Grow a Wild Flower Meadow

Enjoy lots of color, less mowing and more wildlife in your back yard by planting a wildflowers.

| April/May 2005

When you care for a piece of land, you want to do the right thing by it. Whether your land is measured in square feet or acres, one very right option is to deck it out with wildflowers — low-maintenance bloomers that look beautiful, support wildlife and are willing to accept what your site and soil have to offer.

I’ve been tinkering with wildflowers for years, enjoying my successes and learning from my failures. These days, my goal is to establish truly sustainable plantings composed of native perennials — beautiful plant communities that can be maintained with once-a-year mowing. There are many ways to plant a wildflower meadow, and each is infinitely more interesting than mowing a lawn or bush hogging a field. And beyond being beautiful, wildflowers have the power to nourish the land.

“When you push a lawn back to habitat, you will quickly see the animals return,” says Mark Simmons, an ecologist at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. “All kinds of creatures will colonize quickly, because you’re providing food and habitat for birds, animals and insects.”

To keep things simple, we’ll look at two likely starting places for wildflower meadows — an area of lawn in a typical home landscape and a section of open field about a half acre in size From Lawn to Wildflowers.

The site I’m working now was a slightly weedy zoysia lawn two years ago. I think it needs another year of work before it’s ready to support native perennials, which tend to be slow-growing plants that compete poorly with weeds that thrive in disturbed lawn or garden soils. Meanwhile, the plot is supporting a succession of annual wildflowers, few of which are native species. In a transition site, this is not a bad thing. Last fall, migrating monarchs paused to sip nectar from the sulphur cosmos I planted after I stripped off the sod, tilled the soil and dug in 3 inches of rotted horse manure. I dug and amended the site again in winter, then planted a mixture of colorful species adapted to my area. In late spring, honeybees busily worked the poppies, and a few weeks later, goldfinches showed up to dine on ripe bachelor button seeds

These and other non-native, annual wildflowers (the same category used for most highway plantings) provide lots of color, and many of them reseed pretty well, even when the soil is dug, amended and replanted with additional species. Many “meadow in a can” labels advise against cultivating the soil before planting because it can increase weed problems, but I have found that sites switched from lawn to wildflowers benefit from the same methods used to cultivate a garden: amending the soil with organic matter to improve its texture and drainage, and at least two seasons of dedicated weeding to deplete the soil’s “weed seed bank.” Later on, when I make the switch to perennials, the annuals will gradually disappear as the perennials take over

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