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In an attempt to attain the perfect lawn, Americans are using enormous quantities of water, fertilizer, herbicides, pesticides and fossil fuels to make grass grow more vigorously, then spending time and money on a weekly basis to keep it short.
Mowed lawn will always have a useful place in the landscape, but it doesn’t need to be the solution by default for every square inch of land not planted in intensive garden or paved surface. Why then, even in an age of growing ecological awareness and appreciation of nature, do lawns continue to dominate our landscapes? If homeowners are ever to be weaned away from their over-reliance on lawns, dependable, cost-efficient and manageable replacements need to be made available.
If wildflower meadows are planned, installed and managed properly, they can contribute tremendously to naturalizing the American Landscape. When integrated into a well-designed landscape matrix, a meadow can help to transform a residential property into a beautiful and stimulating home environment while vastly reducing quality time with a noisy mower. Land owners can dramatically reduce maintenance costs, and public highways and parks can enhance our spectacular and diverse native landscape on a visual and ecological level.
Before we begin to discuss how to obtain these results, we need to clarify what we mean by a native wildflower meadow.
In order to fulfill the requirements of long-term sustainability and low-maintenance, the meadow must be designed as a functional plant community first and a flower garden second. Only by understanding and incorporating the compositions, patterns and processes inherent in our naturally occurring meadows and prairies can we create landscapes that will be viable over long periods of time without massive amounts of assistance.
Does this mean that we must sacrifice aesthetics for sustainability? Not at all. True, we won't see a wall-to-wall carpet of colors as is commonly depicted on wildflower seed packets, but we need not lower expectations, only change them. A visual foundation of native ornamental grasses glimmering in the sun and swaying in the breeze, complemented by graceful drifts of wildflowers, will provide a truly spectacular scene, one that is more inspiring and certainly more sustainable than the riot of color depicted on the seed packet. Instead of waiting in dread to see what will emerge the second year after the annual flowers have expired, we can enjoy an ever-evolving natural landscape that changes from season to season and year to year as it reflects the beauty and grace of our native meadows and prairies.
Sounds very nice, but how do we get it done? While we are waxing poetic, the weeds have something else in mind. The following are some of the most important elements for designing, implementing and managing a native meadow that we can feel confident will fulfill our expectations.
Full sun is a necessary requirement for a meadow planting. Insufficient sunlight will favor woody species over herbaceous wildflowers and grasses, causing an increase in maintenance requirements.
Soil type is the next consideration. It is imperative to understand and identify which soil you are working with (sand, loam, clay, etc.) in order to select plants that will adapt successfully to the site. If poor soils exist, it is generally best to select the plants that are adapted to that soil, then to amend.
Soil nutrient levels are less important than in traditional landscapes, as most native plants are generally adapted to existing conditions. Barring an extreme deficiency, fertilization should be avoided as it will probably favor the weeds more than the desirable species.
Seed Mix Composition
Based on the analysis of the site, you can now select the plant species that will comprise your seed mix. The plants that will give you the best long-term results will invariably be those that are native to your region. Native grasses should be a major component of the plant mix, usually 40%-60%, as they are the single most important component in stabilizing the meadow from both a functional and visual point of view. Only native clump-forming grasses should be used, including Little Bluestem: Schizachyrium scoparius, Indian Grass: Sorghastrum nutans and Lovegrass: Eragrostis spectabilis.
Seeding the Meadow
Seeding times for meadows in the Northeast are spring, early summer and late fall (dormant). Late fall sowing is not recommended on sloped sites where erosion can be a problem.
Implementation begins with the control of any undesirable or invasive vegetation that already exists on the site, including turf grass. While herbicides are commonly used, control can be accomplished by physical removal, smothering or repeated application of organic foliar contact herbicides.
Next, a seedbed should be created by scarifying the soil to a depth of approximately one-quarter inch. Tilling should be avoided, as it will bring dormant weed seeds to the surface and leave the site prone to erosion. Seed can now be distributed over the site by hand or by mechanical means. Due to the small seeding rates of many of the grasses and flowers, it will be necessary to bulkify the seed with sawdust or cat litter before spreading. Once the seed is broadcast, it should be lightly raked into the soil and rolled for good seed-to-soil contact. Lightly mulching (50% cover) with clean straw is the final step. If watering is practical, it should only be applied for 3 weeks after seeding. If watering is not practical, the seed will remain dormant and viable until sufficient rains allow for germination.
It is important to understand that while an established meadow requires substantially less maintenance than mowed lawn, there are procedures that must be followed to prevent the natural processes of succession from causing a reversion to woods.
During the first growing season the meadow should be mowed every 6 weeks to a height of 4"-6". This will prevent the annual weeds from going to seed, as well as maximize light to the developing meadow seedlings, which only grow to a few inches during the first year. These perennials will emerge the following season far stronger than if they had been buried under 4 feet of annual foliage the first year.
During the second year, the first flowers will appear, including Black Eyed Susan and other fast-establishing species. From this point on, the meadow will be mowed only once per year, in late winter or early spring. Weed monitoring and control will be particularly important during these early years. Only the most pernicious weeds must be actively controlled, however, as most common garden and lawn weeds will be competed-out over time by the highly vigorous meadow plants. True problem weeds can be controlled either by painting herbicide directly on the foliage, physical removal, or timed mowing.
By the third year, the native meadow plants should be fairly dominant on the site and able to resist weed invasion with minimal management. Maintenance will consist of one mowing or burn either in late fall or early spring, and periodic monitoring and control of pernicious individual weeds.
The current trend toward ecological concern, economy, and appreciation of the natural world has created a public eager for new ways to incorporate nature into their homes, businesses and public lands. Native meadow and prairie plantings blend perfectly with these emerging attitudes, presenting an outstanding opportunity for those landscape designers, architects and planners who have made an effort to understand the ecological principles needed for their successful design and implementation. Once established, the native meadow planting can exemplify the blending of horticulture, design and ecology and result in an easily managed, ecologically sound and visually dynamic landscape that can be enjoyed for years to come.
Larry Weaner has been principal of Larry Weaner Landscape Design since 1982. With offices in Glenside, PA and Wilton, CT, the firm focuses on the integration of ecological restoration and fine garden design. He developed the New Directions in the American Landscape (NDAL) conference series, co-sponsoring natural landscape design symposia throughout the USA.