Starting a Native Wildflower Meadow

Question: How do I start a wildflower meadow? What native plants can I use?

There is growing interest in the gardening community to increase the availability of native plants at our local nurseries. Wildflower meadows provide food sources, nesting sites and shelter for bees, moths, butterflies, and other insects as well as birds, bats, small animals and even some amphibians. They also serve to slow down and filter the run-off from stormwater, store carbon, recycle nutrients, build soil, and provide biodiversity for flora and fauna. A wildflower meadow planted with native wildflowers and grasses is a good way to attract pollinators and build an ecofriendly habitat in your landscape.

Here are some tips on starting a wildflower meadow:

  1. Site selection: choose a site with full sun (or at least six hours of sunlight) with good air circulation and good soil drainage. A site with few weeds is optimal. If choosing a partly shady site or wet area, make sure that your wildflower mix is suitable for these conditions.
  2. Site preparation: Wildflower meadows do not require particularly rich soil, so a soil test and amendments are not normally needed. Remove existing vegetation that will compete with wildflowers. Different strategies are used depending on the site conditions.
    • Recently cultivated areas may seem to be almost weed free, but often have a reserve bank of dormant seeds in the soil. Remove weeds manually as they germinate or plant a summer or fall cover crop to suppress weeds. Solarization, which involves covering the bare soil with plastic for a growing season, is also effect.
    • Lawn areas should be mowed very short and covered with cardboard, newsprint, black plastic, or mulch to kill the grass and weed seeds.
    • Disturbed sites like construction sites are the most challenging because the soil may have been removed, replaced, or otherwise altered. Get a soil test and follow the recommendations for optimal pH and nutrient levels. Once the site work is completed, observe water movement, and do a percolation test to measure soil drainage.
  3. Plant Selection: The least expensive way to start a meadow is to use a wildflower seed mix.
    • Be sure to pick a wildflower mix that is suitable to your plant hardiness zone and site; follow instructions on the seed packet.
    • For a smaller meadow (from 400 to 1,000 square feet), you may want to consider starting with wildflower plugs purchased from a nursery or supply house.
    • For a larger meadow, buying or building your own seed mix is a more practical and economical choice.
    • Plan for a diverse mix of species:
      • Plant at least 60% grasses (graminoides) and 40% wildflowers (forbs).
      • Plant both annuals (for first year showy flowers) and perennials (for longer term floral display).
      • Create a layered effect by choosing plants with different sizes, heights, forms, and bloom times.
      • Plant some species with surface roots and others with deep tap roots.
      • Include some legume species to fix (add) nitrogen to the soil.
      • Use a mix with some species that will grow and stabilize quickly in the first year, as well as those grown for the long term.
  4. Planting: Wildflower meadows are usually started in the spring or early summer but can also be started in the early fall. Avoid planting in mid- to late summer or be prepared to irrigate more often until the meadow is established.

There are many excellent recommendations for native plants for a wildflower meadow in Central Virginia, including the Piedmont Native Plants Guide and the Albemarle County Piedmont Natives Plant Database.

Maintenance
Patience is required when establishing a wildflower meadow. Weed and grass seeds already in the soil grow faster than perennial wildflowers. Here are some maintenance tips to aid with establishment and ongoing care:

First year: control the weeds by cutting them back to four to six inches high. The wildflowers will, for the most part, remain short and below this height.
Second year: cut plants back to about one foot high since they will be larger. Avoid pulling weeds, which will disturb wildflower seedlings.
Third year & ongoing: mow the meadow close to the ground in late fall or early spring and remove the mowing debris from the meadow afterwards.
Avoid use of herbicides: because they can drift and kill both weeds and wildflowers indiscriminately. If you do choose to use chemicals, consult the Home Grounds & Animals section of the Integrated Pest Management Guide from Virginia Cooperative Extensions.
Know how to identify your wildflowers: so that you can control the weeds that will continue to grow in your meadow.

By following these steps in caring for your wildflower meadow, you can minimize the ongoing maintenance required to keep your meadow looking its best. A wildflower meadow can be a beautiful addition to your landscape and a wonderful habitat for pollinators and other wildlife that you can enjoy for many years. Good luck and enjoy the results!

For some sample lists of recommended wildflowers and grasses for Central Virginia meadows, you may want to peruse these articles on meadow gardening and native plants. Lastly, here is a great example of plantings of a local Wildflower Meadow Project along a highway in Albemarle County.

References

“Meadow Gardening,” Cathy Caldwell, Piedmont Master Gardeners, The Garden Shed, Vol. 3, No. 6, Jun. 2017.

“Native Plants: An Elegant Solution,” Susan Higgins, Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, 29 May 2020.

“Piedmont Native Plants: A guide for landscapes and gardens,” Plant Piedmont Natives, Plant Virginia Natives Campaign, Virginia Native Plant Society, 2012.

“Piedmont Natives – Plant Database,” Albemarle County Government, Facilities & Environmental Services, Environmental Stewardship.

“Plant Virginia Natives,” Marketing Partnership, Piedmont Environmental Council.

“Planting for Pollinators: Establishing a Wildflower Meadow from Seed,” Cathy Neal, Extension Professor/Specialist, Nursery & Landscape Horticulture, University of New Hampshire Extension, Feb. 2019.

“Successful Wildflower Meadows,” Dr. Leonard P. Perry, Extension Professor, Department of Plant & Soil Science, University of Vermont Extension, Jan. 2005.