Creating a meadow garden | Garden Notes

Barbara Faurot
Posted 3/11/22

“Leave room in your garden for fairies to dance.” – Celtic proverb

A meadow garden of native grasses and wildflowers is a beautiful and ecologically beneficial way to add a …

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Creating a meadow garden | Garden Notes

Posted

“Leave room in your garden for fairies to dance.” – Celtic proverb

A meadow garden of native grasses and wildflowers is a beautiful and ecologically beneficial way to add a little magic to your home landscape. 

Turning over just some of our monoculture lawns or other cultivated areas to meadowscapes can offer year-round forage and habitat for songbirds, pollinators, and beneficial insects. A native meadowscape will also improve soil, save water, and sequester carbon.

A wildflower strip alongside a food garden can help increase crop yields and eliminate the need for pesticides and herbicides. Even a small space like a parking strip or street border can add biodiversity and habitat benefits to your landscape.

Eric Lee-Mäder, author and co-director of pollinator conservation efforts at the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, shares that the ecological benefits of “meadowcraft” are compelling. 

“Even with 100 square feet in the middle of an urbanized or cultivated area, you can begin to see rather uncommon and interesting small creatures,” Lee-Mäder says. “You can attract the gray hairstreak and checkered skipper butterflies fairly reliably” and grow the diversity of beneficial species in your home garden.

For inspiration, you might visit the 1.4-acre Kah Tai Prairie near the Port Townsend Golf Course to observe more than 90 species of meadow plants. Mid-late April should be a good time to see native wildflowers in bloom, including blue camas and chocolate lily. The Olympic Peninsula chapter of the Washington Native Plant Society manages the site, a rare remnant of our native prairies.

Meadow plant options for our area include meadowfoam, western columbine, self heal, Douglas aster, pearly everlasting, lacy phaecelia, tufted hairgrass, and baby blue eyes. The key to success is investing in site preparation, whether you’re starting a meadow from scratch or overseeding an existing grassy area. 

“We have 100 years of introduced plant species like tenacious velvet grass and tall fescue grass. They are effective at quickly crowding out a space,” Lee-Mäder explains. “It’s important to understand the weeds or other species you want to eradicate, and invest in good site prep to give your meadow the best chance to succeed.” 

To prepare your site, clear the area of weeds and unwanted plants. The planting site should have at least six hours of sun. Choose forbs (flowering perennials) with a variety of bloom times and colors to offer pollen, nectar, seed, and shelter throughout the season.

Owen Wormser, author of “Lawns into Meadows,” recommends starting with at least two native grasses to add visual character and soften the look when flowers are finished blooming. Wildflowers may get all the attention, but grasses provide stability as well as food and habitat for beneficial insects and butterfly larvae. 

You can start with seeds, small plant plugs, corms, bulbs, or rhizomes. 

You may want to choose plants with similar height, so that taller ones won’t shade out the others. 

If you want a neater look, add a focal point — a small tree, boulder, stump, or large pot — or use a border of mulch, gravel, or stone. Plant in masses or “drifts” for foraging efficiency. 

Plugs can be placed close enough together so that mature plants will crowd out weeds. 

Plant now, in early spring, or in the fall. Use a coarse organic mulch between plants to help suppress weeds, shade the soil, and retain moisture.

You can opt to plant seeds into an established lawn with a drill seeder (to score a hole into the lawn), or just scatter the seed over the lawn. 

Lee-Mäder shares the challenges of this approach.

“Some wildflowers can be introduced into an existing matrix of non-native grasses, but it’s harder, and results are slower” than starting from scratch. You can mow the grassy area short, rake out the thatch, and overseed repeatedly for several years to get the meadow established. 

As with any new plantings, supplemental irrigation is beneficial until the meadow is established. 

Going forward, it’s important not to over-water; the plants should just dry out so the roots will grow deeper in search of water. 

Once plants are finished blooming, leave everything in place to provide essential resources for overwintering wildlife. 

In nature, grazing, fire, or drought helps maintain meadows. In home landscapes, you can simply mow once a year in early spring, leaving the organic matter in place to feed the soil and build your seed bank to regenerate the meadow. 

Deer may browse even deer-resistant young plants, so you may need to protect them until the root system is well developed. Once the meadow is established, grazing should not be a big issue, as plants outgrow the ability of the deer to over-graze. 

The initial investment of time and materials can result in a beautiful meadow garden and better economics: less water used, less mowing, and no need for fertilizers or herbicides. As Lee-Mäder’s family observes, “There’s a lot of stress and hardship in the world, and meadows are a logical and completely sensible response to it all.”

For more plant ideas and tips, visit the Xerces Society at xerces.org/pollinator-resource-center/pnw and Northwest Meadowscapes; the Lee-Mäders’ small family business in Port Townsend at northwestmeadowscapes.com/pages/planting-advice.

Master Gardeners are available to address your gardening questions at the online plant clinic: go to jefferson.wsu.edu/plant-clinic.

Barbara Faurot is a Jefferson County Master Gardener and Master Pruner, working with other volunteers who serve as community educators in gardening and environmental stewardship.

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