SO YOU WANT A WILDFLOWER MEADOW?
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
This time of year I find many gardeners want to start a wildflower meadow, being inspired by those along the roads. There are five key steps to being successful. Keep in mind that meadows may not bloom all season, that they require maintenance, and that you can not just scatter seeds.
The first step towards establishment is proper site selection. Choose a site with full sun, or at least six hours a day. It should have good air movement to keep diseases down, and have few weeds. An already cultivated site such as a field or garden plot is ideal. A lawn can work too. The hardest is an overgrown garden bed, or old field full of aggressive weeds and grasses.
Plant selection is important for long bloom, as noted already, but more importantly for species that will last under your conditions. Soil type is not as important as whether the site is dry or moist. Meadows that are too wet will quickly revert to trees and shrubs, or wetland species such as sedges.
Plant selection can get quite involved, keeping in mind various ecological and climatic factors. The key is to have a diversity of species, as found in nature, with a mix of grasses and forbs (wildflowers). Species should be chosen to fill the lower, mid, and upper levels above ground. Species should be chosen to have a mix with surface, deep fibrous, and tap roots. For the north, choose cool season species. Add some species that "fix" nitrogen (mainly legumes such as clover that make air nitrogen available to roots). Finally, use a mix of species that will grow and stabilize quickly in the first year, over two to four years, and for the long term.
If all this seems too complex, buy a good quality seed mix from a reputable supplier. When it comes to these seeds, you truly get what you pay for. Inexpensive mixes often contain mainly annuals which are gone after the first year, species not native to your area, seeds that have poor germination, potential weedy species, or just a lot of seed debris.
The third factor, the one often overlooked and the key to success or failure, is proper site preparation. Since these wildflowers are usually less competitive than weeds, the site should contain no weeds or weed seeds. Unless the site has been cultivated already, with few to no weeds, there are several methods you may use.
You may smother vegetation with black plastic for a whole growing season. You may also smother with thick layers of leaves, grass clippings, or newspapers covered with these. Another method is to plant a summer buckwheat smother crop, followed by fall planting of winter wheat. If you like tilling, repeat deep soil tillage every three weeks for a full growing season. If a lawn with no weeds, remove the sod using a sod-cutter that can be rented from equipment rental firms. Many use a systemic herbicide, but avoid those that are residual (last in the soil).
Proper planting is the next factor to consider. You may sow in spring or early summer, which favors grasses over the forbs. Keep the spring-sown meadow watered as you would a newly seeded lawn, often for a month or two. Sowing in early fall favors the forbs, as some grass seeds rot then. Since many seeds will either not germinate until the following spring, or germinate and not grow until then, you should also use annual rye as a winter cover crop with fall sowings. Avoid sowing in mid to late summer when there may be drought, seeds drying out before germinating.
For small areas, consider using already-germinated small plants you can buy in trays as "plugs". These are more costly than seeds, but will establish much quicker. You can find these from specialty suppliers, either local, mail-order, or online.
The final factor concerns maintenance. In the first two years, seeds of annual and biennial weeds still in the soil or blown in will grow faster than your perennial wildflowers. Don't allow such weeds to get above one foot tall before cutting back to four to six inches high the first year, to one foot the second year. The wildflowers will, for the most part, remain short and below this height. For more details on maintaining a wildflower meadow, see the online leaflet (pss.uvm.edu/ppp/pubs/oh84mead.htm).
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