Designing a Wildflower Meadow
The establishment of a successful wildflower meadow involves selecting and preparing your site properly, choosing the plants that are best suited to your soil conditions, careful planning of your method and time of installation and adherance to some well timed maintenance over the life of your wildflower meadow.
To start, first determine your soil type. (Please refer to Understanding Your Soil). Then choose the flowers and grasses that are most suited to your soil, moisture and sunlight conditions.
Site preparation is the single most important factor for success with wildflower seedings. The long-lived but slow-growing wildflowers and grasses are subject to intense competition from weeds in the first two years. Uncontrolled, weeds will compete for light and nutrients, slowing the growth of your flowers and grasses. Before planting be sure to follow the Site Preparation Procedures. We strongly recommend including native grasses in your meadow. Their dense root systems help squeeze out the weeds, making the meadow truly low maintenance. The grasses also support the wildflowers and provide shelter and seeds for birds. The grasses' warm autumn colors of gold, orange, and bronze extend the meadow's interest well into winter.
For small gardens, transplants are often preferable to seeds. The perennial wildflowers and grasses are slow to grow from seed and typically do not bloom until the third year or later. With care, transplants often bloom the first year, giving you a relatively "instant" wildflower garden. Transplants do best when installed in spring, this gives their root systems adequate time to establish in the soil. The plants should be spaced approximately 1 foot apart. Use the pot tags to mark each transplant at planting time so that you can easily identify them later on. Mulching with 3-4 inches of clean straw is a good idea and helps keep the weeds down. One or two weedings may be required the first growing season. Once the plants are established, very little further weeding should be necessary.
On areas over 1000 sq. ft. planting seeds is more economical than plants, but this takes longer to mature. Seeding a wildflower meadow in late spring or early summer typically produces good results as most wildflowers and native grasses are "warm season" plants that germinate best after soil temperatures have warmed up. In contrast, "cool season" lawn grasses do better when planted in fall or early spring when soil temperatures are cooler.
Fall seeding is also very successful, especially on dry soils and clay soils. Fall plantings are "dormant seedings." (The seeds will not germinate until next spring). Fall plantings on dry soils allow seeds to germinate in early spring and become established before the heat of summer. Clay soils can also benefit from fall plantings. Young seedlings can become established before the clay dries out in summer and restricts downward root growth. Careful soil preparation, weed control and timing are essential with fall plantings. The seeds should be planted in the late fall or early winter after a couple of hard frosts but before the ground is frozen.
Using fire as a management tool requires designing firebreaks into your landscape prior to seeding your wildflower meadow. The North American Prairie evolved under the influence of fire. Started by lightning or by Native North Americans, these fires kept out trees, recycled nutrients into the soil, and stimulated growth of the wildflowers and grasses. Controlled burning on a two to five year rotation remains the best method for managing prairie plantings. Properly conducted, a controlled burn is safe, and economical, and actually can be fun! A closely mowed grass strip 5 - 10 ft. wide can serve this purpose. Driveways, sidewalks, lawns, ponds, and streams also make excellent firebreaks. Do not plant your prairie next to conifers or other trees that are easily damaged by fire! Fire resistant native trees, such as bur oak, white oak, and shagbark hickory can be scattered widely within your prairie. Be sure to mow around less fire tolerant trees and remove all flammable material before burning.
Mowing is an effective substitute when fire is not an option. Mowing also helps control invading trees and shrubs. Mowing in mid-spring and removing the cut material will expose the soil to sun and favour the growth of the heat loving prairie plants.
Dividing your meadow into two or three "management units" encourages ecological diversity and landscape interest. Burn or mow one management unit in rotation each year. The undisturbed plots will help preserve overwintering butterfly chrysalises and provide cover and nesting habitat for birds. Each unit will respond differently to the management cycle. This creates changing patterns of wildflowers and prairie grasses within the same planting.
A wildflower meadow represents a long-term investment in your landscape. With attention to planning your wildflower meadow and a little well-timed maintenance, you can create a beautiful easy-to-maintain landscape that will return to delight you year after year. And because you need no fertilizers or pesticides to maintain your wildflower meadow, it's an investment that preserves the environment, while you save time and money!