3 Steps to Make a Meadow
How to get started turning a lawn into lively wild flower meadow
Dear Avant Gardener, I recently moved into a home with over an acre of lawn sloping down to a rocky ledge overlooking the bay. I'd like to turn the bottom half of the lawn into a meadow, with meandering mowed paths like you suggest. I'm wondering how to get started — do I just let it grow wild? Seed with wildflowers? Plug in native plants? I want to avoid any trees that would block the view. — Tom, Southern Rhode Island
Yes. All of the above. Before I explain, I want to emphasize the importance of a destination — or two or three — for your mown paths. What will regularly draw you through the meadow? A workout area? A table for dinner parties? Adirondack chairs above the rocky ledge where you can sip cocktails overlooking the bay? Any of these will occupy a small fraction of your half-acre meadow without blocking the view.
It can be a matter of preference and resources whether to create a meadow or meadow garden (see “How” below). However, your half acre — 22,000 square feet — calls for a true meadow.
I spoke with Owen Wormser, author of Lawns into Meadows, about your project. He said the “low-risk” option is to seed directly into your grass, spending only a couple of hundred dollars. “Mow as short as possible, then put seed down in late fall so the rain and snow and harsh weather encourage the seed to make contact with the soil,” explained Wormser. A dethatching blade can help.
Alternatively, you or a landscaping firm can kill off the lawn and weed seeds with multiple rounds of rototilling two or three weeks apart before seeding. Your meadow will establish more quickly, because more seeds will germinate and the meadow plants won’t have to compete with turf grass. If you hire a firm, which will cost a couple of thousand dollars, choose one like Wormser’s Abound Design with extensive meadow experience. Amending the soil and other common horticulture practices can ruin your meadow.
Seeding is the economic planting option for your half acre. Material and labor are much less expensive compared to plugs. Select local ecotype seeds grown in a similar climate to yours, when possible, and avoiding “naturalized” – i.e., non-native – plants. Roundstone Seed offers a Northern Mixed Grass Meadow Mix, for example, containing six native grasses and 16 native wildflowers. If you rototill, make sure to include a cover crop – an annual like rye grass that will quickly cover the bare soil while your perennials slowly grow in. Mix your seed with several parts sand and strew by hand or with a seed spreader. Test your rate of distribution, aiming to cover the entire area twice.
3. Establish, then maintain
Any way you do it, a meadow takes at least three years to establish and looks scruffy in the meantime. Regularly mowing the paths and destinations will make clear your meadow is intentional.
In the first year, mow the meadow to four to six inches every six weeks or so from spring through fall to stop turf grass and annual weeds from going to seed. In the second year, mow in spring and then as necessary to prevent the turf and weeds from seeding.
Maintaining your meadow thereafter will consist of mowing in spring each year. If you don’t mow, your meadow will eventually turn into woods. Monitor the mix of plants. Cut or pull what you don’t want (e.g., invasive vines, too much of one species) and add plugs or seeds (from your own plants!) for more of what you do want.
And have fun with it!
— The Avant Gardener
Why, How, Wow!
Mowing home lawns accounts for 5 percent of the country’s air pollution. And takes homeowners up to 50 days a year.
A meadow is a large, sunny area of grasses and forbs that’s largely untended. How much chaos can you tolerate? What’s your personal capacity for tending a garden — or paying someone else to? A smaller, tended area with similar sun-loving grasses and forbs is a “meadow garden.”
When you turn your lawn into a meadow or meadow garden, it comes alive. You will marvel at the butterflies, bumblebees and seed-eating birds now on your property. American goldfinches (left) and field sparrows, for example, rely on seeds produced by grasses and flowering herbs as a primary source of food.
Thanks for reading Dear Avant Gardener! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.