Is There a Meadow in Your Future?

Rain drenched Chasmanthium latifolium (Northern sea oats). Nodding seed heads just beginning to turn to ivory pinks then golden by autumn.

A storm rumbled through today and we got some much-needed rain after a blistering week in the 90’s. The temperature dropped 15 degrees and a hint of autumn was left in the air. Leaves are already starting to mass on the paths between my meadow plantings and the coneflowers, bee balm and milkweed are nearly spent, going to seed.

Rudbeckia laciniata (Cutleaf coneflower) giving up the last nectar.

Happily, this does not signal the beginning of the end of my garden’s flowering season. No, this is a meadow garden and some of the best meadow plants like Helenium autumnale (Sneezeweed), Panicum virgatum (Switchgrass) Symphyotrichum oblongifolium (Fragrant aster), Solidago rugosa (Roughleaf goldenrod), Helianthus angustifolius (Swamp sunflower) and Vernonia noveboracensis(Ironweed) have just blossomed or will add their stunning displays between now and frost.

Symphyotrichum oblongifolium, one of my favorite asters for its fragrance and masses of powder blue blossoms from late August through October.

A hint of fall in the air reminds me that now is a great time to plan for and prepare a site for planting a meadow in the spring. You can even be ready to seed a meadow in a few months if you start preparing your site now.

Meadows are sun-loving plant communities and require about six hours of sun a day. A successful meadow needs to have all unwanted vegetation removed or killed off before planting. Care should be taken to disturb the soil as little as possible. Tilling, for example, will expose dormant weed seeds which will germinate when exposed to the sun. Next spring will greet you with a weed garden rather than a potential meadow garden.

To get you started I recommend three basic organic site preparation methods, smother, spray and strip. You may find one works better than another depending on your site and sometimes combining several methods may speed up completely clearing the vegetation.

Smothering is the cheapest and least soil disturbing method.

Smother, or sheet mulching, uses organic material such as newspaper, cardboard, burlap or any material that will decompose. Cut the vegetation back, hand removing woody plants or vines. Spread 4-6 layers of newspaper or one layer of cardboard and cover with two inches of mulch. To hurry the kill-off process, spray with an organic herbicide before layering the material. Depending on vegetation being eliminated, this method can take anywhere from three months to a year before planting is possible. If there is not complete kill-off in the spring, you can cut slits in the material and plant plugs or larger container plants. Be sure to fold the corners of the cut material back to the plant and cover with mulch. If seeding, there must be complete die off. Remove any smother material to expose the soil for seeding.

The benefits of using natural herbicides are low soil disturbance and the ability to cover large areas.

Spray with organic herbicides such as Burnout or Scythe. Natural herbicides work by burning off the waxy cuticle that protects the cells in the plant leaves, dehydrating the plant and destroying its ability to photosynthesize. The herbicide does not go into the root system or the soil, as is the case with synthetic herbicides. It will likely take several applications, possibly up to six, to kill the vegetation. This depends on the plants being sprayed. Sprays are best in hot weather and on lush vegetation. To get a flush of growth, fertilize ten days before spraying with an organic source of nitrogen such as blood meal or alfalfa meal. The plant will put all its energy into top growth, leaving a weakened root system. Spraying is the best approach to use on slopes because a matrix of roots keeps the site from eroding. A helpful tip, use a colorant in the spray so coverage is easy to see. There are special dyes to use with herbicides.

Stripping vegetation is the quickest site preparation method and allows for easy sculpting of the meadow shape.

Stripping sod with a sod cutter is a fast way to prepare a smaller meadow site. The sod can be composted and quickly becomes rich soil. Wait before planting because some rootlets may have survived. Spray with a natural herbicide on any re-growth until all plant material is dead. If you have a site clear of vegetation, you could seed this fall from mid-October through November. Nothing will germinate until spring so a nurse crop is used to prevent erosion and protect the seed from weather. A nurse crop is an annual crop used in seeded meadow establishment. Winter wheat (Triticum aestivum) is a good crop when seeding in the fall. Annual oats (Avena sativa) is good for a spring-seeded meadow.

Meadow garden two years after being prepared using the strip method. Site was planted using plug plants.

When seeding your meadow, patience is vitally important. Weeds will still be a factor, so the seeded meadow must be kept cut back to around six inches the first year. This keeps the weeds from going to seed and allows the meadow flowers and grasses to become established until they can out-compete the weeds. Depending on weed pressure, this mowing maintenance may continue into the second year, keeping the meadow cut in the second year to around fifteen inches. In the third year, mow the meadow only once in the spring.

This will get you started for planting a meadow in the spring. I can’t emphasize enough how important good site preparation is to the success of your project. As with establishing any garden, the first steps done thoroughly, will create long-lasting success for your meadow.
To get a complete guide on meadow establishment:

Meadows are all about native plants and wildlife gardens.

Don’t Miss! Catherine Zimmerman’s Book and Companion DVD:

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  1. says

    I planted a meadow and prepared the site but I still have weedier plants that I grapple with. I seeded my meadow and continue to add the seeds of native plants I want in the meadow. The soil is clay and difficult so I continue to amend the soil every spring. It continues to grow and evolve. The meadow is my favorite garden
    Donna recently posted..Leaving the Nest

    • Catherine Zimmerman says

      Beware too rich soils! Native meadow and prairie plants thrive in poor soils with low pH. Weeds thrive in rich soils and are most happy when given nutrients. I would stop amending the soil in your meadow site to create conditions that favor the meadow plants. Instead, choose plants that work in clay soils and are native to your area. Plants with tap roots like Compass plant, Purple prairie clover and False blue indigo break up clay soil. Grasses like Big bluestem, Indiangrass and Canada wild rye are also great clay busters. You are right about the wonderful, evolving nature of a meadow garden!

  2. Sue Sweeney says

    the pictures alone make me want a meadow.

    thank you for the information on how to get started without the use harmful pesticides

  3. says

    Catherine, It’s amazing what a dramatic change you were able to make in just three years. I’ve been toying with the idea of starting a meadow in my garden but the ‘ideal’ site is not in full sun. It’s actually a long stripe of grass about 6′ wide that has full sun – dense shade in different areas. I’m still deciding on the types of plants to use and your suggestion of plugs is probably the route I’ll eventually take. I was intrigued to read about your methods for removing existing vegetation, you’ve offered an option for everyone.
    Debbie Roberts recently posted..Playgrounds can Reconnect Kids and Nature

    • says

      I’m wondering if you can create a sunnier site by “limbing up” the trees casting the shade? I live in an established, urban community with mature Tulip Poplars and Oaks. Talk about shade! I have selectively trimmed limbs and I now have enough sun for a meadow habitat. There are meadow plants that will work in partial sun and I have them planted in the shadier areas.

      About vegetation removal; we need to really think about how we manage this. Too many folks just pick up a bottle of pesticide to handle the problem. It might take more time to do things with an organic approach but it is time well spent. We can’t keep bombarding the earth with chemicals and expect a positive outcome. More effort needs to be applied to solving these problems without toxins. As Mike Nadeau, one of the meadow experts who collaborated on my book says, “There is no right way to do a wrong thing.”

      I think bad cultural practices are cumulative but so are good cultural practices. Let’s strive to increase the good practices!
      Catherine Zimmerman recently posted..WE ARE GROWING!


  1. […] I am getting eager to start the meadow process. I am getting a better idea of what plants I want to use. First we have to put up the fence. Hopefully we can do that in the next month or so when the weather cools down. I am also pondering how I want to kill the grass. My first inclination is to take a blow torch to it but my husband is concerned I will start a forest fire. I could also use an organic herbicide. Anyway…still considering my options. Check out a great blog post on meadows if you’re considering one too. […]

  2. […] I am getting eager to start the meadow process. I am getting a better idea of what plants I want to use. First we have to put up the fence. Hopefully we can do that in the next month or so when the weather cools down. I am also pondering how I want to kill the grass. My first inclination is to take a blow torch to it but my husband is concerned I will start a forest fire. I could also use an organic herbicide. Anyway…still considering my options. Check out a great blog post on meadows if you’re considering one too. […]

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