How to Grow a Wildflower Meadow
In a category of it's own, creating a wildflower meadow takes perseverance. It's a good idea to try a meadow on a small scale the first time. You don’t necessarily need a large area for a wildflower meadow. It can be a small area tucked into your backyard or side yard that receives plenty of sunlight.
First, you need to choose a place for your wildflower meadow. If you’re planting an entire field of several acres, the decision is easy. If you’re putting in a smaller area, there are several things to consider. Choose a sunny spot for wildflowers – the sunnier the better. The only other absolute requirement is good drainage. This means a place where water doesn’t stand after a rain. Finally, try to make it a spot you can “control” – where you can easily water, if necessary, to get the plants established.
When To Plant
Wildflower seed is best sown about one week before vegetable gardens are planted in your area. In cold climates, with killing frost, spring planting is most common – after all danger of frost is past. You may also plant in summer (up until two months before frost), but summer planting will usually require more watering. The most important thing to remember is that it’s usually best to plant at a time of year in your area when the soil is warm and rains will promote germination.
Prepare your soil by hand or by rototilling. Till only as deep as necessary to remove old roots. If you feel that tilling is not sufficient to remove unwanted grass and weeds from your planned meadow area, there are several other methods you can use. Your choice will depend on several factors: attitudes regarding herbicides; time; expense; and size of your site.
Method One involves early site preparation three weeks prior to sowing. Tilling is followed by repeated cultivation throughout the period. This provides the opportunity to eliminate the early germinating annual weeds.
Method Two involves early soil preparation six weeks in advance of sowing. The first three weeks after tilling, the weeds are allowed to grow abundantly – even encouraged with additional watering. At the end of this time a herbicide is applied – following directions carefully. Once the weeds have died down, plant the wildflowers. The less you disturb the soil at planting the better to prevent stirring up new weed seeds. If you have an extreme weed problem this might be the method for you.
Method Three involves more advance planning, but requires no chemicals. Till in the late summer or early fall the year before planting. You may allow the soil to “lie fallow” or plant a cover crop after tilling. (A cover crop may be important if your site is on a slope.) A “green manure” cover crop such as buckwheat or annual rye grass will hold the soil until spring, help add beneficial organic matter and help snuff out germinating weeds. In the spring, light cultivation will be needed to loosen the soil and turn under all existing growth just prior to planting.
Once your ground is bare and loose, you are ready to sow. Following are a couple of tips that will make the whole process simple and successful. First, choose a nearly windless day and, second, separate the seed you’re planting, no matter the amount, in roughly two equal parts. Put the first half in a clean bucket or coffee can and add in roughly 10 parts of light sand or vermiculite. There are two reasons for the sand. It will “dilute” the seed and help you spread it more evenly. More important, since it is lighter-colored than the freshly-tilled soil, you’ll be able to see where you’ve been as you sow. You can simply hand-sow, keeping the seeding as even as possible. Or use a hand-crank seeder. The amount of seed you sow depends on the sort of flower display you want. Many people sow up to two or even three times the minimum seeding rates on seed packages to assure heavy bloom. Avoid planting higher densities since this will inhibit good growth. Sow the first half of your seed/sand mix over the entire area to be seeded. Then go back, mix the second half of your seed with sand and spread that seed over the whole area. This way, you’ll avoid bare spots. Once the seed is evenly sown, you can rake to barely cover the seed with soil. Or, simply compress the seed into the freshly-tilled ground. A lawn roller is perfect for the job, and for smaller areas, a piece of plywood laid down and walked on will do. Germination All plants, even wildflowers, require adequate moisture and temperature to germinate. While certain wildflower species will germinate (or sprout) in as little as eight days, others may not appear for months. A lot depends on the temperature and the amount of rainfall or watering your plants receive. Annuals, Perennials & Biennials
Most seed mixtures contain annual and perennial wildflowers. It’s important to understand these different groups, so you’ll have a clear idea of how your meadow should grow and bloom. Annuals are the flowers that usually sprout quickly, grow fast, and are the first to bloom. They normally bloom heavily, set seed, and then are killed by frost. Annuals are the plants that live for only one growing season. They may reseed themselves somewhat, but if you want a yearly show of these flowers, you’ll need to reseed every two years or so. Perennials are the flowers that “come back every year” from the same roots. They are slower to sprout and grow, often not showing shoot growth for months. They normally flower their second year – and then with increasing size and vigor in successive years as they form clumps. Biennials form leaves the first year, bloom the second year and are killed by frost at the end of their bloom year. Biennials are such heavy seed-producers that most of them are as permanent in a meadow as perennials.
We do not recommend the use of fertilizers except in extreme cases of soil sterility – which are rare. Wildflowers grow best in soils of low fertility where nitrogen levels are low. Also, fertilizing promotes fast weed growth.
You might find it necessary to pull some weeds or shrubs that pop up in a favorite spot. Most people, however, let them go. After all, the “look” usually sought is naturalistic, not manicured. Once a year, at the end of the growing season, after seeds have formed, you should mow the entire area, with your mower on its highest setting. This cuts down the shoots of tree and brush seedlings that will always try to move into an open site. A scythe, hand clipper, or weed cutter will do the job if you don’t have a mower, or if the blades can’t be set high enough to miss the seedlings. Because most of the weeds will be annuals, mowing them before they set seeds helps destroy the next season’s seed crop. The exact time and height for mowing varies with each site and the species planted. In many cases, you can’t avoid hand-weeding or spot applications of a herbicide, especially if aggressive species or perennial weeds dominate the site. Annual and biennial wildflowers must be allowed to re-seed to produce a strong stand the next year. Once your meadow wildflowers have bloomed, delay mowing the area until at least half of the late-blooming species have dropped seeds. . When you mow your meadow, leave the clippings (which may have viable seeds) in place. If possible remove the clippings of any weedy or undesirable species that may have set seed.
Annual species germinate quickly and visually dominate a site during the first year. Although many perennials germinate the first year, their root growth comprises two to three times the amount of the above-ground vegetation, and they normally don’t flower until the second or third year.
Some biennial and perennial wildflowers will begin to bloom. If optimum conditions didn’t occur the first year, residual seeds from the previous year may germinate. As your wildflower meadow fills out, you may choose to re-seed or spot transplant species to fill in bare spots or increase species diversity, especially the second or third year after seeding. If annual weeds continue to be a problem, you’ll need to remove them before they set seed. The need to weed should taper off as wildflowers and native grasses become more established.
Third Year & Beyond You should continue to control weed invasions and remove excess thatch by mowing or spot-treating with a herbicide.
A wildflower meadow is not maintenance-free, but it is less labor intensive than a lawn and it costs less to maintain. During the first few years you will want to control any aggressive weeds that threaten to take over. But, gradually you will work yourself out of doing much weeding. There is really nothing left to do but to enjoy the flowers. You’ll see more birds, butterflies, and small animals in your wildflower meadow as it matures. You truly will have a "window on nature" on your property.