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Ask Ruth: Planting a Wildflower Meadow

June 25, 2012

Photo credit: Hill Town Tree & Garden 

Dear Ruth,

Now that summer is here, I am already tired of mowing.

Instead of mowing, I have decided to make a wildflower meadow. I have ½ to ¾ acre to work with.

Can I just sow the wildflower seed on top of the grass?

~Derrick in Candler

Dear Derrick,

The answer is a resounding NO.

Unfortunately, making a meadow is a bit more complicated than tossing a few wildflower seeds on top of your grass. To be successful each seed needs to come in full contact with the bare soil. Taking the time to do it right will reward you with a meadow full of flowers that is beautiful to behold.

Additionally, your meadow will provide fabulous habitat for wildlife, beneficial insects and forage plants for pollinators – it’s a win-win concept. Here are the basic steps and considerations.

Evaluate your site:

Your ideal site should have full sun at least 6 to 8 hours per day, good drainage is extremely important, and soil that is not heavily compacted. If you notice extra-weedy areas in your chosen meadow spot, consider relocating your meadow, because these areas will exert constant weed pressure on your meadow. Weed seeds accumulate in areas where fields drain.

Remove all vegetation:

By hand or by using a tool like a sod cutter, remove all vegetation from your meadow site. For large areas, a motorized sod cutter would make the job a lot easier.

Prepare the ground:

Till the ground VERY shallowly, no more than one inch deep. The deeper you go the more weed seeds you will bring to the surface, and these weeds will compete with your wildflowers. Rake the soil smooth, removing any remaining debris. Time this with your planting time, so that the ground is not left bare more than one day.

Sow the wildflowers:

Split the seed into two buckets. Mix 4-10 parts builder’s sand with your seeds (the sand will make it easier to distribute the seed evenly and make it easy to see where you have already sown the seed). Sow the first half of the seed – covering the entire area. Then sow the second half of the seed perpendicularly to the first half – again covering the entire area.

Tamp the seed in:

Do NOT rake (that will bring up weed seeds). Press the seed firmly into the soil by walking on it or by rolling the area. This ensures that the seed is in good contact with the soil. Do not cover the seed with soil (unless using a particular seed that demands covering, wildflower mixes should not be covered).

Watering:

Provide adequate moisture for 4-6 weeks. Frequent light waterings are best – so you don’t wash the seeds away. Just like in your veggie garden, you want to keep the soil evenly moist until germination occurs. Some of your seeds will sprout quicker than others, so continue to keep the ground moist even after the first seeds sprout. Once the seeds germinate, continue to keep the ground moist – but not swampy or the baby plants will drown from lack of oxygen. When the plants are four inches high you can gradually reduce watering. Meadows are drought tolerant once established, but be extra-attentive the first year, especially during the heat of summer when it can be dry for weeks on end.

Do not fertilize:

Fertilizer promotes weed and grass growth, but you want to give your wildflowers the edge…not the opportunistic invaders. If you do fertilize, use a low nitrogen fertilizer.

Maintenance:

Pull weeds and grass clumps when they appear. Mow once a year in late fall – after the hard frost and after the wildflowers have dropped their seeds. Mow no lower than 3” – mow higher if possible, using a mower or sting trimmer. Some people like to keep a pathway mowed through the meadow for their enjoyment during the season. In spring, check for bare spots and reseed those areas.

Ideal planting time:

Opinions vary about the best time to plant wildflower meadows in Western North Carolina, but most people think a fall planting is best.

  • Fall-planted wildflowers will bloom earlier in the spring, and some perennial seeds need cold weather to germinate in spring. For fall plantings, plant after a killing hard frost has occurred.
  • If you are planting on a slope, winter precipitation can wash your wildflower seeds away. Meadows planted on slopes should be planted in springtime. Plant spring-planted wildflower meadows about one week before you plant your tomatoes. Spring rains are also helpful in areas that are difficult to irrigate.

Seeds:

There are numerous wildflower mixes available. Be sure to select a mix that is appropriate for your planting zone (WNC is Zone 6, or recently declared Zone 7a). Most wildflower mixes contain a blend of annual, biannual, and perennial flowers. Usually perennials will not bloom the first year. Annual flowers will give you lots of bloom the first year and hopefully drop seed for next year’s flowers too. The quick growth of annuals also holds down the fort while the perennials are becoming established. Seeds will continue to germinate the first year as conditions (like soil temperature) are right.

You can see that starting a meadow is a commitment, so don’t be parsimonious with your seed. Buy enough seed and buy quality seed mixes. Even though wildflower seed may seem relatively expensive (ranging from about $28 to $50 per pound depending on the source and quantity that you buy). Once you have exerted the effort to establish a meadow, you will want your project to be a success and to enjoy beautiful results.

How much seed?

Start by figuring out the square footage of the area you intend to plant. Take the length times the width to arrive at the square footage. For instance 80 ft. X 40 ft. = 3200 square feet. There are 43,000 square feet in one acre, so you (Derrick) would be looking at somewhere between 21,500 sq. ft. and 32, 250 sq. ft. for your property of ½ to ¾ acre.

  • ¼ pounds per 1000 sq.ft. = half-hearted coverage (so why go to all the trouble!)
  • ½ pounds per 1000 sq. ft. = good coverage
  • ¾ pounds per 100 sq. ft. = primo coverage
  • 1 pound per 1000 sq. ft. = recommended for problem sites with lots of weed pressure

Some seed sources:

Special order from local garden centers

That’s a great question Derrick. Just remember that those tiny seeds could not readily compete with an existing lawn or established weed patch. If you decide to create your meadow, utilizing the above suggestions will create conditions that favor an inspiring outcome.

Wishing you the very best,
Ruth

Ask Ruth © 2010 Ruth Gonzalez & Organic Growers School

Ruth Gonzalez is a former market farmer, gardener, local food advocate, and founder of the Tailgate Market Fan Club where she blogs at http://tailgatemarketfanclub.wordpress.com. In her job at Reems Creek Nursery, Ruth offers advice on all sorts of gardening questions, and benefits daily from the wisdom of local gardeners.

Gardeners: Got a question for Ruth? Email it to us!

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 1, 2012 3:53 pm

    This comment is from Glen Peterson of Greenville(?), South Carolina:

    Hi Ruth,

    I guess you figured I might write about the wildflower meadow. I’ve
    been working on a native wildflower meadow for 5 years now and I have
    to say I’ve had many more failures than successes, but continued
    effort has allowed me to achieve some amount of over-all success.
    Your advice is textbook perfect, but I feel obliged to offer some
    thoughts.

    This is my favorite book on the subject:
    Urban and Suburban Meadows: Bringing Meadowscaping to Big and Small Spaces by Catherine Zimmerman

    I have dealt with 3 major issues:

    1. Existing fescue (Festuca sp.). I have had some success mowing this
    maybe 3 times in the spring at 2.5″, 3.5″ and 4.5″ successively. The
    first mow is when it turns it’s distinctive deep green in the spring
    and sprouts above whatever else might be growing there. The second is
    when some seed heads pop up and the first ones begin to dangle their
    little flowers, and the third is when more seed heads pop up. Studies
    show that close mowing can prevent root growth for up to 17 days.
    This really weakens this plant and gives “weeds” a chance.

    2. Soil so eroded and poor that nothing will grow. Every book says
    don’t fertilize a meadow. Being organic to me means fertilizer =
    compost (and occasionally some other weird and expensive stuff). I
    even have a coffee table book (Meadows by Christopher Lloyd) that
    shows a very successful meadow grown on a vacant lot after 20 inches
    of peaty topsoil was removed so that the seeds could be sown in the
    sandy subsoil (p. 51). But this ain’t England. My personal
    experience is that in the red, packed clay wastes where nothing grew 5
    years ago, still very little grows today. When our local clay subsoil
    (there is no topsoil) becomes compacted, it effectively becomes a
    brick and totally useless as growing medium in our hot dry summers. I
    have found that all the backbreaking pick-axing and roto-tilling in
    the world is almost totally ineffective without adding compost. In
    fact, 1/4 inch or more of compost on these spots and time makes the
    difference between barren ground and poor soil and is the only organic
    technique that I have found effective. Tons of compost mixed into the
    top 9 inches is better, and a thick bark mulch may be as good as
    compost, but the popular “no fertilizer” technique did not work for me
    at all on these spots.

    3. Shrubby lespedeza (Lespedeza sericea). This is my nemesis. Three
    organic techniques hurt this plant: Mowing at 2.5 inches on September
    1st, Pulling repeatedly by hand, and improving the soil (with compost
    – see above) so that other plants can out-compete it. A combination
    of all three techniques works best.

    I use a mowing technique I like to call the “Crazy Mow” which involves
    cutting the plants I don’t like (grass/lespedeza) and leaving the
    flowers (weeds), regardless of the mangy patchwork pattern of mowed
    and unmown destruction I leave behind. I like to think it is a
    technique guaranteed to get me fired from any reputable landscaping
    company. It works great with a zero-turn on large areas or a weed
    eater for smaller spaces. This mimics the action of grazing herds
    moving through.

    The part of the meadow that I tilled and watered was essentially a
    complete failure. I bought a large sprinkler, and tilled a circle
    around it that could be watered. Then planted a cover crop with a
    very (very) small amount of compost. Even with proper watering, most
    of the cover crop would not grow. But the lespedeza and fescue were
    able to re-establish almost instantly even stronger than before.
    Elkhorn plantain loves soil that nothing else will grow on, but it’s
    annual, pulls easily, and doesn’t compete in fertile soil.

    The hardest part is to get the most results with the least effort.
    Mowing and mulch/compost are the most effective tools. Burning is
    very effective against honeysuckle, especially where the plants you
    want to keep are trees over an inch thick at the base. Burning is not
    often super-useful in a meadow.

    I’ve attached a picture of our main wildlife meadow, and I just
    surprised myself by finding a picture of the same meadow taken from
    almost the same angle by the previous owners for the Real estate
    listing for comparison. The original picture gives a sense of the
    quality of the soil, compacted from construction equipment (for the
    house) and 4-wheelers (for the kids) with fescue growing well where
    there is any topsoil. Can you see why the “Don’t fertilize”
    suggestion might not apply here? I wish I could have, but I read the
    same suggestion in several books and lost a few years of progress as a
    result. It was also ideally suited for my
    plow-and-watch-your-soil-erode episode.

    The other picture is from last weekend, 5 or 6 years later. The
    purple plant in front is Echinacea purpura. Beneath it are the first
    flowers of a Rudbeckia (I think triloba). Just to the right are some
    barely visible Wild Quinine (Parthenium integrifolium) which blooms
    seemingly all summer in very poor and dry soil, though it’s not super
    showy. The yellow to the right of that is Coreopsis major, which I
    cannot recommend enough – it blooms for at least 2 months in the
    hottest part of the year without any water whatsoever. The tall dark
    plants with lavender flowers are Monarda fistulosa. The brownish
    upright grass mostly in the back right is broomsedge (Andropogon
    virginicus?). My garden is beyond that and our horse pasture beyond.
    There is other stuff there, but it’s not blooming now. All the plants
    I named I bought in pots and planted in holes enriched with compost.
    I weeded them annually with a pick-axe and once a year hire a team
    people to pull the lespedesia for a couple hours right around
    September 1st.

    As I said, it’s the scene of more failures than successes, but I keep
    trying and it is getting better.

    Glen
    p.s. One more technique: terracing. That’s a whole other can of worms,
    another email, etc., but it really works. Especially if you can make
    giant shallow bowl shaped depressions to catch the runoff rainwater
    from your roof.

  2. July 1, 2012 4:08 pm

    Thanks for the detailed input and comments from your personal experience.

    I think it is best to avoid planting meadows in areas that are naturally extra-weedy, or areas that are naturally devoid of vegetation. These things indicate a very compacted area (little or no vegetation), or lower spots where all the weed seeds in the area naturally migrate into as the field drains.

    Your comments underscore that planting a successful meadow is a little harder than it looks at first glance. It hasn’t been instant gratification, but your persistence is slowly paying off!

  3. July 17, 2012 9:53 pm

    Dear Ruth,

    Re: ‘Derrick in Candler’ and his question about wildflower meadows… unless I skimmed right over it, I did not see any mention in your reply to him about striving to choose native species. “Wildflower” is a frighteningly generic term that includes all manner of ‘naturalized’ invasive horrors. Some companies that supply seed mixes unfortunately include some of these species in their blends.

    Though not in our region, Prairie Moon Nursery (www.prairiemoon.com) has a lot of good advice about meadow/prairie creation and seeding — and that all important maintenance. In addition, they have maps for most of the varieties they sell, illustrating whether it is native to a region or not. The USDA/NRCS plant ID website, http://plants.usda.gov also offers a lot of information on various species, including (for many species, if you look in the Characteristics page for the plant) whether or not there is toxicity or bloat potential for livestock.

    In the mountains every year is the wonderful “Native Plants in the Landscape” conference, held at the end of each July on the beautiful campus of Western Carolina University. This is a great multi-day event with many native plant vendors and opportunities for networking with those of like mind, not to mention great workshops on all manner of topics that teach about meadow creation, landscaping, and more. This year’s conference is July 18-21. Info is here: http://www.wcu.edu/5033.asp

    If the ‘meadow’ might also serve as a working space where livestock can periodically graze, Ernst Conservation Seeds
    (www.ernstseed.com) has a great catalog of native grasses and forbs. Their focus is on Southeastern species, and several of their producers are from our region.

    Finally, a few years ago, the annual Carolina Farm Stewardship Association’s Sustainable Agriculture Conference featured Dr. Pat Keyser of the University of Tennessee. Dr. Keyser is the director of The Center for Native Grasslands Management http://nativegrasses.utk.edu I learned a lot from his presentation on native forage grasses and forbs for livestock. We planted a 3-acre area on our farm to some native grasses and forbs based on some of his advice.

    Best regards,
    Jackie Hough
    Raft Swamp Farms
    Red Springs, NC

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