By: Sandy Feather ©2008
Penn State Extension
Q. I'm considering converting my lawn to a wildflower meadow. Can you suggest any wildflowers and provide some pointers on how to grow and maintain wildflowers?
A. You might want to check with your local zoning regulations to make sure you are permitted to convert your lawn to a meadow before you go to the labor and expense. Many communities have restrictions as to how tall grass is permitted to grow. There are ways to make meadows more acceptable in zoned communities, such as maintaining a mowed strip along the perimeter of your property, or mowing around “beds” of native wildflowers and grasses. By mowing specific areas, you keep a maintained look that might satisfy your community’s zoning laws. You may also want to talk to your neighbors to help them understand what you are doing.
Successful wildflower meadows are lower maintenance over the long term, but are not the no-maintenance idylls promised by meadow-in-a-can advertisements. These over-simplified “meadows” may look good the first year because they contain many annuals that will not return the following year.
A true wildflower meadow takes 2 -3 years to establish, with careful attention to soil preparation, weed control, and getting the right mix of native grasses and wildflowers (known as forbs in meadow parlance) for your site. A diversity of grasses and forbs increases its value for wildlife – from honeybees and butterflies to many songbirds and small mammals.
Start with a soil test so that you can amend soil pH. Most warm season grasses and native forbs do not require a high fertility level, and often resent it. It is best NOT to fertilize prior to planting because a higher fertility level favors the growth of weeds over warm season grasses. You must remove the existing lawn, because the existing cool season grasses will outcompete the native warm season grasses that form the base of a good wildflower meadow. You can get rid of the lawn in a number of ways: smothering the grass with black plastic or thick layers of newspaper covered with shredded leaves, grass clippings, or compost and left in place for a growing season; killing the lawn with a non-selective herbicide such as Round Up® (glyphosate) or one of the glyphosate knockoffs; or you can use a sod cutter to cut the existing lawn out. You may be able to hire a landscape contractor to do this, or you may be able rent a sod cutter from a tool rental outlet.
Echinacea - Coneflower
Till in pH amendments (from your soil test) and an inch or two of compost, well-aged manure, or mushroom compost to prepare a seedbed. The best practice is to start by getting a mix of native warm season grasses established. They are best started from seed that is planted from March through May. Use a broadcast spreader to apply the seed. Spread half the seed in one direction, then apply the remaining seed in the perpendicular direction to ensure even coverage. Roll or rake lightly to ensure good seed-to-soil contact. Mulch with a very thin layer of clean straw.
Warm season grasses are slow growing and need a season to become established before introducing the forbs. Although warm season grasses are drought tolerant once they become established, you will need to provide additional water through the first two growing seasons when we get into hot, dry weather. Monitor the grasses and hand pull or spot treat weeds that crop up before they get out of hand. Introduce the forbs in spring of the second year. They can be grown from seed or small plants known as plugs. Plugs are more expensive, but they speed up the establishment process considerably. Given the size of your area, you may wish to plant a meadow seed mix that contains grasses and perennial wildflowers the first year, and then add more grasses or wildflowers the following year once you see how well it fills in.
Once established, meadows should be monitored periodically to catch weedy species before they get out of control. In our area, meadows tend to become forests in the process of succession. Annual mowing in late fall should keep most of the woody invaders at bay. (Meadows are often cut back and rejuvenated by burning to keep woody plants from getting out of hand, that is not practical in highly developed neighborhoods).
When selecting plants for your wildflower meadow, soil moisture is the limiting factor for native meadow plants. Moist sites will support different species than dry ones, but you should be able to find suitable plants for most situations. A list of common meadow grasses and forbs follows, but there are many more, so use it as a starting point.
Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii)
Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum)
Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)
Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans)
Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis)
Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)
New England Aster (Aster novae-angliae)
Aromatic Aster (Aster oblongifolius)
Lance-leaved Coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata)
Plain’s Coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria)
Showy Tick-trefoil (Desmodium canadense)
Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatorium spp.)
False Sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides)
Purple Cornflower (Echinacea purpurea)
Blazing Star (Liatris spp.)
Wild Blue Lupine (Lupinus perennis)
Beebalm (Monarda didyma)
Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)
Brown-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida)
Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)
Goldenrod (Solidago spp.)