Doreen Fogle: Grow your own meadow at home
When we think of meadows we think of grassy, open spaces, often with wildflowers. They play an important role in the environment. Creating meadows in home landscapes is becoming quite a trend, as a solution to the decline of pollinator populations and to boost wildlife habitat around us. And they’re a great place to quietly watch wildlife, both in the wild and at home.
The role meadows play in nature
You rarely see or even hear much wildlife when you’re in a forest. But a forest clearing that’s comprised of native vegetation is where you’ll likely see and hear wildlife. Especially in a meadow. A meadow has few trees or shrubs and is covered mostly in perennial grasses and grass-like plants.
In addition to grasses are annual and perennial flowers. All the plant leaves, the pollen and nectar of the flowers, and the seeds at the end of the season produce food for insects, pollinators and birds, forage for grazing animals, and finally prey for hunting animals.
The open space of a meadow not only helps foraging and hunting activity, but also provides the space for courtship behavior and nesting for many animals.
Below the surface
Under the surface of the soil there’s just as much going on. The variety of plants provide the soil with a diversity of roots of all sizes and depths and support the growth of myriad soil organisms. The roots sequester carbon from the atmosphere, enable nutrient cycling in the soil, and allow for best water infiltration.
The living and decaying organic matter in the meadow soil holds and filters rainwater and snowmelt to be slowly released later in the dry season, keeping streams and rivers supplied with cool, clear water.
Meadows are easily damaged by trails, roads, timber harvesting, climate change and the like. Since healthy meadows maintain water quality, river and stream quality, and wildlife downstream, our local groups like SYRCL (South Yuba River Citizens League) and Sierra Streams work to assess and improve our meadows upstream to improve our watershed — and our water supply.
Beauty, time and pollinators
The idea of planting meadows in what would be lawns or difficult spots, or even flower beds, is blooming. Planted with mostly native plants, the planting is best suited for the local climate, in our case that means lower water use.
A meadow planting saves time in maintenance and resources. It doesn’t need the mowing and watering that a lawn needs. Or the replanting, weeding and watering that a flower bed needs. Just a few maintenance visits to the meadow through the year once it’s established, and infrequent watering should be all you need. Careful preparation is key to get your meadow off to a good start.
Planting with mostly natives will provide food for the native insects, especially the larval stage of our native butterflies and moths. The Audubon Society recommends maintaining at least 70% native plants (in total biomass) as a goal to feed the insects which native birds need to feed and rear their nestlings. (For more info see “Save the Birds by Planting the Right Plants” on my website.) So choose mostly natives, but you’ll have space for some other favorite flowers and grasses.
Whether it’s the larval stage of pollinating insects or the flowers themselves, meadows feed the pollinators.
Dense plantings of meadow plants, including grasses and grass-like plants, and perennial and annual flowers help rain water sink in and soak deeper into the soil, and that will help recharge aquifers and often your own well.
Native grasses create green space
There are three plants perfect for creating greenspace and walkways for a meadow.
The first two are sedges, which are grass-like perennials. Carex praegracillus is native to here and to throughout much of California. And Carex pansa is native to a few coastal spots in far Northern California. They’ve both been well tested and have become the favorite choices for meadow plantings and as lawn alternatives. They tolerate traffic, a wide variety of soils, and are extremely drought-tolerant once established.
C. praegracillis grows to two to three and a half feet tall, but can be mowed to be shorter for walking paths. C. pansa grows to about one foot tall. Mowing, even with a weed-eater, will encourage them to spread and fill in faster. They can be used as filler between pavers.
Both these Carex plants can be watered to keep them green year-round or left dry through the summer where it will go dormant, turning brown, but will green back up with rains and cool weather.
Creeping red fescue (Festuca rubra) is a perennial grass native to here and much of California. Green in the cool season and dormant in the summer, it, too, will be brown, but can be kept green with water. It grows to one and a half to two and a half feet tall and can be left unmown, giving a soft, prairie look, or mown as it is when used as a turf grass. It takes full sun to part shade and only needs water once a month.
All three can be planted and left to grow long but mown to make paths through your meadow. All three take full sun to light shade. Read more about these plants at Calscape.org. And see more about grassy meadows and photos at greenlaeeandassociates.com.
They provide leaves to feed the larval stage of skippers, a cute pollinator that’s closely related to butterflies, and seed for birds.
They’re all grown by Suncrest Nurseries which supplies most of our local nurseries. That means that you can order them through a local nursery when they are available.
Then there are flowers
A meadow at home makes a great place for watching the wildlife it attracts. Grasses and grass-like plants are the predominant feature of a meadow. But annual and perennial flowers play a big role in feeding the other animals of a meadow. For a home garden, meadow flowers are a wonderful benefit for beauty and bouquets. And some are made only of flowers. More on the flowers in my next article.
Doreen Fogle is a landscape designer and writer in Nevada County. More of her articles can be found on her website mydelightfulgardens.com and she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Nevada County Master Gardeners answer questions from plant purchasers Saturday at the demo garden off West Main Street in Grass Valley.