Meadows Come to Town

By Karen Dardick

Many homes are better served by a naturalistic rather than traditional landscape.

A lush green carpet of mowed turf is almost synonymous with the American home landscape. Yet one of turf's virtues is also its weakness: it always looks pretty much the same. And to keep it looking the same requires considerable time and effort. If you don't need a lawn for children's play or for sports, you might consider an alternative ground cover. It goes by various names, including meadow or meadow lawn. My favorite name, because these gardens so often look natural and wild, is wildscaping.

One proponent of wildscaping is John Greenlee, founder of Greenlee Nursery in Pomona, California. "Meadows are more entertaining, artful, and -- with careful planning -- just as functional," Greenlee says. "Lawn care is more like carpet cleaning than gardening; I don't like all the chemicals and machinery that are required."

Neil Diboll, owner of Prairie Nursery in Westfield, Wisconsin, agrees. "When you make a meadow, you enter into a joint venture with the natural world. You're building a plant community that is diverse, strong, dynamic, and at times stunningly beautiful. A wild or meadow garden consumes less energy than turf and so is more ecologically sustainable." Meadows also attract an abundance of bees, birds, butterflies, and other wildlife that feast on the nectar, seeds, and pollen of the native plants used in this type of landscape.

"Wild" gardens needn't be either large or out of control.

Even though a wildscape is ultimately one of the easiest kinds of gardens to maintain, it's not necessarily simple at first. Preparation, planning, and patience are required. Depending upon where you live, several years may have to pass before your wild garden is really established. Even then, it will likely need some regular tending, if only to remove seedlings of unwanted plants.

One of National Gardening's horticultural consultants, Rick Darke, maintains a wild-looking meadow as part of his Pennsylvania yard. "We constantly have to battle invading woody plants," he says, "but overall the amount of planning and effort is comparable to any type of low maintenance garden."

Fall is the best time to plant a wild garden. It's a good time to sow most grasses, and plant perennials and bulbs. Early-spring planting works almost as well, but leaves the new seedlings vulnerable to aggressive weeds like crabgrass.

Establishing a Meadow

If you need to remove your existing lawn, the surest and fastest way is to spray twice with a broad-spectrum contact herbicide such as glyphosate (RoundUp) or glufosinate-ammonium (Finale). When the grass dies after the initial spraying, water thoroughly, wait for more grass or weed seeds to germinate, and spray again. Rake away and dispose of the dead material.

Nonchemical methods are equally effective but are either more work or take longer. For instance, with a sod cutter (available at rental yards), you can cut existing sod into strips, then roll them up to compost or give away. Or you can smother the lawn with a sheet of black plastic or old carpeting.

Before sowing, rake away dead grass and weeds and lightly loosen soil. If necessary, use a tiller, but set it so it works soil no more than an inch deep. If your garden soil supported turfgrass fairly well, it should need minimal soil preparation. On the other hand, if your site supported little vegetation of any kind, it is unlikely to support even native plants. In that case, have your soil tested and then amend it accordingly.

Use seeds of any of the recommended grasses or wildflowers, but use plants of perennials. If the wildflower seeds are particularly small, spreading them evenly is easier if they're mixed with a carrier, such as builder's sand. Water the area the day prior to sowing, then immediately afterwards. Lightly cover the seedbed with weed-free straw to help keep soil moist and to protect seeds from birds. Keep germinating seeds moist.

In cold winter climates, such as USDA Hardiness Zones 3 to 6, plant perennial plants and bulbs early, by mid-October, so they can become established before cold weather sets in. Mulch in early winter once soil is cold to prevent soil heaving, which damages new roots. Sow seeds late, in mid- to late November. The seeds will wait until spring before growing.

Don't be afraid to experiment. Because this type of garden is by intent a collaboration with nature, there is no single or right way to do it. Just don't try to plant everything all at once. Start with those plants you're sure will do well (see the recommendations for your region), and let nature take its course. Then gradually add more.

Until the meadow is well established, it's important to keep it adequately weeded and watered. While native grasses adapt easily to the weather in their area, it's best to water regularly for the first two months of growth April to June for both fall- and spring-seeded landscapes. Once the surface area dries out, water in the early morning for 15 to 20 minutes or until the soil is damp to 3 or 4 inches deep.

Learn to recognize which plants are in your meadow, and remove invaders regularly. During the first year, mow or prune to encourage branching, so plants grow no taller than 6 inches. In the Midwest or East, a meadow landscape is ideally managed by burning plants every two to three years, if local regulations permit. If you can't burn, mow the meadow to the ground in early spring, and rake off the mowings to expose the soil to the warming rays of the sun.

Regional Guide to Wildscaping

Plants for the Northeast and Midwest

* Grasses and Sedges

Sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula)

Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pennsylvanica)

Little bluestem (Schizachyrium


Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepsis)

* Flowers

Nodding onion (Allium cernuum)

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia)

Smooth penstemon (Penstemon digitalis)

Plants for the Southeast

* Grasses and Sedges

Pennsylvania sedge 'Hilltop' (Carex pennsylvanica

gracilifolia 'Hilltop')

Sedge (C. perdentata)

* Flowers

Onion (Allium)

Dwarf narcissus, any kind

Bluebells (Mertensia)

Schoolhouse lilies (Rhodophiala


Plants for the Southwest

* Grasses and Sedges

Blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis)

Buffalo grass (Buchloe dactyloides)

California meadow sedge (Carex pansa)

Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)

* Flowers

Common yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

Farewell to spring Grasses and Sedges

Buffalo grass (Buchloe dactyloides)

California meadow sedge (Carex pansa)

Western meadow sedge (C. praegracilis)

Catlin sedge (C. texensis)

* Flowers

Garlic chives (Allium tuberosum)

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica)

Sky lupine (Lupinus nanus)

Baby blue eyes (Nemophila menziesii)

Karen Dardick is a writer specializing in gardening that lives in Los Angeles.

Photography by National Gardening Association.

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