My Little Wildflower Meadow

Meadows have a special hold on our imaginations. There is a simplicity to open fields of wildflowers that sparks a kind of primal emotion in many of us. When we moved to this property in December 2015, I imagined the possibility of growing a meadow. I quickly learned it's not just a matter of sprinkling some seeds around in the field grass and magically the flowers and grasses would co-mingle, creating a tapestry of sweeping colors dancing in the breeze. It is more complex than that. For one thing, wildflower seeds will not germinate in the dense root systems of established grass. I will share here the basics with how we managed to create at least a small portion dedicated to wildflowers.


Gilia captiata or globe gilia as seen this month at Chickadee Gardens in our meadow.

 The trouble with creating a meadow is that you have to start with a blank slate. Ideally, the soil should be completely free of weeds and weed seeds, grasses included. They create too much competition for the flowers. The ways to do this are to till the land regularly (for a long time, sometimes a few years) until you exhaust the weed seed bank in the soil, to smother the grass with a thick layer of organic material to kill what's underneath (sheet mulching), put down plastic (solarize) in full sun to kill the grass, to remove the sod manually with a sod remover, or finally to apply herbicide. We chose to remove the sod, till the area and hope for the best. The problem with tilling is it creates a disturbance that brings up more weed seeds to the surface. One ultimate goal is to have more native wildflower or desirable seeds in your soil than the weeds so that when a disturbance is created in the future, you'll likely get more of the good stuff.

We tilled the area and sowed wildflower seeds purchased at American Meadows, a California outfit with a large selection of area-appropriate seed mixes. Then nothing happened. For a long time. I sowed them in summer and also planted a few ornamental grasses. Weeds came and I hand-weeded. I hand-weeded for two years, which is not the ideal way to do it. A better way is to sow the seeds, let it all grow then mow it. Yes, mow it all. The annual weeds will die, just make sure you get them before they go to seed. The perennials will keep putting energy into their roots. The next year the desirable wildflowers will have stronger root systems and the general gist is that they will out-compete the weeds. Mine eventually did that, but I am stubborn and just hand-weeded to see what would happen. Now in its third year, I give you my little wildflower meadow:


 Here's a before shot in February of 2016.


 During the great rearrange later that spring and summer. The plants in pots are the grasses and amsonias I was placing before planting. The sod had been, for the most part, removed using a sod cutter. Facilities Manager had to go back in and clean up the missed areas by hand. By the way, wildflowers do not like rich soil, so don't bother with compost. They also, for the most part, prefer full sun. There are mixes out there for shady areas if that's all you have to work with.


Here it is this spring. I think it has been a success, and now I know how to do it and expand it if we ever wish to.


Gilia tricolor or bird's eye. All of these wildflowers from the seed mix purchased are native to the West Coast.


While not part of the seed mix, Papaver orientale 'Pizzicato' adds to the overall meadow feel.


Five spot, otherwise known as Nemophila maculata.


More Gilia tricolor in a darker shade.


California poppies or Eschscholzia californica and our native camas, Camassia quamash, which is actually a bulb. I planted about 100 around this area.


The poppies are seen here with just barely blooming Amsonia hubrichtii, also known as blue star. I planted several of these along the edge of the area.


A tapestry of many of these.


Beyond the meadow area, I have planted more meadow-like perennials and grasses that will self-sow and fill in the whole area eventually. I have Verbena hastata, Stipa tenuissima, Achillea millefolium, Penstemon digitalis, Echinacea purpurea, asters, Agastache foeniculum and others. These were started as potted plants or seedlings, so not sown directly as seeds. In time the hope is that it will all intermingle and go through natural cycles of blooming, setting seed and moving about the general area. Many of the seeds I sowed are really annuals, that is, they grow, bloom, set set seed and die within a year. But they set a lot of seed as you can see. The annuals will likely fizzle out while the perennials like echinacea take over but that's ok because at least the annuals are filling space for now that weeds would otherwise occupy. It's all a matter of ecological succession.


The light coming through is really wonderful.


Even though it's small, it's mighty in my mind.


The pollinators love it, by the way.


Now that the flowering is nearly done, it will probably look pretty scraggly for a while, but there are many grasses in there that will get some light and fill in once these decline. I will leave them be so that they can indeed go to seed and do it all again next year.


I use this photo for scale. The meadow in the lower right sweeps around to the left which is where I hope many of these annual wildflower seeds will eventually migrate to. I think some of the perennial seeds from other areas will also eventually fill in the meadow area and co-mingle. We like that.

A few advantages of a meadow vs. lawn for example are that it attracts a wide range of pollinators which in turn attract more birds, there is less mowing (only once a year), no chemicals or fertilizers are necessary, they absorb runoff, and it needs little to no maintenance once it's up and going. Also if you grow food crops, the presence of bees is most welcome to help with pollination.

While we probably could have done it an easier way, we couldn't be happier with the results for our third year in. The whole process was not particularly difficult, just slow. I think the key is that you really do want to get rid of as much grass and weeds before you begin to be successful. The mowing over technique I imagine really works, we would have to employ it should we decide to expand the meadow for in that method you use time to your advantage with much less work.

Here are a few resources if you are considering growing a meadow in your garden:

This site from Wildflower Farm has very useful information and step-by-step instructions.

The Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center that I just visited last month is a wealth of information about individual plants in their database. They also have very useful information about the work they do.

A fantastic book by Larry Weaner and Thromas Christopher, Garden Revolution, is a marvelous resource. I highly recommend it even if you don't plan on growing a meadow. It's just flat out excellent and offers practical explanations about how to use succession to your advantage which is in my humble opinion the future of gardening.

Well, that's what's happening at Chickadee Gardens this week. Thank you so much for reading and commenting, we do so love hearing feedback from you all and also what you are up to in your own gardens. Happy gardening one and all!


Comments

  1. That purple Gilia tricolor is wonderful, I've never seen that before. Well done! I sowed California poppies and Nigella in my front beds to fill in around perennials the first year and they still come back every year to fill in every open space, that was five years ago at least.

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    1. It's really a surprise, Alison - the purple Gilia. I don't know if that's what happens - a variation in color - but it's sweet. I love annual wildflowers that reseed like that, glad to hear yours come back faithfully.

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  2. Sooo lovely. Again, I'm so jealous of how much room you have. NOT jealous of all the time you have to put into creating all this beauty, so there's that! ; )

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    1. Oh, the time involved. Let's not talk about that ;)

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  3. That's a gorgeous tapestry of flowers. It will be fun to watch how the flowers move around over time. Lots of work but such a pretty result.

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    1. It will be fun to watch how they move around, I agree. Thank you for your kind words, Shirley!

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  4. I'd say your off to a glorious start! I love meadows and, in the best of all possible worlds, my back slope would be one big meadow. Unfortunately, the upper area is currently covered in ivy and honeysuckle and I haven't made much progress in pulling it out. As I've been told, I need a couple of sherpas to get that area cleared. And then terraces to keep new plants in place. And more rain...

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    1. Ah, thank you Kris! It sounds like you have some thugs on your hands, ivy and honeysuckle. Sherpas sound about right! Those things are hard to get rid of, indeed.

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  5. Oh, how lovely. Great article!

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  6. I think your meadow is splendid. I am not familiar with some of the West Coast wildflowers. They are enchanting to me. Well done I say.

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    1. We have some lovely wildflowers, to be sure. I love seeing wildflowers of other parts of the world, they are so enchanting.

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  7. Lovely. I envy you the soil and sun.

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    1. Thank you, Gail! :) Soil and sun...we have lots of that.

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  8. Yet another win for Chickadee Gardens ! I was very interested to read about your process-a few year ago I scattered several ounces of California Poppy in the vacant lot at the end of my block , thinking that because it is native it would come up. It didn't and your experience probably explains why.

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    1. Aw, thank you KS! I have done that same thing, sowing thousands of Cal. poppies in my lifetime with zero luck and thought I was cursed.

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  9. Love it. Alltogether your wild flower meadow is a great success!

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    1. Thank you Janneke, so kind of you! :)

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  10. Anonymous7:43 PM PDT

    Your meadow is fabulous...definitely a labor of love. No one should get the idea that the "meadow", as we know it in gardening circles, is a naturally occurring phenomenon. rickii

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