Not long ago, the inhabitants of a nearby firehouse decided to grow a native meadow as an alternative to a standard lawn. Their motives were noble: Meadows display beautiful wildflowers and grasses year round. They offer habitat for beneficial insects, provide food for birds, and don’t require watering.
Less than a year after sowing their meadow, however, the firefighters ripped it out: Neighbors had complained that it looked unkempt.
But their experience was not unique: Establishing a meadow is a tricky business.
Mother Nature, on the other hand, produces gorgeous meadows, and her secrets have been scrutinized since the late 1980s, when the meadow concept became popular as part of the naturalistic garden movement. Around that time, Ken Moore, superintendent of the North Carolina Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill, decided to let his home’s lawn go to seed—a first step in converting it to a meadow. And just when it was looking its worst, Meadow in a Can hit the market, promising beautiful results instantly.
The message was clear: Meadows are easy to grow. Simply open the can, roll out the seed-encrusted burlap, douse it with water and wait. Moore, on the other hand, took a lot of grief from neighbors as his once-tidy landscape now resembled an abandoned lot. But there was justice in the end: Canned meadows produced mixed (and often abysmal) results, while hands-on experiments like Moore’s have yielded successful methods. I’m relying on the latter to improve our early-stage meadows at The Ramble subdivision in south Asheville.
Established in the fall of 2006, The Ramble’s three meadows reflect various levels of embarrassment at this point. One was fairly presentable this year, with Queen Anne’s lace, coneflower, black-eyed Susan, wild bergamot, milkweed, aster and little bluestem making best of show. The second meadow, alas, has been overrun by yellow partridge pea, and the third sports great gaps of bare soil. These are classic problems, familiar to all who’ve tried to create a meadow.
So what’s a well-meaning gardener or landscaper to do?
This fall, we’ll plant a new meadow using secrets shared by Terry Dalton, who manages the beautiful native meadows at The North Carolina Arboretum. For starters, we’ll till a mere 2 to 3 inches deep to avoid churning up hordes of weed seeds that normally lie dormant. And instead of sowing the seed directly into the existing clay soil, we’ll till in aged, ground-up pine bark to improve the drainage. That way, heavy rains can soak into the soil, and the seed is less likely to wash away.
We’ll also sow only the wildflowers this fall—after a heavy frost. If sown during warm September weather, wildflower seeds germinate immediately, only to be killed by the cold the next month. By sowing our wildflowers in late November, we’re giving the seeds a chance to lie dormant over the winter. That lets the weather slowly soften their outer coating, yielding good germination rates come spring.
We’ll sow native grasses in the spring—big bluestem, Virginia wild rye, little bluestem, Indian grass, switchgrass and prairie dropseed. As the year progresses, they will account for 70 percent of our meadow’s plants. They suppress weeds, fill in quickly and prevent erosion. Over time, we’ll add extra wildflower seeds for more color.
We have a specific maintenance plan for the new meadow, too. Native wildflowers and grasses can grow on lean soil with few nutrients, so we won’t apply fertilizer (which gives weeds the upper hand). For the first two years, we’ll mow with a Weed Eater, maintaining the meadow at a height of 6 inches. This chops off the flowers, but it also gets the weed heads before they can go to seed. No weed seeds means fewer weeds the next year.
By year three, the meadow should look like the ones in the movies, where lovers run toward each other in slow motion: flowers galore for picking, and grasses glowing in the setting sun. We’ll continue to mow problem spots and hand-pull unwanted saplings such as sumac. We might even consider a controlled burn to discourage weedy grasses and give the spring wildflowers a head start.
It takes awhile to imitate Mother Nature, but there are ways to speed things up. One is to convert a lawn, as Moore did. Another is to start with plants instead of seeds. For advice, check out Prairie Nursery (www.prairienursery.com), which sells native seeds, and Snow Creek Landscaping, a local company with years of experience in meadow building.
But no matter how you start, the most important step is choosing the right plants. Some attract butterflies and hummingbirds; others provide shelter and food for deer and turkeys. Plants that thrive on high-elevation slopes are quite different from those that inhabit boggy areas. And a meadow of plants towering over your head will give an entirely different experience than one with knee-high vegetation.
Although planning is important, I’ve found that patience and perseverance are the real key ingredients. When I’m impatient with my efforts, I visit Lana Burn’s meadow, just down the road from my office. Through the joe-pye weed, yellow helianthus and maiden grass, Burn has cut a maze of pathways that disappear around curves and open into clearings where bird boxes perch on posts or trees. After a few steps, I am lost in a new world. The air is fresh, smelling of damp earth or newly mown grass. Every flower I see has an insect at work on it. The breeze moves through, making music in the grasses, and goldfinches ride the stems bending toward the ground.
A meadow offers more than just beautiful flowers and grasses—it brings an entire ecosystem to one’s yard. Like the ugly duckling that becomes a swan, a meadow’s weedy early years can be appreciated for the promise they hold. A beautiful meadow is well worth the wait.
[Amy Fahmy is the horticulturist for Biltmore Farms.]