Meadows and prairies are both natural growth areas. The difference is that they are commonly called meadows on the East and West coasts, and prairies in the Midwest. These natural growth areas are used along highways to add color and lower the cost of road maintenance. They are also popular with homeowners.
Meadows or prairies can lower maintenance requirements, offer flowers and attract a profusion of birds and butterflies — even in small yards. A sunny patch, side yard or bright corner will do, but don’t expect to create a meadow in a day. It takes planning, a couple of years, and sometimes several attempts to nurture self-sustaining grasses and wildflowers. Here are some guidelines offered by Neil Diboll, owner of Prairie Nursery in Westfield, Wis.
According to Diboll, timing and site preparation are critical to growing a successful mix of wildflowers. The site must be prepared properly from the start or the area will revert to grasses and weeds.
Since you are creating a space that takes years for nature to generate, the meadow will need a fresh start. The existing population of weeds and their seed must be cleared, ensuring that the area where the new meadow will be is totally free of competitive plants. This requires an entire growing season of preparation.
Begin by mowing the area as close as practical. Then begin weed eradication. Mulch and herbicides provide two ways to do this. The mulch can be plastic sheeting, thick wads of newspaper or other material that will keep light from reaching weeds. Plastic sheeting also creates heat to smother germinating seeds. Diboll suggests treating all surface weeds with an herbicide that will kill the entire area of weeds, including their roots.
The Environmental Protection Agency has approved vinegar as a weed killer. When weeds are young, spray them with a vinegar-based weed killer available from your garden center or grocery store. White vinegar is a 5 percent solution, and that will kill young weeds. You can also spray weeds with very effective glyphosate-based herbicides such as Roundup and Kleeraway. Follow all label instructions on any herbicide. In the case of household vinegar, use it undiluted in a plastic sprayer, because vinegar is corrosive to metal.
Apply herbicides as needed in spring, summer, fall, winter and again next spring. The objective is to rid the surface soil of all plant material. This will provide the conditions for the wildflower seed that you will spread to germinate and begin growing.
Another way to kill weeds is to use plastic sheeting. This spring, mulch the area that you would like to plant next spring, covering it with thick (three- to four-mill) plastic sheeting secured with soil staples. The sheeting will help germinate the seeds in the top inch or two of soil. As they grow, the weeds will suffocate under the plastic. The sheeting that is laid now, in early April, must stay in place for the entire year, so you can control weed seeds that germinate through all seasons.
Remove the plastic sheeting to seed your wildflower meadow about June 15, 2012. The soil you find under the plastic should be bare. Do not till the soil you just cleared. That would bring fresh weed seed to the surface. Only scratch the bare soil deeply enough (about an eighth of an inch) to hold the wildflower seed. Sprinkle your seed mix evenly over the area, perhaps with some sheep’s fescue. That’s all that should contact the previously covered soil.
Meadows are happiest in poor soil with hot temperatures and little competition from other plants. Sprinkle the seed with water in morning and late afternoon every day that it doesn’t rain for the first full growing season. You will probably want to seed for at least two seasons before a full mix of flowers begins to appear.
Meadows are generally a mix of grasses, annuals, biennials and perennials growing in open, sunny fields. There are alpine varieties found in mountainous regions with mostly small plants such as dwarf woody trees and shrubs mixed with wildflowers. There are grazing meadows that consist primarily of native grasses and are used for pasturing livestock.
There’s not much of a science to deciding what wildflowers you’ll have, since you will be limited to the species that thrive in your soil and region. If you’re using a prepared seed mix, check the list of plants to make sure there are varieties of natives that prefer the soil type and climate where they are to be planted. Several examples that will do well in this region are black-eyed Susans, purple coneflowers, butterfly weeds, goldenrods, coreopsis, wild and sulphur cosmos, gaillardias and cleome.
Don’t be apprehensive about blending colors. Your meadow should become a dynamic mix of colors as one flower fades and another opens. This type of landscape is an informal coordination of blooms, not a tightly controlled flowering border of specific colors that bloom at precise times. Meadows should look like they belong where you planted them, as if you discovered them driving through the countryside.
Wildflowers establish much more slowly than lawn, so annuals are usually combined with perennials to offer a quick cover and keep down competing weeds. If seeding on an embankment, you might want to add several native grasses and stake down an open-mesh biodegradable fabric that will hold the seed in place and allow the wildflowers to grow through.
If you don’t have full sun, you can still plant a wildflower area. However, shade-tolerant wildflowers are often impractical to install from seed. These should be planted as container stock, root pieces or bulbs. Plant them in groups of three to 10. Shade-tolerant wildflowers usually grow at woodland edges, and prefer the kind of dappled light and naturally composted soil found there. Some like even moisture and some grow in bog-like conditions.
It’s a good idea to place them in two or three areas of the garden and monitor how they perform. If some plants are struggling, move them to a sunnier, evenly moist location and replace with more of the plants that are thriving.
Because of the surge in using native plant varieties, most states have native plant societies that can give you more information. In the Washington region, check with the Maryland Native Plant Society (mdflora.org) and the Virginia Native Plant Society (vnps.org). Your county cooperative extension service can also offer advice. You can also find excellent information in “Urban & Suburban Meadows” by Catherine Zimmerman (Matrix Media Press, 2010) or at her Web site, themeadowproject.com.
Joel M. Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md.