Steps to Establishing Meadows
1. Site Selection. Choose a site with full sun, or at least six hours a day. It should have good air movement. This helps keep diseases down, and the movement in wind will make plants sturdier, stems stronger. The site should have few weeds. An already cultivated site such as a field or garden plot is ideal. A lawn can work too. The hardest is an overgrown garden bed, or old field full of aggressive weeds and grasses. A site next to such an area is also difficult, due to weed seeds blowing in. A site next to a formal landscape, or in such a neighborhood, may also be a hard sell. In such formal areas, meadows may need to be out of public sight, or with an informal transition area between.
You may smother vegetation with black plastic for a whole growing season. You may also smother with thick layers of leaves, grass clippings, or newspapers covered with these. Another method is to plant a summer buckwheat crop, cut and tilled in before going to seed, followed by fall planting of winter wheat, cut and tilled in late winter. You may need to repeat this a second season. Or you may repeat deep soil tillage every three weeks for a full growing season. If a lawn with no weeds, remove the sod using a sod-cutter that can be rented from equipment rental firms. Many use a systemic herbicide, but avoid those that are residual (last in the soil).
5. Post-planting management. In the first two years, seeds of annual and biennial weeds still in the soil or blown in will grow faster than your perennial wildflowers. Don’t allow such weeds the first year to get above one foot tall before cutting back to four to six inches high. The wildflowers will, for the most part, remain short and below this height. The second year, cut back to about one foot high since plants will be larger. A weed or string trimmer works well for this. Don’t pull weeds, as this may also disturb wildflower seedlings. Don’t use herbicides as these may drift, killing large patches of both weeds and wildflowers!
Many gardeners want to start a wildflower meadow, being inspired by those along the roads. A properly constructed meadow is aesthetic, yet results in less maintenance than lawns and gardens. Less maintenance also means less inputs such as from water and fertilizers, which in turn means less expense and less potential for pollution. Better water infiltration means less erosion. A good meadow increases biodiversity, resulting in fewer pest and disease crises, and more attraction to wildlife.
Another consideration under species selection, whether you buy a mix or make your own mixture, is whether you want a short term (1 to 5 years) or longer term meadow. In the former you may have more annuals for color up front, being out competed with weeds after a few years. A long term meadow may have mainly perennials which may take several years to begin a good display, but will last and out compete many weeds.
Water the bed very gently; use a nozzle to soften the flow, and to avoid washing away the seeds. Continue to water each day or two, depending on weather conditions, to keep soil moist until seedlings appear. After that, water once a week if no rain falls. Sandy soils will need more watering and clay or sticky soils less. Check the soil with your finger to see if it is moist or dry, then water as needed.
Where to plant:
Start small in a location that gets sunshine most of the day; check the condition of the soil to see if it needs improving.
Selecting wildflower seeds or plants:
Buy wildflower seeds from nurseries, botanic gardens, or seed order catalogues as seed mixes or individual varieties; beware of non-native exotics sometimes included in mixes. Many perennials may be purchased in nursery containers, or planted as seed.
Sowing the seed:
Mix the seed with sand and scatter over the bed. Lightly rake once east to west and once north to south; cover with a thin layer of soil or sand/compost; then tamp down gently with rake or hands. Cover the seed bed with the reserved rocks and gravel.
Protecting from critters:
Birds, especially quail, rabbits, squirrels and other seed-eating desert animals may need to be kept out of the seed bed; build a simple wire enclosure of stakes and chicken wire with bird-netting on top secured by clothes-pins. The cage needs to be high enough to permit growth and allow the gardener to reach inside. The netting can be removed when flowers begin to bloom.
If the seedlings come up in thick patches they may need to be thinned. Overcrowding results in stunted growth. Larger wildflowers can easily be thinned to a few inches apart. Tackle very thick groups of seedlings by pinching out tufts here and there.
Dealing with weeds:
Eliminate weeds before planting wildflower seeds; water plot and allow weed seeds to germinate, then pull; learn to recognize weeds by pressing a sample onto an index card. Avoid pre-emergent herbicides as these kill ALL seeds.
Seed Man’s Planting Tip: Take your time and be thorough. After your hard work is over, you’ll get years of low-maintenance enjoyment from your planting!
Be sure to use the right amount of seed as recommended for your mix or individual species – more seed does not always mean more blooms! While it may be very tempting to throw extra seed down, but this usually brings the opposite effect you were looking for. Seeds sown too densely can create competition among seedlings, causing them to become leggy or strangle one another out.
2. Preparation Is The Key To Success
If you have lots of deer or rabbits in your area, it is important to protect young seedlings from becoming a snack. Even deer-resistant wildflowers need time to grow to establish their critter-repellent properties, which may include fragrance, oils, or bitter sap. See our guide: 5 Strategies For Preventing Deer Damage
Define Your Property Or Plant A Living Fence: Properties big and small can benefit from a pretty planting that marks where one yard ends and another begins. Just like a fence, a wildflower planting can create a beautiful boundary.
Seed Man’s Planting Tip: A sprinkler attached to a timer is an easy and affordable way to water your planting without disrupting your regular schedule.