Text by Molly Marquand for the September/October 2016 issue of Horticulture
Picture it now: A wash of golden sunflowers; an endless plain of blushing Joe pye; a tapestry of grasses alive with the songs and scents of birds and blossom. Most of us have admired the exuberance of a well-done native meadow, but achieving that balance of wildness and beauty— a garden of plants gone perfectly rogue—is difficult to do. The key to the native meadow’s beauty is no mystery, however: It takes discipline. It takes a commitment to digging out the weeds, over and over, and a tickling intuition about which plants suit which spot. Once past the curve of establishment, though, the best native-plant meadows require little maintenance. What’s more, their nectar, fruits, leaves and seeds provide food and shelter for every stripe and shade of wildlife, adding texture and life to a landscape that, when complete, will simply brim with it.
To get started, make sure your expectations meet your site. If you long for the xeric look of a sun-bleached plain, replete with drought-tolerant grasses and tough little succulents, make sure your soil isn’t boggy—and vice versa. If it’s a patch of spring-blooming native iris that you desire, find a place with adequately moist soils.
Map out a suitable area to begin planting, detailing wet spots, dry spots, areas that get more shade and where the earth bakes in the afternoon sun. Also, keep it small to start. A quarter of an acre may seem a reasonable size at first, but that space will demand a lot—especially in the first year of establishment. Consider how much time you have to dedicate to your meadow over the long haul, too: some plants require more care and upkeep than relatively burly, reliable spreaders like mountain mint (Pycnanthemum spp.) or New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae). The dazzling palette of cultivated purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea cvs.) may paint a wonderful tapestry, but they’ll need to be re-planted every few years: Their offspring revert back to the species’ original color, pink.
Site preparation is undoubtedly the most time-consuming, sweat-producing part of the meadow restoration process. Depending on your timeline and goals, a reasonable way to turn old field into meadow is simply to change its mowing regime. Mowing once (and only once!) a year after native composites like goldenrod, aster and fleabane have had time to set seed will quickly lay a foundation of workhorse plants. If your meadow-to-be is currently lawn, or a patch of stubborn weeds, the first task is liberating the soil so natives can take hold. This can be done with something as rudimentary as a black tarp covering the space during the hottest weeks of summer. The tarp will trap heat, solarizing the soil and killing all plants and seeds beneath it. A rototiller will work too, but bear in mind rototilling will disrupt the soil’s strata and mycorrhizal communities, both of which are of tremendous benefit to native plant establishment. Sometimes, the simplest option is best—using a shovel to dig out difficult weeds and break up lawn while planting tough foundation natives in open spots will start the process of meadow restoration handily.
Foundation Grasses and Perennials
Once the weeds are wrangled and sod demolished, it’s time to have fun and get planting. Refer to your original chart of wet spots, dry spots, shade and sun to determine which foundation species should get planted where. For drier sites, many of the native grasses seed well and anchor soil, laying a green bedrock on which to get your meadow started. Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) is native from Maine to Nevada and forms diaphanous seed heads on four-foot stalks. Although easy to grow in a wide range of soils, switchgrass will lose its fountain-like, columnar shape in shady spots. Another widespread North American native, indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans), is an extremely drought-tolerant goliath, growing to eight feet tall in favorable conditions. Sporting blue green leaves, indiangrass has beautiful pale yellow foliage in the fall and large, erect infloresences in summer. For wet meadows, turn to the stalwart group of plants known as the sedges (Carex spp.). There’s a sedge for every kind of wet spot, from the continually swamped to the ephemeral puddle. Foxtail (Carex alopecoidea) and tussock sedge (C. stricta) are a good place to start looking if soils are moist year-round. Bluejoint grass (Calamagrostiscanadensis) is native to everywhere except the very hottest parts of North America and grows best in moist to wet soils of all types. Its tawny flower heads and pale blue foliage provide excellent habitat for all manner of insects and birds, especially in the winter.
Other natives can be spot-planted into the meadow to add diversity, texture and color at different times of the year. Golden alexander (Ziziaaurea) is an excellent addition to sites with moist, rich soils. It blooms early, opening lacy yellow umbels that are irresistible to swallowtail butterflies, which emerge and migrate at the same time the low-growing plant’s flowers open. For drier meadows, rattlesnake master (Eryngiumyuccifolium) breaks up fields of green with silvery foliage and spiky, spherical, gray inflorescences. For sites somewhere in the middle, the dragon tongues (Penstemon spp.) offer a glut of options and a variety of colors, from the sky-blue prairie-dwelling large-flowered penstemon (P. grandiflorus) to the soft pinks of smooth penstemon (P. digitalis) to the fiery red of western species like golden beard penstemon (P. barbatus). Almost all species of this genus are reliable self-seeders and irresistible to pollinators. Most natives don’t require much, if any, soil amendment, but if planting in spring or summer, or if you don’t have enough plant material to cover all available bare ground, it’s a good idea to spread a layer of untreated, partially rotted wood mulch to tamp down erosion and lock in moisture. Lawn soils can be particularly depauperate and a layer of mulch will help invigorate the all-important microbiome community.
Although it’s true a well-planned meadow virtually takes care of itself, it will require a little upkeep now and then. Top of the list of things to consider is invasive species control, especially in the first handful of years. Invasive species love nothing better than disturbed sites in flux: the nascent meadow is the invasive’s Shangri-la. If caught early, most invasives can be dug out by the roots. Annual species like Japanese stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum) and garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) need to be pulled immediately in their first few months of arrival to prevent an untenable population explosion; it pays to be vigilant. Planting tenacious natives that can hold their own against aggressive exotics will ensure unwelcomed invasives keep out. In no time at all your meadow will fill in, coloring bare ground with blossom, enlivening old lawn with new texture and bringing flurries of birds, bees and butterflies to your home, no matter the season.
Image credit: Helaine Weide / Moment / Getty Images