In the Meadow

by | Aug 1, 2009 | Landscapes

“Nature has caprices which art cannot imitate”
– Thomas Babington Macaulay

BECAUSE A MEADOW is merely grasses and wildflowers, it should be simple to replicate. Right? Ask homeowners who have tried replacing their lawn grass with wildflowers and have thrown up their hands after a couple of years. Their defeat doesn’t surprise landscape professionals skilled in meadow creation and maintenance who agree that while a setting can be made to look natural, establishing a meadow requires as much gardening expertise and patience as developing an outstanding perennial garden, for that is basically what it is.

Wildflower Center restoration ecologist Mark Simmons, Ph.D., who has created several native wildflower meadows, has this to say about homeowners’ misperceptions: “Most people fail because of the incorrect assumption that creating a meadow requires little effort. The belief is that the informal, natural look is easy to achieve and that because these are natives we don’t always have to do much work. The truth is that creating a meadow can require as much or more work than a traditional garden, in that these landscapes also need nurturing from the early stages through completion.”

“Meadow” is a picturesque word that’s traditionally defined as moist, low-lying land used as pasture or for raising hay. A meadow also may be an upland area covered with grasses that grow in tufts or an opening in the woods or grassy glade. There are several different kinds of meadows, and most occur naturally only in certain environments. For example, alpine meadows exist above the tree line where weathered rock has created sufficient soil for low-growing plants. A salt meadow occurs where tidal wetlands support a colony of grasses and forbs adapted to brackish water. In woodlands where rainfall is plentiful, a meadow is a transitory landscape, existing as an early stage of natural succession and sustainable only by fire, grazing or mowing. After a disturbance, grasses and wildflowers serve as nurse plants for tree and shrub seedlings but are soon shaded out as the trees grow.

With our water resources dwindling, wildflower meadows will continue to be attractive substitutes for the traditional lawn. In medieval times, before there were mechanical mowers, scythed meadows were used for recreation and known as “flowery meads.” For our less romantic era, spaces comprised mostly of grasses may be more practical. It’s hard to play touch football when you’re taking care not to squash the flowers. But how much lawn grass do we really need? Certainly the sunny, seldom-used portions of our lawns may appear to be good candidates for conversion to flowery meads. Since there are a number of ecosystems across the country and the approach to a meadow must adapt to the conditions of a particular ecosystem, the trick will be finding ways to make them work that are appropriate for your region and property.

Pennsylvania- and Connecticut-based Landscape Designer Larry Weaner shares as one example a project that began 10 years ago on 40 acres for Wilmer Thomas and his wife, Douglas, who have supported the Wildflower Center since Mrs. Thomas first visited the Center on a Garden Conservancy tour in 1997. Mrs. Thomas has been a valued member of the Center’s Advisory Council since 2004. The Thomases, who grew up in Mississippi, now live in a house they built in the Litchfield Hills of Connecticut. They hired Weaner to create a meadow to flank the long driveway through a section of poor soil on the 400-acre property. There are formal gardens around the house, but it is the meadow that captures the Thomases’ hearts and dominates their view from inside.

“This just seemed the most natural thing for this beautiful land,” Mrs. Thomas explains. “We knew that the property was very special before we began building the house. Although the town was founded in the 1740s, we are only the third recorded owners here. The area where we have created a meadow is crisscrossed with stone walls, which indicate that it had, at some point, been cleared for farming. We love the seasonal aspect of living here. We never know what treasures will be in bloom. Walking through its paths is inspirational!”

Weaner, who had been recommended by their landscape architect, told them to expect little in the way of color for the first few years. He began by spraying with glyphosate twice to control the seeds of weedy plants and invasive species such as Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense), multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora), Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) and Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis).

Then he immediately planted eight different seed mixes with approximately 25 different annuals, perennials and grasses in each, “choreographing the colors, sizes and shapes for different areas.” Weaner included temporary cover crops of annual grasses and wildflowers to protect the seedlings from aggressive weeds and recommended that the entire area be mown four times the first year. He continues to mow paths through the meadow to allow continued maintenance and close-up views of the plantings.

He describes the succession of plants that commenced with such fast-growing, short-lived species as dotted mint (Monarda punctata), black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) and lanceleaf tickseed (Coreopsis lanceolata), which were gradually replaced by slower-growing, longer-lived species such as blue false indigo (Baptisia australis), mountain-mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum), prairie indian plantain (Arnoglossum plantagineum), green head coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata) and gayfeather (Liatris spicata) in wet areas, as well as rough blazingstar (Liatris aspera) in dry spots. He took care to save naturally occurring native shrubs, including broadleaf meadowsweet (Spiraea alba var. latifolia) and steeplebush (Spiraea tomentosa) and continued to monitor and eliminate weeds.

In the nine years since planting, such native bunch grasses as Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) have become firmly established. While the property is now a tapestry of color throughout the summer and fall, he thinks that it’s most beautiful in winter when orange-red seed heads peek out of the snow cover against a background of evergreen white pines and the trunks of white birches. At long last, the project is virtually self-sustaining with a single mowing to about 4 inches high in April of each year.

Weaner began his career as a naturalist designer in 1982 and describes his own learning curve as one of “trial and error.” He says, “There are many obstacles to overcome when you attempt to get a wildflower meadow established. The two keys to success are selecting the right plants for the conditions of the site and developing a plan for controlling invasive species.” There have been some happy surprises. “In the last two years, desirable plants have begun expanding into areas where they were never planted,” notes Weaner. “Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), a beautiful perennial that we had seeded eight years ago, suddenly appeared for the first time a couple of years back.”

Although it’s impossible to apply the same advice to preparing a meadow site in Texas, one Texas designer takes the same approach to removing invasives from a property. Judy Walther, who is a partner in Environmental Survey Consulting in Austin, eradicates existing invasives with applications of concentrated glyphosate because she views it as the most economical solution. “We water the site to let weed seeds germinate, wait two weeks, spray and then repeat the process. Most of the time two applications will suffice, but in some instances we’ve had to spray as many as four times.” She emphasizes that the spraying is only done by a licensed herbicide applicator. For an herbicide-free approach, depending upon the area and type of weed, Simmons advocates overseeding, prescribed fire, solarization and removing the plant material or topsoil by hand. The next step is to choose seed mixes (annuals, perennials and grasses) suitable for the site, which requires knowledge of the property’s soil, sun and shade conditions, as well as access to the advice of an individual or other resource with extensive horticultural experience.

Unlike Connecticut, Texas has two growing seasons. Walther believes that her company’s best results occur when planting and seeding is done in two stages: early spring for fall-blooming plants and fall for spring-bloomers. Typically she will recommend another round of seeding to fill in any bare spots after the second or third year. And instead of the one mowing per year that is sufficient in the Northeast, Walther recommends “haircuts” in the dead of winter and again in the hottest part of the summer, which is not surprising since ordinary perennial gardens require pruning twice a year in Texas. And while Weaner forbids watering in the humid Northeast, Walther says that it may be necessary in Texas if rains do not come at the appropriate time.

What designers agree upon completely is that finding the right mix of plants requires expertise. For any perennial garden to succeed, the community of plants must be ecologically compatible. Certainly the plants that grow naturally in one’s area are likely candidates for inclusion, but there are many wild species that are still unknown to the gardening public and difficult to find in the nursery trade. “Perennial bunch grasses and sedges are the underpinning of a true Texas meadow,” notes Pat McNeal, who grows Texas prairie plants for the wholesale market.

“A ‘bluebonnet meadow’ is not an accurate term,” says McNeal. “You won’t find annual wildflowers growing where there is thick grass. Annuals and short-lived perennials are wonderful in disturbed areas such as roadsides and overgrazed pastures for an annual burst of color, but they won’t thrive where there is competition from native grasses.”

McNeal advises that homeowners attempting to replicate one on a small piece of property start with container-grown perennials. “Choose only those species that are adapted to compete with the bunch grasses native to the soils and climate of your area.” He also suggests building a Central Texas meadow against a backdrop of trees. “Construct layers down from the large oaks and cedars with understory trees such as Mexican plums and redbuds, and plant shrubs such as aromatic sumac at the edge of the woods. The grassland begins out from under the drip line of the canopy. In nature, shrubs and perennials tend to be patchy. I recommend various size grasses in clusters with many 2 to 3-foot grasses, small grasses and sedges. You are trying to build a self-sufficient, sustainable colony of plants.”

“One’s expectations must be realistic,” adds Walther. “Making a meadow is a wonderful project for a person who is excited about process. Nature is a moving target, and you will be juggling multiple factors such as climate and the appearance of new species at once.”

It’s important to remember that a meadow is different from a traditional manicured lawn, which is usually composed of a single grass species. The meadow is biologically diverse and continually changing through every season and from year to year. How to address a meadow site depends upon soil composition.

Lady Bird Johnson cheerfully described wildflowers as “capricious.” Certainly they have defied artists’ ambitions to “paint with wildflowers.” A notable attempt took place about 25 years ago when a well-known Dallas painter tried creating colorful abstract designs adjoining the runways at DFW Airport. The patterns of color worked reasonably well the first year, and then the plants reseeded themselves into a cheerful hodgepodge and finally were choked out by grasses and weeds. John Thomas, owner of Wildseed Farms in Fredericksburg, says people often call him wanting to replicate the Texas flag in wildflowers. “Why,” he replies, “do you think we call them ‘wild’ flowers?”

Nan Booth Simpson is a freelance writer and landscape architect who lives in Wimberley, Texas.