Are you dreaming of a wildflower meadow in your backyard? Do you want a non-stop display of flowers blooming from spring through fall? Would you like to attract butterflies, pollinators and songbirds to your property?
While creating a long-living, sustainable wildflower meadow does require time and patience, it’s not really that hard to do. But, like anything in life, there is a right way and a wrong way to do things. In my 30-plus years of experience “in the field” of creating wildflower meadows, I have learned that the best way to be successful is to observe and replicate nature’s methods, as we cannot force plants to grow where nature has not intended them to grow.
While it is impossible to write a “recipe for success”, I can provide you with the guidelines you’ll need to assist you in successfully creating your own backyard wildflower meadow.
Starting Off on the Right Foot
Meadows require good planning, proper site preparation, the right seeds for the type of soil that the plants will be growing in, and some periodic, well-timed maintenance. As your wildflower meadow becomes established, it will begin to mature and bloom in the second and third years of growth, and you will have a natural ecosystem right in your backyard that is sustainable and requires no watering or fertilizers.
Not only is this good for the environment and visually beautiful, it saves you time and money!
In order to understand how to grow your own meadow, it is important to know what a meadow is. A natural wildflower meadow is loosely defined as an open space, free of trees and large shrubs where there is a natural ecosystem of wildflowers and native grasses growing together.
Planting wildflowers and native grasses closely together as nature does eliminates weed competition as the dense, fibrous roots of the native grasses combine with the vertical taproots of the wildflowers to form an underground barrier that effectively prevents unwanted species or “weeds” from taking hold.
The image above shows these different types of root systems and how deep they can grow. By occupying different parts of the soil, these plants co-exist as a tight-knit plant community.
When we create a wildflower meadow, we choose to grow the species that are best suited to the specific site conditions of our properties, the soil type, the sunlight availability and the typical moisture conditions.
Butterfly weed and wild lupin are good choices for sandy, well-drained soils.
For example, Asclepias tuberosa (butterfly weed) and Lupinus perennis (wild lupin) will only grow in sandy, well-drained soils whereas species such as Caltha palustris (marsh marigold) and Lobelia cardinalis (cardinal flower) must have wet soils to thrive.
Marsh marigold and cardinal flower need wet soils.
As most wildflowers are “programmed” by nature to require the freeze/thaw action of winter to soften the seed’s shells which, in turn, triggers germination in the spring, the ideal time to sow the seeds is in the late fall, once the land has had hard frost but before the ground is frozen. This timing of the seed installation replicates nature’s method of dropping seeds in the fall which then germinate the following spring. Often this is mid to late November. That said, spring sowings are also successful, but please note that spring sowings will require regular watering for the first few months after the seed is sown whereas fall sowings do not need to be watered at all.
Your future meadow could be a small, open, sunny patch in a corner of your backyard, or it could be several acres. In either case the best way to start is to determine what type of soil you have.
Typically, in modern landscaping the first approach to any new planting is to amend the soil. When landscaping with wildflowers and native grasses, the approach is completely opposite to this. Wildflowers and native grasses have evolved over eons of time to prefer different soil types based on the properties of the soils they have naturally adapted to, so instead of automatically changing the soil to accommodate the needs of plants, we select the species that have been designed by nature to thrive in the soil we have. To do that, we need to know what type of soil is on our property.
Soil can be divided into three basic classifications: sand, loam, and clay. While there is great variation within these basic groups, the following three categories will serve for the purpose of describing where a plant will or will not grow.
Sandy Soils: referred to as “light” soils, contain large sized soil particles that are loose and easy to work. These loose soils allow water to drain easily causing the soil to dry quite quickly. Sandy soils also contain high percentages of air as the grains do not sit snugly together. They are usually low in nutrients and are often more acidic than the more fertile loams and clays.
Clay Soils: commonly known as “heavy” soils, are at the opposite end of the particle size spectrum. Clay has very small, tightly packed soil particles. Clay soils are harder to work with than sands or loams because the tiny particles form strong bonds with each other. The top 4 inches (10 cm) of clay soils often dry out completely in the summer months, becoming almost like concrete. However, clay soils are generally nutrient rich, have a high water-holding capacity, and can be very productive.
Loam Soils: are “intermediate” between sands and clays and are the best of both worlds. They are usually fertile, hold water well but also provide good drainage, and are easy to work with making an excellent medium for growing most plants. Many wildflowers do best in a loam soil.
Easy Squeeze Test
One of the easiest ways to determine what type of soil you have is the “Squeeze Test.” Simply dig a small hole about 12 inches (30 cm) deep. Reach in and grab a handful of the earth. Squeeze your handful tightly and then open your hand. If the soil falls apart quickly, you have sand. If it stays together in a ball, you’ve got clay. If it feels soft and crumbly and is easy to work, then you have loam.
Now that you know what type of soil you are dealing with you will be able to select the best species that are naturally adapted to grow on your property. On our website, www.wildflowerfarm.com, we offer a variety of wildflower seed mixes each specifically designed for different soil types.
Proper site preparation is the one of the most important factors in the success of any wildflower meadow planting. The seedbed must be smooth and weed free. Existing weeds will compete with your wildflower seedlings for nutrients, water and sunlight. Although it is nearly impossible to remove all weed seeds from the seed bank stored in the soil, it is crucial to eliminate as many weeds as possible before planting. If not controlled, they will delay the growth and maturation of your meadow. A smooth, clump-free seedbed will guarantee firm contact between the soil and seed, enhancing seed germination.
For a backyard meadow, there are three effective organic methods to prepare the site:
Smothering: On small lawn areas of 1000 square feet (100 m2) or less, smothering weeds is simple, effective and requires no special equipment. Smothering involves covering the lawn with black plastic, old rugs, 4 × 8 pieces of old plywood or a thick layer of leaves or newspapers. This should be left in place for a full growing season and removed in the fall when you are ready to plant.
Sod Cutting: (For lawns free of perennial weeds only.) The quickest way to prepare a lawn for planting is to remove the top three inches (7.6 cm) of grass using a sod cutter. This creates a nearly weed-free planting site ready for seeds. Be aware that the area will be lower than the surrounding lawn after sod removal. Sod cutters can be rented for this procedure. Once the sod is removed, rake the area with a steel rake to loosen the surface of the soil.
Cultivation: Kill the lawn by cultivating with a rototiller three times at one-week intervals. Remove any clumps of sod and rake the area with a steel rake to create a smooth seed bed. If perennial weeds or rhizomatous perennial grasses such as quack grass or couch grass (Elymus repens) or johnson grass (Sorghum halepense) are present in the lawn, cultivate for a full growing season every three weeks. This will kill both the lawn and the perennial weeds. After the lawn is dead, rake the area with a steel rake to loosen the surface of the soil.
A well-prepared site is half the battle when establishing a wildflower meadow. By removing the existing vegetation and providing a suitable seedbed for germination and seedling growth, you are well on your way to a successful planting. Once established, your wildflower meadow will bring you years of enjoyment with a minimum of maintenance!
Once your land is prepared and weed free, you’ll need to prepare the seed bed for planting just before sowing your seed mix. Wildflowers need good seed to soil contact and this requires a well tilled, finely graded soil surface prior to planting. Rototill the area very lightly, no more than 1 inch (2.5 cm) in depth, then rake the area with a steel rake to smooth the soil.
A backyard meadow can be sown by hand broadcasting. Do not plant when your soil is wet, especially in heavy clay soils, instead wait until the soil is dry before planting. Broadcast seeding a wildflower meadow is very similar to planting a lawn, but instead of using a seeding machine, the seed is mixed in a larger volume of a lightweight, inert material such as sawdust, peat moss, clean sand (playground or builder’s sand) or vermiculite. It does not matter what carrier you use; use whatever is most readily available to you.
For every 1,000 square feet (100 m2) that you will be seeding, fill an 18 gallon (70 L) plastic storage bin to within 4 inches (10 cm) from the top with of any one of the “carriers” described above.
Dampen the carrier with water, just until it is slightly damp to the touch. The water is necessary so that the seeds stick to the carrier. This aids in even seed distribution.
Next, mix the required amount of seed (usually about 155 grams of seed per 1,000 sq. ft.) into the carrier.
Now, hand broadcast one half of the seed/carrier mixture over the entire site (i.e. in a north to south direction). Then hand broadcast the second half of the mixture over the site; walking perpendicular to the direction you seeded the first half. This “cross pattern” seeding ensures even seed distribution.
Once you have sown the seed, rake the area lightly to mix the seed with the soil then firm the area by rolling it with a lawn roller (available from tool rental centers). Wildflower seeds require firm seed to soil contact for good germination and rolling the area after sowing the seed is important to achieve this.
After sowing the seed, it is very important to cover the area with mulch. A light covering of clean, weed-free straw or peat moss helps to hold in moisture and increases germination of your seeds in the spring. This is particularly helpful on dry, sandy soils and heavy clay soils. The mulch should just cover the soil surface but not bury it and some soil should be visible through the straw. Do not use field hay, as it invariably contains innumerable weed seeds.
Once you have sown your seed and mulched the area, it’s time to rest and wait for the seed to germinate in the spring.
1) First-Year Management
No matter how well you have prepared your site prior to sowing your seeds, it’s impossible to get every weed seed out of the land, so weed control during the first growing season is essential. Perennial wildflowers and grasses grow slowly, and weeds will likely grow much faster in the first year. Most weeds (not all) are annuals which means that their life-cycle is to germinate, grow, flower and produce seeds all within one growing season. For this reason, it is very important to prevent them from reproducing and possibly infesting your planting.
At Wildflower Farm we include a “nurse crop” of annual ryegrass (Lolium latifolium) in our seed mixes. This serves a few purposes. First, annual ryegrass germinates very quickly in the spring. This helps to stabilize the land (especially if you have sown your seed on a slope) and it also helps to take up the ecological niche of weeds which typically require warm soil temperatures to germinate. The annual ryegrass also helps retain soil moisture and provides some shade to the seedlings in their first year of growth. However, being an annual, it will try to reproduce itself by making seeds much like annual weeds do.
The best way to control this is to cut the area whenever the weeds and/or annual ryegrass reach a height of 12 inches (30 cm). Do not allow the weeds to get taller than this before cutting. Tall weeds will shade out your seedlings and the large quantities of weedy material that will eventually have to be cut back can smother the small seedlings.
Mow the area to a height of 6 inches (15 cm). Your wildflowers and grasses will not grow taller than 6 inches (15 cm) in their first year and will not be damaged by the mowing. Mowing weeds on a regular basis in the first year of establishment is one of the most critical steps in the success of your wildflower planting. Be sure to mow weeds before the weeds set seed to prevent any further infestation. Expect to mow weeds about once a month in the first year. The actual mowing frequency will depend upon rainfall in any given year and the actual weed density and height.
String trimmers or “weed whackers” are excellent for cutting back weeds on smaller plantings. These devices gently lay the cut material down on top of the cut stems where it will dry out rapidly and not smother your seedlings. Or, if you have a riding mower, raise the mowing deck as high as possible and mow the site.
At the end of the first season, do not mow down the year’s growth. Instead, leave it to be a natural mulch which will help protect the young plants over the winter. The plant litter and the snow that it catches insulates the soil from rapid changes in soil temperatures, which can cause plant losses due to frost heaving.
Despite the temptation, pulling weeds in a first-year wildflower meadow seeding is not recommended. Wildflower seedlings are very small the first year and can be easily pulled up right along with the weeds!
If you can identify weeds when they are still young and small, it is safe to carefully pull them, making sure you do not disturb adjacent wildflower or native grass seedlings.
If you must pull a large weed, hold your feet closely together on either side of the stem at ground level and pull straight up. This will hold the surrounding soil and any nearby wildflower seedlings in place as you extract the weed.
Firm any disturbed soil and seedlings by tamping with your feet. If the soil is dry, watering after pulling weeds is beneficial for seedlings that may have been dislodged during the process.
Beware that pulling weeds creates soil disturbance, which exposes new weed seeds and encourages their germination. If you wish to avoid this or have large well-established weeds that cannot be easily pulled, you can cut weeds off at the base using pruning shears. Remove any seed-bearing weeds from the site immediately after cutting.
2) Second-Year Management
In mid-spring of the second year, the planting should be mowed as close to the ground as possible and the cuttings raked off. At this stage, the plants are still small and have not yet gained full control of the soil environment. Mowing in mid-spring helps to set back non-native cool season weeds and grasses such as quack grass (Elymus repens), bluegrass (Poa pratensis) and bromegrass (Bromus spp.)
Timing is very important when mowing your meadow. The best time to mow most meadows is when you see your neighbors mowing their turf lawns for the first time. This usually will occur sometime between April 1 and May 15, depending on your location and the weather in any given year. Mowing in mid-spring also facilitates germination of dormant seed and enhances the growth of wildflowers without potentially increasing weeds.
The second year of growth can be a bit of a judgment call: you’ll need to keep an eye on your meadow’s growth. If you see that weeds remain a problem, you will have to mow them again in late spring or early summer and possibly again in mid summer. If you decide that your meadow is not weedy, then you can leave it alone and let the plants grow. You may even see some flower blooms!
3) Third year and Beyond—Long-Term Management
Mowing your wildflower meadow on a regular rotational basis helps ensure continued success.
The first mowing is usually conducted in mid-spring of the third year of growth. The best time to do this is generally, again, when turf lawns first need mowing. After you have mowed the area, rake off and remove the debris. This exposes the soil surface to the warming rays of the sun. As most wildflowers are “warm season” plants, they respond favorably to warm soil temperatures.
Do not mow after the new plant growth of this year has reached 1 foot (30 cm) or taller, as this could damage some of your desirable plants.
Research indicates that spring mowing tends to favor the native grasses and legumes over the wildflowers while fall mowing favors the wildflowers. For this reason, it is recommended to institute a rotational mowing regime. To do this, do your second mowing in the fall of the third year of growth. Afterwards, you will mow our meadow once every year and a half, one time in spring the other in the fall. So, your maintenance becomes one day in every 500 or so days; now that is low maintenance!
Once your wildflower meadow has become well established, it will return year after year with just a minimum of maintenance. It is my hope that by following these guidelines you will be able to enjoy the dynamic beauty of a natural ecosystem right in your backyard!