Doreen Fogle: How to start a meadow garden
In my two previous articles I described natural meadows and meadows you can make in your own landscape. Comprised of grasses and flowers, or even just flowers growing and reseeding with wild abandon, you can create a space that helps a variety of small wildlife, especially pollinators. Plus you’ll create a spot for a respite from a busy world.
To start a new meadow garden you’ll select and prepare the site, plant both potted plants and sow seeds, and maintain it with water, weed removal and pruning.
Select your meadow site
First select a site that you like. Either sun or shade is fine. With more sun you’ll have more options for species to grow. In the shade, you’ll be using less water.
You may choose a site that’s difficult to mow, like a slope. The plants will be more visible this way.
The easiest place to pick is one with no weeds, of course. But there are ways to remove weeds and most other plants to clear a space. The effort involved will prove worthwhile.
Remove the wrong plants
If the spot has weeds, you’ll need to clear them off. But know that there is a bank of seeds in that soil that will be coming up in winter, spring or summer. So you will be weeding a lot after your meadow has started. If you never let the weeds go to seed, you’ll reduce the number of weeds each year considerably. So stay on top of them!
Weeds will come up with the flower seeds. If you can’t tell the difference, wait till they’re larger so you can better tell. Or plant potted plants, and keep the weeds out for a season or two before sowing seeds.
Hand pulling is very effective if there isn’t too much to remove. Hoeing helps. I often use a pick-axe and scrape off the weeds. Getting all the roots is only necessary for plants with big, troublesome roots, like dandelions.
Removing a lawn?
If you have a lawn or grassy area you want to turn into a meadow, there are a few options to remove it. You can smother, solarize, or use chemicals.
Smothering involves using a heavy layer of newspaper or cardboard. Solarizing involves covering the area with heavy black plastic. Both require that you start with watering to make the plants grow. Then you cover the area with the material for a long time, until there’s no sign of plant life. See americanmeadows.com Wildflower Planting Instructions for details.
The last option for plant removal is using glyphosate or other weed killer. I know this is a difficult decision, but if it’s needed, it quickly paves the way to a chemical-free garden. I believe it’s the least toxic of the chemical options. It’s when it is overused, used instead of using hands and tools, or used at the wrong time in the plant’s life cycle that it becomes problematic. Use it as last resort tool and use it judiciously. See greenleeandassociates.com, Guide to Killing Your Lawn, for details. Also see Lawnstarter.com, Vinegar as a Weed Killer, You’re probably Doing it Wrong, for the vinegar argument.
Even after the lawn is killed, you’ll need to remove the dead grass. I use a pick-axe to scrape it away.
I cannot imagine removing St. John’s Wort, ever. But I have removed a backyard of ivy. I did it manually by cutting it back, finding the runners and just pulling and digging them up. I planted all new plants and the ivy hasn’t come back. Now the space is pretty with low-water, pollinator-attracting plants. So it’s doable.
Plant container perennials
Pick some perennial flowers that will handle low-maintenance and low-water. Two that I like are Echinacea purpurea and Agastaches—the tall ones. They both die down in winter, are low-water plants, deer resistant, and attract lots of pollinators. Container grasses or sedge plants go in first, too.
When buying perennials, always choose odd numbers of plants, three or five — not two or three. Subconsciously it’s more appealing to the eye.
Sow the wildflower seeds
The optimal time to sow wildflower seeds is not now … it’s in the fall. But, you can plant perennial flower seeds now to let them get established — you’ll need to water more, and you might get some flowers this year. Or get your perennial container plants established while keeping the empty space free of germinating weeds, preparing for fall planting. Fall planting benefits from the first rains of the season. You could buy California poppy and columbine six-packs this spring to get them started early. You’ll likely get flowers from them this year, too.
Sowing the seeds should be done evenly. Rake them a little, it scratches the seed surface to allow water to penetrate for germination, and it helps hide them from the birds. Don’t cover or mulch them. Again, see americanmeadows.com’s Wildflower Planting Instructions.
Water them after sowing. Keep them watered until germination.
A caution about seed choices
The best wildflowers to grow, if you’re in a natural area, bordering native land, are native wildflowers. Choose from seeds native to the Pacific Northwest or, better, Northern California. These will be best for our native pollinators and eliminate the risk of weedy flowers escaping into the wild and becoming invasive.
If you have any question about whether species are native remember to consult calscape.org, click on annuals or perennials to find out the what and where. There are plenty of choices.
Closer to your more maintained garden areas, you can choose a wider range of “wild” flowers, and many will contain common garden flowers.
Plant the meadow garden much more densely than you would a regular flower garden. It helps crowd out weeds.
Maintain the new meadow
Get your plants started with extra water for the first year or two, then reduce to their normal needs. If yours is all-native, you may need just a few deep waterings a summer. If it’s a garden meadow with garden flowers in a highly maintained area or near a lawn, give it more, but you’ll probably get by with less than you think. Try it.
Keep weeds in check once you can tell what’s a weed and what’s a flower. Pull so as not to disturb the roots of the new flower plants.
At the end of the season let all go to seed for the next year’s flowers as well as to feed the birds. If you must cut it back for fire safety or appearance, let the seeds develop first then cut it back. Stems that are thicker may well contain tiny wild bee eggs or larvae. So it’s best to cut them manually, if possible, and lay the stems down so the baby bees can hatch in the spring.
Now is a good time to start a meadow garden. You have time to plan and start watching for the availability of potted plants and select your seeds throughout the spring.
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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Planning a few long weekends or a vacation may have you rethinking your garden plans. Don’t let time away from home stop you from growing flowers and vegetables in containers.