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We spy that packet of wildflower seeds in a nursery, and it fills our minds with gorgeous possibilities.
Hold on just a moment. Meadows are possible, but they take more work than you might imagine.
I’m not here to dissuade you. With seeds, starter plants and a bit of patience, you can produce a meadow garden. First, test your soil to at least determine whether it is acidic or alkaline. Meadow gardens often have easy-going perennials and annuals mixed with native plants requiring specific soil and climate conditions. For example, if you live in the sun-washed prairie as I do, you probably don’t want to plant Mertensia virginica, Virginia bluebells, those lovers of acid soil and partial shade. Hint: as a guideline, understory plants found naturally in the forest prefer more acidic soils.
My part of the world is generally composed of poor, alkaline soils, and prairie plants, like Rudbeckia spp., black-eyed Susans and Vernonia baldwinii, western ironweed, rule the day. They are plenty of online resources for native seeds and plants more suited to your part of the country. You may want to start with an area that is a blank slate from a small raised bed to a cleared area in your garden. Don’t plant seeds in the middle of a Bermuda grass patch, for example, and expect them to survive, let alone, thrive.
Next, consider that in wildflower seed packets, there are seeds for annuals, plants which mature from seed-to-seed in one season; perennials which mature over time--usually two to three seasons; and biennials, which grow in the first year and bloom in the second. If you desire an instant meadow, and who doesn’t, you’ll want four-inch pots of perennials and biennials to plant and only depend upon seeds for annuals. Later, perennials and self-sowing annuals grown from the seed mixture should fill in.
What would a meadow garden be without grasses? Grasses, especially native ones, are an important part of the meadow garden, and once, our grandparents’ lawns were meadows. By over-seeding my shady, fescue lawn, and not using chemicals, it is slowly returning to a shady meadow with clover and blue-eyed grass. As for the other lawn weeds, they wither and die by summer.
In the sunnier areas of my garden, I find the native grass, little bluestem, Schizachyrium scoparium, is nearly impossible for me to grow. Maybe if I started it from seed it would thrive, but I’m not that patient. I’ve switched instead to the native Panicum spp., switch grasses, which are easier for me. Many, like P. amarum 'Dewey Blue,' are blue in the summer, and then turn gold or a stunning shade of red in the fall.
Study up on local native plants and incorporate those which perform well in your climate. If you need extra help, consult your native plant society or join them. I always get so much more from garden groups than I give. Don’t you?
If you need another good reason to indulge your meadow garden fantasies, the simple flower structure of many native plants is easiest for nectar-loving insects like butterflies and bees. These creatures help our gardens in more ways that we could ever imagine.
So, the next time you see a wildflower packet at your local nursery, go ahead and buy it, but be sure to follow some of the above tips to make your meadow. It will become the magic of your garden dreams.