No one is immune to the charms of a meadow garden. Fields of flowing flowers hold appeal for the most indifferent gardener and the most passionate. It’s why we love driving down the interstate when the poppies are in bloom. Likely the only time we appreciate that drive. As a Landscape Consultant and past Garden Coach for B. B. Barns, I can report that it is in the top ten desired landscape additions, right behind a low-maintenance landscape. So, let’s break down how to make one.
First, sadly, like all things in life, it’s not as easy as it seems. Meadow gardens appear effortless when you’re viewing them (which all great gardens do), but there is prep work and, yes, even some maintenance. James Hitchmough, author of Sowing Beauty: Designing Flowering Meadows From Seed, says this, “What you start with is what you end with.” If you start with a field of weeds, you’ll end with a field of weeds. So, first up is site preparation, aka dealing with the weeds.
A meadow garden need 6+ hours of direct sun a day (4+ hours if you’re desperate). This does not mean sort-of-sun. Think parking-lot sun. That’s what you’re looking for.
Note: Yes, you can throw the seeds out into your field, and if you’ve ever done that you know that sometimes it is successful. You do get wildflowers, and some self-sow for the next season. But this blog addresses how to establish a meadow garden that isn’t a haphazard attempt at a few wildflowers, it is a naturalized area dominated by native species of flowers and grasses. The area would require periodic mowing (once or twice per year) in order to prevent the growth and establishment of woody shrubs and trees.
Step One: Get rid of the weeds.
If you oppose an herbicide treatment for removing weeds, get the tarps out and cover the area you want to sow for one year (you read that right). You can also till the area to remove weeds or hand rake. It depends on the size of your spot and the location. If it’s an embankment or an extensive area, the tiller or raking may not work. If you are unopposed to herbicide treatment, spray the area twice at least four to six weeks apart. Weeds are competition for seedlings, and the goal is to remove existing and annual weeds.
Does that mean all weeds are gone forever? No, weeds are tenacious, as all gardeners know, but giving the seedlings the best start free from the competition is step one. Again, you can throw seeds out into an area of your landscape where nothing grows and see what happens. Some seeds will germinate and be showy for you. But, if we’re trying to create a meadow garden, we want more flowers than we do weeds. This step is the most important step of the process.
Step Two: Add a layer of compost or sand.
You can add sand, but compost is the preference for our clay soils, or mix them if you prefer (2-1 compost to sand). Wildflower seeds will grow in any soil, so don’t overdo it, but a half-inch layering of compost-sand is beneficial for germination. You don’t need to till it in. Just layer it. Do purchase wisely. Don’t buy sand that is wet, full of weed seeds or, in an effort to save money is leftover from the kid’s sandbox. The same goes for the compost.
Step Three: Determine how much seed you need. (This could also be step one based on the budget.)
Figure out your square footage (length x width), and if you want dense sowing, the application is 1 pound per 1000 square feet. For less dense, use 1/2 pound for 1000 square feet. Not every seed will germinate. If you’ve been hanging onto seeds in your freezer, you can mix those in for sure, but for a good germination rate, use a reputable seed company and fresh seed. B. B. Barns Garden Center has a good selection and can help you decide which seeds to use.
Note: A meadow garden can be any size. The scale of the ones we so often drool over isn’t practical for most gardeners, but don’t overlook the smaller spaces. Mine is 20 square feet and full of meadow flowers.
Step Four: Don’t just toss the seeds. Sow the seeds.
Here’s where sand comes in handy. Use it to broadcast seeds, or Hitchmough recommends damp sawdust, which allows you to see where you are broadcasting. The goal is to be methodical so that you created an evenly planted area. Not all seeds germinate easily, so if you want to add trickier plants, using starts for those is best. Starts are 4″ pots of flowers you can purchase at the garden center.
Step Five: Water
The seeds aren’t planted but sown–i.e.scattered on top of the soil. They’ll need irrigation to germinate and avoid drying out. Set up an irrigation sprinkler to water every couple of days. If planting on an embankment, use a jute mat to hold seeds in place when watering.
Step Six: Enjoy, then mow.
Depending on your tidiness level, you can mow in late fall (If seeing the mess bothers you all winter) or early spring. Mow the field to 2″ high, and that’s it for the maintenance level of your meadow garden. Yes, you will likely need to sow more seed for a few successive seasons until you get the density you prefer or the mix of wildflowers you want, but maintenance for a meadow garden, once established, is a lot less than a traditional herbaceous garden. Mowing ensures woody trees and shrubs do not begin to establish in your meadow garden.
Pictured: Ned and Julia Gibson’s meadow garden. Ned and Julia are owners of B. B. Barns Garden Center and Landscaping.
Written by Cinthia Milner, Landscape Consultant and blog writer for B. B. Barns Garden Center and Landscape.
B. B. Barns Garden Center and Landscape serve Western North Carolina, upstate South Carolina, and Tennessee.