Soon after my friend, Fred, assumed ownership of a lovely home with a multi-acre lawn, he announced his plan to rewild a large area into a wildflower meadow. Great idea! In addition to being a destination for bees and butterflies, a wildflower meadow is among the most serene of landscapes, whether it covers a slope, fills a streetside corridor, or shrinks a too-big lawn.
Fred’s plan was to cultivate the pasture grass and then sow wildflower seeds, a straightforward method that works with most types of gardening.
Unfortunately, this not the best way to start a wildflower meadow.
When you cultivate any spot to bare ground, you are resetting Nature to zero. Pioneer plants known as weeds flourish, because weeds are Nature’s salve for open wounds. Only a few meadow plants will outcompete vigorous weeds. This is why it is generally best to start a wildflower meadow by smothering or removing existing vegetation, and then plugging in plants and overseeding with wildflower seeds. More plants can be added (or subtracted) in subsequent seasons. Here are the seven basic steps for starting a new wildflower meadow…
1. Prepare the Site
Sun is needed for a meadow, which is comprised of grasses, flowers and legumes. If you have a large space, you can start small by working in strips with mowed edges. Mow the site as closely as possible, and then cover it with a double thickness of damp cardboard. Research at the University of New Hampshire found that smothering with cardboard or black plastic created a good planting site for wildflowers and native grasses.
Smothering vegetation with cardboard takes six months to a year, but there is one shortcut. According to the University of Maryland, removing existing sod and the topsoil beneath it also removes latent weed seeds, and most meadow plants will grow in poor subsoil. They also recommend working in small “meadow modules” so you can keep a close watch on weeds.
2. Start Seedlings in Trays
As the site nears readiness, start a number of seedlings for your meadow in flats so they can be plugged in as soon as the soil warms. Starting clovers, native grasses and flowers from seed saves money and greatly expands your choice of plants.
3. Plug in Perennials
Meanwhile, seek out some site-specific perennials for your meadow. Natives are preferred, but any flower that looks and acts like a wildflower in your area is fair game. Maintain a welcoming attitude toward perennials known to prosper where you live, regardless of their origins. In my area, non-native feverfew and valerian make great meadow plants, and happily share space with later-blooming native purple coneflowers and gaillardia.
In addition to shopping at local nurseries, you can find adoptable plants by networking with local flower enthusiasts via online groups. Should you be invited to dig what you want of something, the proper etiquette is to bring your own tools and carrying bins, along with a bag of topsoil or mulch for refilling holes. If there is any left, leave it behind.
4. Plant in Good Weather
Look for ideal planting conditions for setting out plants – warm, moist soil and a bit of cloud cover. Use a small spade or hand trowel to make openings for plants about 12 inches (30cm) apart. When you’re done planting, scatter wildflower seeds over the surface between plants and very lightly rake them in.
5. Pull out Weeds
As the season progresses, check the plot for thuggish weeds and pull them out if they are young. Use clippers to nip out older weeds close to the ground, which causes less disturbance to nearby plants.
6. Let Plants Shed Seeds
In autumn, wait until the plants dry to brown to trim or mow the meadow. The plants will shed millions of seeds, some of which will sprout in subsequent seasons. Mowing or weed trimming is not always necessary, but it’s the best way to keep brambles and woody seedlings from crowding out wildflowers. In harsh winter climates, you can delay mowing until spring to provide better surface cover for plants.
7. Keep Planting!
Now comes the fun part. As you learn which plants excel in your meadow, you will get new ideas for plants to add to the mix. With each season, you will discover species you never knew existed and be eager to try more in your magical wildflower meadow.
Top of page: A honeybee visits anise hyssop (Agastache). Photo used by permission of Spikenard Farm Honeybee Sanctuary.