Many Maryland gardeners would like to try planting a native meadow. It’s a great alternative to lawn care, and better for water quality, the climate, native plants, and pollinators.
People who set out on their first meadow making project face a set of common challenges:
- They underestimate how much labor is involved in creating and maintaining a meadow, so they start with a project that is much too large for them.
- They are not familiar with the plants native to a Maryland meadow, which ones to choose, what they look like throughout their life cycles, and there are no good resources for them to turn to for this information.
- They purchase seeds from distant seed vendors because locally native seeds are not commercially available, which decreases chances of project success and makes their project less beneficial to the environment.
- They lack the expertise needed to successfully order and use native seeds. It’s not like working with other garden seeds!
- When it comes time to remove weeds, they can’t tell the native plants from the weeds. You can’t maintain a meadow if you don’t know what the good guys look like!
The conventional approach to meadow projects requires an investment of hundreds or even thousands of dollars in seeds, supplies, and equipment, not to mention weeks of labor. Yet, in our experience, most Marylanders who undertake a meadow project experience disappointment and failure in the end.
In this blog, we offer an alternative for beginning meadow-makers, a modular meadow approach. Using this approach, you will create a small, pilot meadow using plugs purchased from local native plant producers. During the first year, you will plant your new meadow, then study the plants, becoming familiar with their needs and their appearance throughout the seasons. In the second year, you will have one successful project under your belt. You can decide whether to expand the meadow or not, and you will be making that decision based upon a wealth of knowledge and understanding of the resources required vs. what you have to devote.
Start with Plugs
- To order your plugs you must know the size of your pilot meadow module. We recommend beginning with something under 100 square feet. Better a small success than a large failure!
- Expect to pay somewhere around $1 per plug, depending on plug size and species, and to plant one plug per square foot. This high density provides for quick canopy closure by the native plants, thus reducing weed competition.
- Fall is the best time to order plugs because it gives the nursery enough notice to make sure you get the species you need, but order for spring delivery.
- Order from a nursery that specializes in locally native plants. Look for a nursery that can tell you which ecoregion you are in, and which ecoregion their plants were sourced from. Employees at such a nursery will be able to advise you as to the species appropriate for a meadow given your location and site conditions, including deer pressure. Also, see the University of Maryland Extension’s meadow making publication for species recommendations. See the Maryland Native Plant Society webpage for a list of nurseries.
- The desire to order flowers will be strong, however stable meadows are composed of 50 to 70% grasses. Order twice as many grass plugs as flower plugs. Ordering a higher proportion of flowers will increase maintenance and make the meadow less valuable for some species of insects and ground-dwelling birds.
- The desire to order short plants also will be strong, but it will mean much more maintenance for you over the long haul. Low maintenance meadows are composed of the most competitive species for the site’s growing conditions, which are generally the tallest meadow species that will grow on the site. You could trim your meadow back during the growing season to keep it artificially short, but that’s more work for you, and bad for the creatures that live in your meadow – especially bad for caterpillars and turtles who can’t outrun mower blades.
|Many plant lists are available online, but they recommend grasses that are more appropriate for the Prairie states than for here. Here are the top 4 native grasses for a mesic meadow in Maryland:|
|Virginia wildrye||Elymus virginicus|
|Beaked panicgrass||Panicum anceps|
|Little bluestem||Schizachyrium scoparium|
Prepare the Plot
- Remove the turf and all the topsoil underneath it. This eliminates weeds and the weed seeds that would compete with your meadow. Native meadow plants are generally happier growing on the poor soil beneath your topsoil anyhow.
- Install a barrier to keep lawn grasses out of your meadow. A mulched path will not work. This is true of all lawn grasses, but bermudagrass is especially problematic.
Planting the Plugs
- Plant your plugs. Put labels next to the plugs. If you have a very small meadow, put a label by every plug. If you have hundreds of plugs, make sure to label several of each kind because frost heave, squirrels, and crows will remove many of the labels.
- Water the plugs as needed over the next few weeks, until they are established, but do not fertilize.
- Mulch is not appropriate for dry sunny meadows because it introduces nutrients and organic matter that actually benefit weeds more than your meadow plants. If you use mulch, do so as sparingly as possible. An alternative is a light coat of clean straw. Mulch is more appropriate for shade meadows with native plants there are adapted to leaf litter, twigs, and branches. Caution: Imported mulch and/or straw often contains weed seeds.
Maintenance – The First Growing Season
- When mowing the adjacent lawn, keep mowers oriented so that they side-cast clippings away from the meadow. If you don’t personally mow the lawn, communicate this to the person who does.
- Keep a close eye on your meadow during the first year. Study the weed plants and the native plants and their appearances throughout the seasons. Learn to distinguish the native plants from the weed species that will try to invade the meadow. This knowledge will help you this year and pay off manyfold if you expand your meadow a little each year.
- Get to know the seeds of your meadow plants. You’ve removed the weed-seed bank, and now your native seeds are building up a new soil-seed-bank. In future years, when there is a disturbance in your meadow, the seeds that germinate will be those of desirable meadow species instead of lawn weeds.
- For the end of your meadow’s first growing season, you should probably allow the seeds produced by your meadow plants to stay in your meadow, to create a soil seed bank that improves your chances of meadow success. Next fall, you could harvest seeds from your first meadow module to sow a new meadow module.
Two things to know about the appearance of meadows:
- Your young meadow won’t flower much the first year.
- You may have seen advertisements for wildflower meadows that use seed mixes composed of ornamental garden flowers, not actual native wildflowers. These very showy, ornamental flower meadows are a completely different thing, and a very different aesthetic. They last only one season, sometimes two, and then they have to be replanted. Your native meadow, which will have a different type of beauty, properly maintained, will last many years, possibly even decades.
If you have questions, please post them below. Look for year 2 instructions in a future blog post. If you try a modular meadow, please share your story with us!
By Sara Tangren, Ph. D., Sr. Agent Associate, Sustainable Horticulture and Native Plants, University of Maryland Extension, Home & Garden Information Center (HGIC), and Christa Carignan, Horticulturist and Coordinator, Digital Horticulture Education, HGIC.
This seems to be gaining popularity ‘everywhere’, even in Europe. I remember seeing it in Oklahoma, both in old traditional gardens, but also in modern landscapes. I thought it looked so much better there where the natives are so much ‘fluffier’ and colorful. It has always been popular here, but it is a very different style that is really not all that appealing. The plants are much lower, and the color if very brief. I do not like to add more colorful or fluffier material because it becomes combustible through summer.
Very practical article, thank you!
Our site would be perfect for a meadow, but because of serious grass pollen allergies, this approach won’t work for my family. Any thoughts on replacing lawn with natives that boost biodiversity and yet still avoiding the aesthetics of monoculture?
Take a look at the HGIC webpage on lawn alternatives. https://extension.umd.edu/resources/yard-garden/lawns/lawn-alternatives You could try some of the other groundcovers or pollinator plants listed on this page. Also, take a look at HGIC’s recommended Maryland native plants. https://extension.umd.edu/resources/yard-garden/native-plants/native-plants Even if you convert just a small portion of your lawn to a mixture of perennial groundcovers, flowering plants, and shrubs, it will help boost biodiversity.
Thanks! Do you know of an article to learn about native plants that are good for both bees and backyard chickens? I was thinking of clover but not sure if it’s native or invasive.
I am also terribly allergic to grass pollen but only lawn grasses, pasture grasses, and rye. The main native grasses to have in a meadow in our area are broomsedge, little bluestem, beaked panicgrass, purpletop and Virginia wildrye. Their pollen doesn’t bother me at all.
This is wonderful step-by-step advice. Before beginning the conversion process, should homeowners determine whether there are local or HOA restrictions against having a meadow rather than a lawn (and perhaps neighbors who don’t appreciate the benefits of meadows)? I believe in Montgomery County lawns may not be more than 12″, at least in the front yard.
Yes, it is a good idea to check your local regulations and/or HOA rules first. If there are restrictions on what you can do in your front lawn, start with the more private areas of your property.
My backyard in northwest Baltimore City is in meadow, a shade meadow. As the deer numbers increase, their diet diversifies. This winter, deer are even eating the rhododendron they can reach, and the Christmas fern. I no longer recommend native plants to my neighbors, as this seems like setting out dinner plates for the deer.
The most resistant native meadow plants are the grasses, mints, and goldenrods. However, where deer pressure is heavy, native meadows need to be protected like other landscape plants. For those of us invested in conservation, it’s important to keep in mind that the deer are also eating the native plants in natural areas, and this contributes to the loss of plant species.
Dr. Tangren, Can you recommend a resource for methods of deer exclusion that are appropriate to suburban environments? My small native meadow and other native plantings are being decimated by deer, but neighbors are understandably resistant to 5-8′ fencing in neighborhood common areas. I am struggling to find a solution that will exclude deer, be transparent to sunshine, and comport with the aesthetic expectations of folks in the suburbs.
Thank you for this detailed tutorial on meadow planting!
Stephanie – The most deer-resistant plants you can include in a meadow would be grasses, mints, and goldenrods. Dr. Tangren created this list of deer-resistant native plants: https://extension.umd.edu/resource/deer-resistant-native-plants
You might also explore the use of commercial deer repellents:
Additional tips for deer management can be found in this publication:
Hello. I own a small hobby farm in the northeast and I am planning to establish a perennial meadow along one of the field margins (~1600 sqft). I’ve decided to establish with plug plants rather than seed. I’ve developed the design/species selection. My plan is to prepare the soil bed this year and then plant next spring. Lots of web info available for me to follow to establish the bed, so feel I will have that in hand. I plan to grow my own plugs rather than purchase them – I have the space and motivation. But I am currently struggling to find info on the best time to start my plugs to ensure healthy transplants next spring. Can you, or anybody else on this site, advise and explain? My plan is to grow the plugs outdoors in deep 5×2″ plug trays with irrigation. I will use divisions of grasses to start grass plugs and seed to start the perennials. I really would welcome advice and detailed references to help increase my probability of success!
Thanks and happy growing
It sounds like you are geared up for a great meadow! The best print references for native plant propagation were written by William Cullina. He has a book on native grasses and another on wildflowers. They also happen to be excellent reading. Free information can be found at the Native Plant Network’s propagation tab: https://npn.rngr.net/propagation
Will you be wild collecting your own seeds this growing season? The easiest thing to do is to sow the seeds in the plug trays and overwinter them outdoors. This way the seeds get any cold stratification they will need. You need to read a reference to see if there are additional sowing requirements. You have to protect the trays from winter winds, extended desiccation, and animals. A hoop house or cold frames could be useful. Watch for germination in the spring. Some species germinate early and some won’t germinate until it gets hot out. Although native plants in natural areas and meadows do not benefit from fertilizer, native plants in pots do. Light fertilizer will speed along the growth of your plugs. Your challenge is to get them into the meadow before spring weather ends, and no one knows in advance when that will be. You mentioned starting plants by division, which is great, but beware that tiny plants in plug trays often fail to overwinter. They get colder in plug trays than in pots or in the ground, and much more likely to dry out to the point of no return as well.
If you are ordering your native seeds, ask the vendor if they have already provided the cold stratification.
I am interested in how David Ferguson made progress with propagation of wildflowers and grasses and the meadow project. I am looking to do something similar in Carroll County. I too want to seed natives and I have hoop houses to utilize. I’m also wondering where to source seed.
The link to the Maryland Native Plant Society nursery page is https://mdflora.org/nurseries.html
Thanks for sharing this blog post! It helps a lot.