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A Guide to Wildflower Meadow Establishment

Site Selection

Wildflower meadows require sunny, open sites with good air circulation. A minimum of one half day of full sun is necessary for most wildflowers to thrive and bloom. Any sunny, level site is suitable for a wildflower meadow. On hills, south-facing slopes receive more sun than level ground, are hotter and drier, and thus well-suited to prairie meadows. West-facing slopes are subject to dessication from prevailing westerly winds and the hot afternoon sun, and are also good sites for meadows. East-facing slopes are good candidates as well. Steep north-facing slopes are protected from the sun, stay cooler and moister, and are usually not well-suited to meadows. Wildflowers and native grasses will also do well when planted on the east, west and south sides of a building in full sun. The north side is too shady and is better suited to ferns and woodland wildflowers. Be careful of aggressive, weedy plants located adjacent to your future meadow. Some of these plants can creep into your meadow by means of underground rhizomes, while others have seeds that blow in on the wind. Problem neighbors include quackgrass, smooth bromegrass, johnsongrass, Canada goldenrod, tall goldenrod, Canada thistle, grey dogwood, sumac, buckthorn, Tatarian and Japanese honeysuckle, and multiflora rose, to name a few.

If there is an oldfield next to your site, expect some incursion by unwanted visitors, some of whom may attempt to make your prairie their home. To prevent this problem, maintain a mowed strip 5 - 10 feet wide between the meadow and the oldfield, and if possible, mow the adjacent fields every summer in late July, before the plants go to seed.

Beware of attempting to establish a wildflower meadow on sites that have a long history of weedy vegetation. Extended site preparation will be required to kill off existing weeds growing on the site and to also reduce the weed seeds that are harboured in the soil. This typically requires one to two full years to accomplish, using Roundup herbicide, cultivation, or a combination of the two. Please refer to the section on Site Preparation.

Tallgrass and Shortgrass Meadows

 The Eastern Tallgrass Prairie once covered the midcontinent from central Kansas east into Ontario, from Texas north to Manitoba. On the richer, moister soils grew many taller plants. On poorer, drier soils, shorter plants predominated. Today, we use combinations of these plants to create the landscape effects we desire. Short meadows are a good choice for around homes and buildings. Tall meadows are best when planted on larger acreages or in background situations. Include trails through your meadow so you can enjoy its different moods and intricacies up close.

You may want to plant some areas of both tall and short meadow to create two different landscape effects and habitat types. Place the tallgrass meadow to the back, and shortgrass meadow in the front to create a layered effect. Beware that if you plant a tallgrass meadow to the west or north of your shortgrass meadow, the seeds of the taller plants may be blown into the short prairie to the east and south. Eventually your shortgrass meadow may become a tallgrass meadow, as the invading seeds from the tall plants grow and mature.

For a prominent display of wildflowers, plant them with the shorter bunchgrasses, such as little bluestem, prairie dropseed, and side oats grama. These low-growing, clump-forming grasses allow the flowers to show off better than when planted with the taller prairie grasses. Large, robust flowers should be planted with the tall grasses.

Beware of planting only one type of flower in an area. Most flowers do not have sufficiently thick root systems to squeeze out weeds by themselves. They require help from other flowers and grasses. Tap-rooted flowers seem to grow better and produce more flowers when growing together with clump grasses. The complementary root systems of the wildflowers and grasses work together to squeeze out weeds. By occupying different parts of the soil, the plants co-exist with one another as a tight-knit plant community. The inclusion of a wide variety of native flowers and grasses is the secret to creating low-maintenance flower gardens that require little chemical inputs and less work than typical flower beds. By understanding plant behavior and working with nature, we can let the plants do most of the work for us.

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