, they installed plants that can take the moisture, including the native swamp mallows, with their showy hibiscus flowers in late summer. "You need to look at the contours of your land and put the moisture-loving ones in the lower areas and more drought-tolerant one in the higher, drier soil," he said.
One of the beauties of creating a meadow is in deciding the mix and placement of grasses and wildflowers, called forbs.
In an assembly-line approach to planting, Bluemel and Bowers laid out the flats of seedlings. A vanguard marched through with the pointed poles gardeners call dibbers to create the holes, while a second flank followed behind to insert the plugs.
"We were putting in as many as three thousand to four thousand plants per hour," said Underwood. The job took two days, though the area represents just one-quarter of the riverside field. The other three acres will be converted to meadow over the next three years.
Afterward, the meadow was overseeded with 100 pounds of seed of little blue stem, a native meadow grass.
For Katy Moss Warner, president of the society, the meadow offers an exciting opportunity to show people how sterile lawns can be transformed into an open landscape that "brings more seasonal interest, more wildlife and more beauty to an area."
She hopes as it matures and flowers, it will stir interest in the conversion of the other three acres. "There's a lot we do know [about making a meadow], but there's a lot we don't know. We don't know exactly how much hand-weeding or replanting or further herbicide use might be needed." Those lessons, she said, will be employed in the next phases.
Bowers said a lot of meadow makers sow annuals for instant effect, things like California and Flanders poppies, which put up a good show the first year but then don't reseed sufficiently to keep the weeds at bay. All the meadow plants at River Farm are perennials that will return each spring and also multiply through spreading rhizomes or seeds.
Bowers said it is also important to pick plants that are indigenous so they are adapted to their climate. Only one of the plants in the meadow is non-native: a handsome upright grass named feather reed grass, selected because it is sterile and won't spread. The planting relied instead on native grasses, including four named varieties of big blue stem, which are showy and turn a copper red in the fall.
The team planted more than 2,000 of these, as well as 8,000 plugs of little blue stem, shorter than its big brother but with a brilliant orange color after frost. Other grass species include more than 2,000 individual grama grasses, blue gray in season, turning yellow and orange in the fall; and more than 1,000 native hardy millet grasses.
The native flowers include black-eyed Susans; gayfeathers; tickseeds; penstemons, primroses and asters.
Bowers said the meadow is expected to support a rich cast of animals, particularly insects drawn to the flowers, birds drawn to the insects, and other birds that will eat the seed of the perennials and grasses. Local birdwatchers plan to take a regular count to see how the meadow will draw in new species. Bowers said she would love to see the arrival of meadowlarks, appropriately, as well as quail.
Until it is established, the meadow will receive regular watering, feeding with a balanced fertilizer and hand-pulling of weeds. But in its second year, it will be on its own to do what meadows do best: endure drought, flower freely and establish a beautiful domain for man and beast. It will be mowed once, in the late winter, after seeds have ripened and fallen. This will prevent interloping trees and shrubs from getting a foothold.
This would seem, for all its formative work, a perfect solution for large suburban properties now swaddled in lawn. But there are impediments beyond the technical consideration. "The biggest obstruction in most suburbs is the neighborhood association and the neighbor next door who wants you to have that nice mowed turf," said Bowers.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company