Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. This is as true in nature as it is in our lives. Look at your front lawn. It has been a very bad year generally for grasses and weeds because of the drought, but this actually makes it a great year to start wildflowers. Many grasses and weeds compete with wildflowers for space and nutrients, so a lack of them gives wildflowers the edge.
A meadow's appeal lies in the fact that it renews itself, requires little maintenance once established, and offers a coordination of blooms. The effect is beautiful when a wildflower population comes into balance. To plant one next June, you need to begin preparation of your site next month. So now is the time to think about how wildflowers are going to fit into your landscape design.
Planted meadows are usually created to mimic those found in nature. They're usually a mix of grasses, annuals and perennials growing in open, sunny fields, and can occur in many forms. The alpine types consist of small plants, many of them dwarf woody trees and shrubs that are mixed with wildflowers. There are meadows, such as those found in England and Scotland, that consist primarily of native grasses and are used for grazing livestock. These meadows are what our lawns evolved from. In the Midwest, areas of naturally growing flowers, small shrubs and grasses are called prairies. Here, they're called wildflower meadows.
When planning a wildflower meadow on your property, it's better to opt for seeds rather than started plants. Plants begun from seeds will appear more natural as the meadow matures and will be far more affordable than started plants.
There's not much of a science to deciding which wildflowers you'll want, since you will be limited to the species that thrive in your soil and region. Most of the seed mixes have from one to two dozen species in them, so you're getting started with a good cross-section of plants. Several examples that will do well in this region are black-eyed Susans and other coneflowers, butterfly weeds, goldenrods, coreopsis, wild and sulphur cosmos, gaillardias, liatris and others.
Be happy for the colorful displays without being too particular about the hues. Your meadow should become a dynamic mix of colors, with one fading as another is opening.
There's one design rule you can adhere to that will make a meadow look more natural: Plant several areas in groupings or drifts of a single species, so it looks as though they colonized that area. This means that in addition to the pre-mixed wildflower seed you buy, you should buy three or four species separately, to plant in drifts. Sprinkle heavier concentrations of each of these seeds in several areas of the meadow.
Another rule of design is to make the planting look as if it belongs. When I first visit a property to design a landscape, I look around at the other landscapes in the neighborhood. Whatever they are, I'll include several of the same elements, so my design will "belong."
I don't see a lot of front-yard wildflower meadows; the lawn usually is the common denominator. So some lawn is a good idea, as well as planting mature flowers, shrubs and trees.
Make your beds big enough to sow sunny patches of wildflowers among the other plantings. Then, your landscape design will fit the neighborhood. You also can put the meadow in the side or back yard, where it will look more natural than at the front door.
But perfect balance does not occur with an off-the-shelf wildflower garden from a can. Without proper site preparation, your efforts will yield, at best, one or two species and very possibly none. A wildflower meadow requires timing and patience.
Neil Diboll, a nationally known wildflower expert and president of Prairie Nursery in Westfield, Wis., advises property owners that the successful wildflower meadow depends on geographic location, soil type, amount of sun and cultural considerations.
You can get the right seed mix from local garden centers or mail-order it from a wildflower seed company. Two reputable garden centers are Prairie Nursery (1-800-476-9453) and Vermont Wildflowers (1-800-424-1165). Call to request a catalogue. Buy products from someone who can explain why a specified mix is the best for your situation.
Diboll also counsels that you must gain as much control as possible of existing undesirable plant species before cultivating and seeding. This is why site preparation begins in a sunny part of the property in autumn.
To create a weed-free environment, spread black plastic or other weed barrier fabric over bedding areas in September. Leave it on until June, just before planting.
Another method of controlling fall, winter and spring weeds before planting next June is to spray weeds and lawn areas with Roundup, Finale or Kleenup. Follow label directions and treat anything growing in the area in fall, April and again June 1. Spray all lawn grasses and weeds to remove plant competition. Successive sprays should be far less extensive than the first one.
About the first or second week of June, when you remove the weed barrier fabric, or about 10 days after your last spraying, scarify or loosen the soil a quarter-inch to a half-inch deep. Spread seed over the area.
Wildflowers establish themselves much more slowly than lawn does. Therefore, annuals are used in conjunction with perennials to give a quick cover and keep down competing weeds.
If you seed on embankments, you might want to add several native grasses, and you should stake down a biodegradable mesh fabric to hold the seed in place and allow the wildflowers to grow through. This is different from the fabric used to control the weeds.
If you follow this recipe for wildflower seeding, you will have to be patient because it takes a year or two before the meadow is producing properly. You should mow the meadow annually in early spring prior to new growth and compost the brush. The area will grow back in open sun.
For more information on wildflowers, check the Internet at www.Wild-Flowers.com and www.nps.gov/plants/cw. For a complete picture in a compact book, get "Wildflower Gardens" (Brooklyn Botanic Garden 21st-Century Gardening Series, $9.95).
Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org