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.