It's hard not to smile when you hear the word "meadow." It conjures up such lovely visions -- alpine meadow, prairie meadow, wildflower meadow -- long summer afternoons, soft breezes, nodding grasses and wildflowers.

The idea of planting a wildflower meadow is increasingly making gardeners smile, for many reasons. Meadows require far less maintenance than turf. Typically, they're mowed once or twice a year and don't require fertilization because these are plants that thrive in ordinary to poor soil. They flourish in the company of birds, bees and butterflies, so wildflowers should never be sprayed with chemicals. Meadows are also made up of native plants and are hardy in all sorts of local conditions, including drought. And, of course, they are beautiful.

Two centuries ago, the Eastern Tallgrass Prairie covered hundreds of millions of acres, stretching from Manitoba to Texas, and from Ohio to Nebraska. By the early part of the 20th century, almost all of it had been plowed under and crops planted. Efforts began as early as the 1930s to preserve and restore some parts of the prairie meadows. Efforts were usually spearheaded by universities and arboretums. Today there are prairie preserves from Washington, at the National Arboretum, to Washington State, and carpets of wildflowers bloom along interstate highways, where they provide both beauty and lower maintenance costs. Wildflower meadows also bloom in parks and along hiking and biking trails. Homeowners are beginning to catch on to this environmentally friendly, creature-friendly creation.

Gardeners' eyes start to sparkle at the idea of low maintenance. It's true that once the meadow is established, it requires little human intervention -- maybe the occasional weed-pull, and an occasional mowing.

But -- and this is not a small issue -- it takes a considerable amount of work to prepare the ground and install a meadow or wildflower garden. It also can take several years for the garden to start looking like a proper meadow. If you don't mind the initial labor, you will be rewarded with a lovely ever-changing landscape that is a bit of Americana. You could also be helping to preserve plants from an endangered colony.

Unlike other garden designs, a color scheme is not a driving force in meadow gardening. There's not much science to deciding what wildflowers you want, because you will be limited to the species that thrive in your soil and region. Most seed mixes contain from one to two dozen different species, to get you started with a good cross-section of plants.

Meadows are usually created to mimic those found in nature. They're usually a mix of grasses, annuals and perennials. The more colors and varieties, the better draw your meadow will be for wildlife. It should become a dynamic mix of colors with one fading as another is opening. The landscape scheme is an informal coordination of blooms, not a tightly controlled flowering border of specific colors at precise times. Even though it's random, the effect is quite beautiful when a wildflower population comes into balance.

But, without proper site preparation, your efforts will yield, at best, one or two species and possibly none. A balanced mix of flowers requires proper timing and patience. You can start planning now and in late summer you can start preparing the soil. By next June, you will be able to plant the first seeds.

Decide where you want your meadow. You might want to put it in a side or back yard, where it's more natural than right at the front door. You might also want to check on local ordinances. Some locales consider any planting that is taller than lawn height to be a public nuisance. It can be difficult to convince local officials that your meadow is not a big patch of weeds. Whatever site you select, it should be sunny and well-drained.

Once you decide where the meadow will be, stake it out. Keep it mowed weekly, which will immediately begin discouraging weeds. In September, spread black plastic or some other weed-barrier fabric (available at garden centers) over the entire bedding area to kill the existing vegetation. This is very important because you don't want anything left to compete with the wildflower seeds.

You can use a weed-control spray, such as Roundup or Kleeraway, in place of fabric. Spray the bedding area in fall, April and again in June to get rid of existing plants. However, between sprays, wind or birds can spread seeds onto the bedding area.

Next year, about the first or second week of June, remove the weed barrier (or about 10 days after your last spray) and scarify, or loosen, the soil surface to a depth of 1/8 to 1/4 inch. If you till the soil more deeply, you will turn up dormant weeds and grass seeds and will have to wait another couple of weeks for them to germinate to till again. Spread seed.

Seed is generally preferred when planting a wildflower meadow because it will look more natural as it matures, and it is far less expensive and much easier to use than more mature plants that have to be placed randomly. You can buy wildflower meadow seed pre-mixed in cans, or you can mix your own. Just make sure you're using plants that are native to your area and thus adapted to local growing conditions. If your meadow mix isn't native to this region, it won't succeed. Most seeds are spread at a rate of one pound per 1,500 to 2,000 square feet.

You can spread the seeds by broadcasting, either by hand or by machine, but can also buy thin, biodegradable meadow mats, which are spread on the soil. You may also be able to find meadow sod, which is planted like lawn sod. Water the area well while seeds are germinating and plants are becoming established -- usually about four to six weeks, or until the plants are 6 to 8 inches tall. You may get some weeds despite the soil preparation. If you do, pull them quickly, before they develop seed heads and spread.

Remember that wildflowers establish much more slowly than lawn. That's part of the reason that annuals are used in conjunction with perennials in meadow plantings. They provide a quick cover and keep down competing weeds. A wildflower mix should be spread again the following year to fill in and help to fully establish the meadow.

Mow it annually in early spring, before new growth comes up.

Commercial wildflower meadow mixes usually come in several types suited to different locations. Read the labels carefully to see what you are getting.

A few wildflowers that will do well in this region are black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia), butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), goldenrod (Solidago), coreopsis, wild and sulfur cosmos, gaillardia, liatris, penstemon (P. digitalis), purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), cornflower (Centauria cyanus), baby's breath (Gypsophylla) and blue flax (Linum).

You can purchase seed mixes at many local garden centers or by searching the Internet for specialty wildflower suppliers. Here are several to look into: Prairie Nursery, 800-476-9453, www.prairienursery.com; Wildseed Farms, 800-848-0078, www.wildseedfarms.com; American Meadows and Vermont Wildflower Farm, 877-309-7333, www.americanmeadows.com.

Joel M. Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md. E-mail or contact him through his Web site, www.gardenlerner.com.