Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern & Central Midwest
August, 2008
Regional Report

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This lovely meadow is awash in oxeye daisies in spring.

Plant a Meadow Garden

As I take my morning walks and see all types of gardens, the type I'm most fond of is the meadow. A meadow garden reflects the rhythm of the seasons, starting with bulbs and tiny spring wildflowers; moving into summer with blowsy perennial sunflowers, Queen Anne's lace and liatris; and ending the season with grasses, goldenrod, and asters. Of course, these are accompanied by a plethora of butterflies, hummingbirds, bees, songbirds, and small mammals.

Meadow or Prairie?
How do you start your own meadow? First of all, a meadow is different than a prairie. A prairie takes years to establish because you must build soil and recreate an entire ecosystem with interdependent relationships. A meadow, however, can usually be established in three years. It takes a commitment, and the first three years will take careful maintenance to keep the garden from becoming a field of thistle and chicory.

Once your meadow is established, it becomes a low-maintenance garden that takes some intervention, but not much. Best of all, in these times of environmental awareness, it's a good way to avoid petrochemical-based pesticides, gasoline for a mower, and excess water use.

Decide on Size
Do you want to start with only a small meadow garden outside the back door, or do you want a full-blown meadow? Natural Midwestern meadows are mostly grasses, so we usually prefer to imitate a high altitude meadow because it has more flowers.

In a meadow garden we learn to appreciate all phases of a plant's life. There will be times of spectacular bloom, and times when the grasses are mainly what we see. We must appreciate beautiful seed heads even if the plants look somewhat ragged at this phase in their lives. Also, in order to attract butterflies, nectar plants are important, but we must also include food plants for egg-laying and for caterpillars to feed on.

Plan for Beauty in All Seasons
Try to plan a meadow for beauty in all seasons. Not necessarily blooming at all times, but with something going on, such as attractive foliage, nice seedpods, good fall color. We want to choose plants that are compatible with our native conditions so that extra care beyond the establishment phase is unnecessary. Finally, consider sun and shade sites, and wet and dry microclimates.

Seeds or Transplants?
One word of caution: Be careful about purchasing a "meadow in a can." Growing plants from seed is less expensive but seedlings are not as successful in fighting competition from weeds. Seeds will take more care to get them started than transplants. A happy marriage is to use seeds for annuals and the base grass, and transplants for the perennials and ornamental grasses. Many nurseries now actually sell trays of mixed meadow and prairie transplants.

Establishing a Base Grass
You will need a base grass to cover most of the ground and allow the blooming plants to be seen above it. A base grass is necessary because we all know that as soon as there is a bare spot of ground, Nature plants a weed. Some base grasses that do well are blue-eyed grass, gramma grass, and little bluestem. Fall is a great time to get started.

Choose Flowers
After the base grass is established, you then choose a mix of perennials, annuals, and ornamental grasses. A Web or library search will turn up hundreds of choices. Be sure to select plants that are suitable for our Midwestern climate. And it's always a good idea to cross-reference with the state invasive species list so you don't unwittingly choose a noxious plant.

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