By Edith Smeesters, biologist, author and speaker
A wildflower meadow is a wonderful alternative to a grassy surface, but it does require patience and good soil preparation if you want satisfactory long-term results.
It’s not enough to simply stop mowing the lawn, as the results will be disappointing and, if you try that on a suburban lot, you’ll risk attracting the ire of the neighborhood. On the other hand, if you put in the necessary effort, the results will be magnificent and you’ll likely entice your neighbors and friends into this wonderful adventure.
I started my wildflower meadow in 2003 with the help of my husband: we spent a year preparing the surface, but we only saw the first perennials bloom in 2005! The result is worth it, though, because the only effort we have to put into it right now is to cut it back once a year to prevent the saplings from growing and blocking our magnificent panorama of the Appalachians!
In 2000, we purchased a 3.5-acre (1.5 ha) country lot in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, half of which was forested and the other half, old pasture. We built our house in the meadow section in 2002 and, after construction, we had to revegetate an area of nearly 2,000 m2 (about 20,000 ft2) that had been disrupted by machinery, soil extraction, the installation of a leaching field, etc. We had no desire to put lawn in everywhere: that would have required hours of mowing every week. We therefore opted for a wildflower meadow. Admittedly, this did require a fair amount of effort the first 2 years. And we do maintain a small lawn near the house to give us space for easy movement and welcoming friends and a place where our grandchildren can play unhindered.
Preparing the Ground
Before sowing a wildflower meadow, the soil has to be completely cleared of all vegetation whether lawn or pre-existing meadow. On small surfaces, you can smother plants with black plastic sheeting, cardboard or another opaque material, leaving it in place for a whole growing season. In our case, though, the desired space was vast and practically bare already, but probably full of weed seeds. In addition, the soil was largely clay, especially the excess soil from the basement excavation. We therefore felt that at least a minimal amount of soil amendment would be essential.
In the spring of 2003, a neighboring farmer came and spread sand over the field and plowed it in. Then we sowed buckwheat as a green manure to add a little organic matter and eliminate as many weeds as possible. To cover the seeds over such a large area, we were lucky to be able to experiment with a motorized top dresser which spread 5 m3 of compost in just one hour. We didn’t have enough compost to cover the entire surface and you could see a huge difference in the germination rate of the buckwheat.
We were hoping to sow our perennial wildflower mix at the end of the summer. Unfortunately, the weather was extremely dry and watering such a large area simply wasn’t possible. After having worked the green manure in with a tiller, we therefore sowed winter rye and waited until the spring of 2004 to sow our flowers.
I used three different seed mixes: a perennial wildflower mix from local company that no longer exists today, a special clay-buster wildflower blend from Wildflower Farm in Ontario, and my own mix, harvested from the surrounding area which also contained a few annuals from my old suburban garden.
Wildflower seeds are very expensive and you absolutely won’t want to waste any! You therefore have to mix them with a carrier: an inert material such as sand, sawdust or peat moss. Fill an 18-gallon (70-L) bucket with moist carrier and add just 5 ounces (150 g) of seeds in order to cover an area of 1,000 feet2 (100 m2). You then need to run a lawn roller over the surface to ensure good contact with the soil, then lightly cover the area with straw mulch.
With our very early sowing in the spring of 2004, the annuals immediately raised our spirits: the poppies, bachelor’s buttons and cosmos were magnificent, but I knew that I would see them less and less in the following years, because the perennials would soon be outcompeting them. It is possible to maintain a wildflower meadow entirely made up of annuals, but then you have to go over the entire meadow with a rototiller every year and overseed! In my opinion, that’s not very ecological!
Our Perennial Wildflower Meadow
It was in 2005 that we were fully rewarded for our efforts when the first perennials began to bloom: thousands of daisies and lupines appeared in June, followed by black-eye Susans, echinaceas, yarrows and wild carrots in July and August, finishing up with asters in the fall. We were just thrilled with the results!
Over the next two years, other species came to the fore, such as miscanthus, bee balm, and several kinds of composite flowers (plants from the daisy family). I have to say that the clay-busting seed mix produced a more interesting variety of plants than the standard, cheaper, commercial mix.
We mowed paths through our meadow and our grandchildren have a blast in this flowery labyrinth. It is also a constant pleasure to observe the thousands of butterflies and other insects that forage on all these flowers, not to mention the flocks of goldfinches that feed on seeds and the kingbirds on the lookout for insects!
We now only mow once annually to prevent woody plants from taking over and to maintain a meadowy appearance. Of course, don’t even think of trying that with a simple lawn mower: you’ll have to rent or buy a brush cutter!
In our case, as our wildflower meadow is so very vast, my husband took advantage of the situation to buy a small tractor that he loves to use. It came with all kinds of attachments, including a snow blower, a brush cutter and a shredder chipper very useful for maintaining our windbreak. In other words, we figure the tractor has paid for itself and at any rate, using it spares our aging muscles!
We cut back the meadow as late as possible in the fall to make the most of the late blooming flowers, like asters and miscanthus. We leave all the residue where it falls, of course. True, it can look a bit messy before the snow comes, but I believe it protects the plants from the negative effects of alternating freezing and thawing. At any rate, any refuse simply disappears in the spring when the meadow grows back.
Over the years, goldenrods and other native plants I didn’t sow myself have gradually settled in and that’s perfect. However, I have re-seeded in a few less flowery areas and plan to rejuvenate small spaces here and there over time. To do this, I smother the existing vegetation with cardboard or opaque black canvas, then I wait four to six months before going over the spot with a broad fork (grelinette) to loosen the soil. Then all I have to do is reseed!
Through experience, I’ve found the best time to reseed is in November, just before the first snowfall. That way the seeds are in place before winter, but don’t germinate until spring. You can easily save a month compared to a spring sowing and the seeds won’t lack moisture, because the soil is usually saturated with water at snow melt.
I think that wildflower meadows should have an important place in our lives, especially to replace the endless lawns on large terrains, but you do have to remain realistic and be patient. You need to take time to prepare the ground well. Also, don’t count on continuous bloom, but rather accept what nature can offer you in any given place. Choose perennials that grow abundantly in your area, suit your terrain’s soil, and don’t require maintenance.
For us, this meadow has been a constant pleasure for sixteen years now and we are still surprised that all these flowers return so readily year after year, practically without effort on our part, even as the palette of plants evolves on its own over time!
This article was adapted from the author’s book: Guide du jardinage écologique, Éditions Broquet, 2013, and was translated from French into English by Larry Hodgson. Photos by the author.