Meadow Gardening

Meadow Gardening

  • By Cathy Caldwell
  • /
  • June 2017 - Vol. 3 No.6
  • /
  • 2 Comments

Meadow gardens are a trendy thing in the garden world.  You may have seen some beautiful meadows in garden books and magazines or even right here in central Virginia.  Perhaps you’ve wandered the one that winds along the perimeter of IX Art Park or the large meadow at Preddy Creek Park.

Probably the most prominent meadow garden in town is the one at Martha Jefferson Hospital, and if you haven’t seen it yet, get thee to the MJH!  It’s pretty and it’s inspiring.  On top of that, meadows have been touted as a way to reduce the environmental and economic costs of turf grass lawns. Have you — like me — been inspired to make your own meadow garden?  Before you start ripping out your turf, let’s take a closer look.

Meadow garden at Martha Jefferson Hospital with monarda, coneflowers and path rush. Photo: Catherine Caldwell

Plenty of folks have made the mistake of thinking that they can create a beautiful meadow in their yard by simply sowing some seeds from a “meadow in a can” or by letting a cleared area “go natural” – – and then putting the mower into permanent storage.  I’m sorry to say that a meadow garden is NOT the way to get out of mowing.  As I’ve observed in my own vicinity, the result is likely to be a tangled web of tree seedlings and invasives.  If that’s not meadow gardening, then what is?

What is meadow gardening?

For starters, I really can’t emphasize this too much:  meadow gardening is still GARDENING!  As one thoughtful landscaper has wisely pointed out:  “Tossing some wildflower seed onto the lawn and retiring the mower is not likely to produce something attractive or lasting.” Nick Novick, “Getting Real With Meadows,”  www.ecolandscaping.org (July 16, 2010).  And so now I’m going to follow Novick’s advice and get real about meadows here in central Virginia.

A “natural” meadow in the West.
Photo: Catherine Caldwell

When we think of the term “meadow” most of us think of a grassland with wild flowers.  The native grasslands of the midwestern United States, now mostly gone, are composed of native, tall grasses, and are generally referred to as “prairies.”   These meadows were a natural result of the climate, geology and soils of that region, as well as disturbances caused by large herds of animals.

But we gardeners in the eastern half of the country must recognize that a meadow is rarely a “natural” thing in our area.  This fact was brought home to me recently when I began studying a book titled The American Meadow Garden:  Creating a Natural Alternative to the Traditional Lawn by John Greenlee.  This book is filled with photographs of gorgeous meadow gardens, but I couldn’t help noticing that most of them were located in California or other parts of the West or in the prairie states, where the gardeners do not have to fight nature to keep their meadows going.  Fight nature?  That’s right.  Nature has other plans for the eastern half of our country.

Midwestern prairies are considered a “climax” plant community because the community of grassland plants which occur there is the last stage of succession in that region. Succession is an ecological term for the gradual “change in the composition and structure of a plant community over time.”   Va. Dept. of Conservation and Recreation, Natural Heritage, www.dcr.virginia.gov/natural-heritage/natural-communities/, (“The Natural Communities of Virginia: Classification of Ecological Community Groups,” Version 3.0, April, 2017).

Basically this succession business means that your yard really wants to be a forest.  Our open fields are in an early successional stage which will gradually revert to mostly woody plants and trees over time.  But that doesn’t mean that if you really want to create a meadow garden, you can’t.  It just means that you’ll have to mow at least once a year to cut down the tree seedlings.  And you’ll have to do some weeding.  Sorry!

If the maintenance element doesn’t discourage you, then read on, but keep in mind that, as with any gardening, you’ll have to invest a goodly amount of time in site preparation and in learning about the plants that will be suited to your meadow garden.

Grasses are essential to a meadow

Meadow Garden at MJH
Photo: Catherine Caldwell

Any meadow or prairie is composed of a high percentage of grasses.  Yes, grasses.  I know, I know — you were thinking along the lines of a field of black-eyed Susans and other colorful flowers.  I was, too.  But then I learned that those flowers need the companionship of grasses.  And there are a number of reasons for this — not the least of which is that those tall flowers you and I are dreaming about may need the support of grasses nearby to keep them upright!  

So the backbone of your meadow garden must be grasses, and to be more specific, grasses and sedges, which are small, grasslike plants of the genus carex.  Sedges make good groundcovers in a meadow garden. Both grasses and sedges are part of the Graminoid family. In order to choose the right ones for your location, you’ll need to learn a little bit about our region’s native graminoids.   

Consider Using LOCAL Native Plants

You’ll be well-advised to consider using LOCAL native plants in your meadow.  And there are indeed native plants that are adapted to meadows right here in our area.  According to Devin Floyd, a plant community survey specialist, native landscape architect, and executive director of The Center for Urban Habitats (CUH), the State of Virginia at one time had a few native prairies in the Piedmont region.  Yes, prairies.  Indeed, Virginia had a significant number of open spaces, including great expanses of prairie, savanna, and woodland habitat.   And these prairies were dominated by little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium, pictured at left), big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), broomsedge (Adropogon virginicus), gray goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis), plus hoary mountainmint (Pycnanthemum incanum), small’s ragwort (Packera anonyma), common dewberry (Rubus flagellaris), upland ironweed (Vernonia glauca), and toothed white-topped aster (Sericocarpus asteroides).  CUH employs these species, and about 150 others, in its ecosystem-modeled native meadows.  Using these local natives appeals to me, and if it appeals to you, too, read on! One starting point is at the Center for Urban Habitats, based in Charlottesville. CenterforUrbanHabitats.comwww.facebook.com/CenterForUrbanHabitats.

Floyd has an ecological approach to choosing plants for a given site; he attempts to find a nearby native plant community and uses it as a model.  How?  He conducts surveys of native plants in our area, and then determines the “native trajectory” of a garden site through an analysis of its characteristics.  You don’t really have to do your own survey to identify local natives for your meadow garden, though close observation of your property is bound to be helpful.  You and I can take advantage of others’ surveys, which form the basis for several excellent sources for local natives.

I recommend that you start with the wonderful new handbook, Piedmont Native Plants: A Guide for Landscapes and Gardens (Piedmont Natives Team, Repp Glaettli, ed.). You can obtain your own copy of this book from the Thomas Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District, www.tjswcd.org.  This book has useful pictures, cultural recommendations, and other helpful information, including a map and descriptions of the multiple ecoregions in central Virginia.  Each of these ecoregions has a particular geology, hydrology, soil, and, as a result, characteristic plant communities.

For more detailed, ecologically sound advice on native plant communities,  you’ll want to go to the Department of Conservation and Recreation’s website I mentioned before, dcr.virginia.gov/natural-heritage/PLANT COMMUNITIES.  This DCR website also has a nifty “native plant finder” you might want to try.   You simply fill in a few drop-down menu items — such as our region (Piedmont), the type of plants you wish to find (grasses and sedges, for example)  — and voila! — it produces a list of native plants in that category for our region.  Then you can press on the name of the plant and up comes more information, plus photos (some good, some not so good) of that plant. You can try it out at  www.dcr.virginia.gov/NativePlantFinder (on the main menu, click on Natural Heritage, then click on Native Plants, and then in the Native Plants menu, click on Native Plant Finder).  Have fun!

Andropogon virginicus (broomsedge)
Photo: USDA Plant Database

A good primer for our native grasses and sedges is the  Piedmont Native Plants handbook, which recommends the following grasses for our area:

  • Schizachyrinum scoparium (little bluestem)
  • Elymis hystrix (bottlebrush grass)
  • Muhlenbergia capillaris (muhly grass)
  • Andropogon virginicus (broomsedge)
  • Avenella flexuosa (wavy hair grass)
  • Danthonia spicata (poverty oatgrass)

 

 

 

The Center for Urban Habitats recommends the following graminoid ‘starter list’ for a dry meadow in the Central Virginia Piedmont:

Eragrostis spectabilis (purple lovegrass)
Photo: Katja Schulz

  • Andropogon gyrans (Elliot’s bluestem)
  • Eragrostis spectabilis (purple lovegrass)
  • Schizachyrium scoparium (little bluestem)
  • Andropogon ternarius (splitbeard bluestem)
  • Elymus virginicus (Virginia wild rye)
  • Dichanthelium linearifolium (slim-leaf panic grass)
  • Panicum philadelphicum (Philadelphia panic grass)
  • Sphenopholis obtusata (prairie wedgegrass)
  • Aristida purpurascens (purple three-awned grass)
  • Sporobolus vaginiflorus (poverty dropseed)
  • Carex glaucodea (blue sedge)
  • Carex albicans (white-tinged sedge)
  • Juncus tenuis (path rush)

 

 

Packera anonyma (Small’s ragwort)
Photo: Pieter Pelser

 

And now for the flowers!  The recommended natives that you will wish to consider include:

  • Goldenrods — Solidago nemoralis (gray goldenrod), Solidago rugosa (wrinkle leaf goldenrod), Solidago speciosa (showy goldenrod) and Solidago juncea (early goldenrod)
  • Rudbeckia hirta (black-eyed Susan)
  • Asclepias tuberosa (butterfly weed)
  • Milkweeds — Asclepias syriaca, Asclepias viridiflora, and Apocynum cannabinum 
  • Monarda fistulosa (wild bergamot)
  • Mountain mints — including Pyncanthemum incanum (hoary mountain mint), and Pyncanthemum tenuifolium (narrow leaf mountain mint)
  • Liatris pilosa (blazing star, grassleaf gayfeather)
  • Eragrostis spectabilis (purple lovegrass)
  • Heliopsis helianthoides (ox eye sunflower)

    Pyncnanthemum incanum (hoary mountain mint) and swallowtail butterfly Photo: Tom Potterfield

  • Achillea borealis (common yarrow)
  • Chrysopsis mariana (Maryland golden aster)
  • Penstemon canescens (eastern graybeardtongue)
  • Coreopsis verticillata (threadleaf coreopsis)
  • Salvia lyrata (lyre-leaved sage)
  • Cirsium pumilum (pasture thistle)
  • Sabatia angularis (rose-pink)
  • Packera anonyma (Small’s ragwort)
  • Chamaecrista nictitans (wild sensitive plant)

Designing a Meadow Garden

Basic plant composition:  Most meadow-makers recommend that meadow gardens consist of 60% grasses, and about 40% forbs — those flowering plants we love.  The precise percentage is not critical, however.  You’ll want perennial grasses, but when it comes to flowers, include some annuals, especially those that will likely self-seed for you, like Rudbeckia hirta (black-eyed Susan).

You’ll have to give some consideration to your neighbors, especially if you live in a city or suburb.  A front yard meadow will be more acceptable if it is surrounded by a manicured section of turf grass or well-tended garden; a meadow that reaches all the way to the street is much more likely to provoke controversy.  You’ll also want to determine if there are ordinances or rules of a homeowners association that apply to your property.

Meadow garden on an urban lot
Design and Photo: Wolf | Josey Landscape Architects

As with any garden, you’ll need to consider the specifics of your site — its orientation to the sun, slope, soil, moisture and the like.  Before you embark on a meadow garden project, I recommend that you tour one or more of our local meadow gardens and take a good look at the plants and their arrangement.  And even though a meadow garden seems ultra-casual, you’ll still need to heed that basic gardening principle  —  that drifts of the same plant are usually the most effective and eye-pleasing arrangement.  That’s how nature does it, too.

Monarda fistulosa at MJH meadow garden
Photo: Catherine Caldwell

 

I learned a lot by studying the meadow garden at Martha Jefferson Hospital.  And that’s where I saw for the first time the delicate lavender flowers of Monarda fistulosa, a plant that immediately became a centerpiece of my own dream meadow garden.

 

 

Many of us who are looking to install a meadow garden are dealing with a hot, dry site, and for that situation, you’ll find the following plants to be especially well-suited:

  • Solidago nemoralis (gray goldenrod)
  • Andropogon gyrans (Elliot’s bluestem)
  • Coreopsis auriculata (larkspur coreopsis)
  • Asclepias tuberosa (butterfly milkweed)
  • Dichanthelium linearifolium (slim-leaf panic grass)
  • Oenothera fruticosa (sundrops)
  • Packera anonyma (Small’s ragwort)
  • Eragrostis spectabilis (purple lovegrass)

–The Center for Urban Habitats, centerforurbanhabitats.com.  This grouping is also ideal for a “hell strip” between street and sidewalk or a driveway margin.  The boldness of the yellows is softened by the purple clouds hovering about the purple lovegrass.

Urban meadow garden on a narrow strip in Belmont, Charlottesville. Photo: Devin Floyd

Then there’s the matter of finding sources for the plants you’ve chosen and deciding whether you’ll use seeds, plugs (small thumb-size plants), regular nursery plants or some combination thereof.  You’ll find a list of sources for native meadow plants at the end of this article.

 

Basic preparation for a meadow

You’ll have the most success if you start with soil that is weed-free, or as close to that as you can  achieve.   Some commercial landscapers use multiple herbicide treatments as the first step in site preparation.  If that’s not appealing to you, you can use other methods — such as digging up turf or smothering or solarizing.  The latter two — smothering and solarizing — involve placing large sheets of plastic over the site for several months starting in late spring and leaving them in place for the remainder of the growing season.  As an alternative to black plastic, you can smother your turf grass with 6 inches of wood chips, 4-by-8 pieces of plywood, or a layer of newspapers 20 sheets thick with wood chips on top.

In my own yard, I used solarization after removing and cutting to the ground a patch of invasives.  I followed directions from the University of California Cooperative Extension — using thick sheets of clear plastic, which allow the sun to “cook” those pesky weeds and weed seeds.  One thing I learned from my experience is the importance of getting that plastic nice and tight over the soil surface;  in areas where it was loose, some unwanted plants survived.  “Soil Solarization for Gardens and Landscapes,” Univ. of California Cooperative Extension, ucanr.edu/sites/Solarization

Another method you can try is selective weeding — a method that is viable if you have a small site and especially if you have a patch with some natives already thriving.

What if you have a very large area you’d like to turn into a meadow?  According to the Penn State Extension Service, the best way to prepare a large site is to till the soil and plant a cover crop, such as buckwheat, which will shade out the existing vegetation.  After you cut down the mature cover crop, till again during hot, dry weather to dry out the roots of any remaining weeds and grasses.

Once you have your site cleared, you need to be ready to plant it; otherwise, you’re just inviting weeds and invasives.  If you prepare your site in the fall,  but you’re planning to install your plants in the spring, you need to be able to cover it — with mulch or plastic, for example — until spring.

Maintenance of a meadow garden

True confessions time:  the first few years of maintenance involve some heavy lifting, as I discovered during my research.  That’s because you’ve got to stop weeds before they take over.   This means that you’ll have to mow frequently during the first year before plants have a chance to go to flower and set seed. That stops unwanted plants from dropping new seeds for the following year.  Unfortunately, all that mowing will prevent your beloved wildflowers from blooming, too.  But they’ll be growing and spreading and you’ll see the benefit  — and the blooms — later. Penn.State Extension.psu.edu/natural-resources/wildlife/landscaping-for-wildlife/pa-wildlife-5

Over the long term, the most important maintenance is mowing everything down to stubble once a year at the end of winter (late February through early March).  Some meadow-makers use burning instead of mowing.  www.dgif.virginia.gov/grow-a-native-grass-meadow-1.pdf.  For more specifics on maintenance, I refer you to the Center For Urban Habitat’s Keys to a Successful Meadow of Natives, below.

Have you created a meadow garden?  If so, I’d love to hear from you — and we could all learn from your experiences.  Also, if you decide to embark on this project, please let me know how it goes. And send photos, please!

Meadow Garden at Ix Art Park, 2014


Center for Urban Habitat’s Keys to a Successful Meadow of Natives

Planning

  • Use a plant community approach (let go of focusing on individual species). Model the list of species that form that community after a natural community that is well-documented in the wild.
  • Stay within your ecoregion, on the same geology, and at the same elevation when looking to a natural community to mimic.
  • Keep the list of species local – that is, locally adapted natives.
  • Site preparation is the next critical step. Remove all non-native exotic weeds. This takes time, and that’s okay. We encourage the use of natural methods like solarization, repeated tilling and spot weeding.

Installation and Year One

  • Once the site is prepared, we recommend a 2-pronged approach to planting that involves colonies of plugs in a meadow of predominantly seeded ground.
  • Plan for enormous overlapping colonies of plants, with outlying small patches of the same species; this generates a natural appearance and helps the community reach balance quickly.
  • Seed and plant in early spring. Plant the plugs no more than 6 inches apart. Mow the meadow every 4-5 weeks to 4 inches to allow for light to reach seeds that have not germinated yet.
  • Overseed heavily again in fall with other species and perhaps an additional colony or two of plugs. Stop the periodic mowing in September.
  • Spot weed for targeted non-native species throughout the year (these should be identified at the onset as potential problem plants).

Year Two:

  • Overseed and plant to fill gaps in early spring; spot weed; mow every 4-5 weeks (mow even the plugs!!). This second year will see significant infill as the meadow begins to take hold.
  • Mow throughout the season and continue spot weeding and edge maintenance.
  • Assess in September-October, and over-seed with additional species if needed. Remember that this is a plant community. This type of open meadow-like community can have more than 150 species. This richness is critical for success.

Year Three and Thereafter

  • In Year 3, do final plug infilling in any gaps.
  • Mow in late February.
  •  No mowing for the growing season in Year 3.
  • Continue spot weeding and edge maintenance after meadow is fully established.

Plant and Seed Sources


SOURCES:  (books and website links)

The American Meadow Garden:  Creating a Natural Alternative to the Traditional Lawn,” (Greenlee, 2009)

Urban and Suburban Meadows: Bringing Meadowscaping to Big and Small Spaces (Catherine Zimmerman, 2010)

Bringing Nature Home,  (Doug Tallemy, 2009)

Piedmont Native Plants: A Guide for Landscapes and Gardens (Piedmont Natives Team, Repp Glaettli, ed.), available from Thomas Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District, 706 Forest St # G, Charlottesville, VA. http://www.tjswcd.org

Center for Urban Habitats, centerforurbanhabitats.comwww.facebook.com/CenterForUrbanHabitats

“Grow a Native Grass Meadow,”  virginia.gov/grow-a-native-grass-meadow-pdf

www.dcr.virginia.gov/natural-heritage/natural-communities,  (“The Natural Communities of Virginia: Classification of Ecological Community Groups,” Va. Dept. of Conservation and Recreation, Natural Heritage, Version 3.0, April, 2017).

“Meadows and Prairies: Wildlife-Friendly Alternatives to Lawn,”  Penn State Extension, extension.psu.edu/natural-resources/wildlife/landscaping-for-wildlife/pa-wildlife-5.

vaplantatlas.org (Digital Atlas of the Flora of Virginia)

“Ecosystem Modeling in Landscape Design,” (Devin Floyd, 2016)

www.albemarle.org/nativeplants.

“Soil Solarization for Gardens and Landscapes,” Univ. of California Cooperative Extension,  ucanr.edu/sites/Solarization/files/114635.pdf

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