A Native Meadow or Prairie


A meadow is an area with a diverse mix of wildflowers and grasses. It is ecologically important as a source of food for many insects, birds, and animals, and as a site for them to reproduce. On the east coast, meadows are generally a transitional ecosystem which will eventually become a forest. In the mid-west and great plains, where there is not enough rainfall to support trees, mixed grass and wildflowers (aka "forbs") are the natural permanant ecosystem, and known as a prairie. Prairies are naturally thinned out and rejuvinated by wildfires and grazing, which are a normal and healthy part of their lifecycle.


Because the roots of these prairie plants go much deeper than normal turf grass (several feet, as opposed to several inches) they are excellent at preventing errosion, increasing infiltration of water, and slowing runoff. Most prairie plants are also drought tolerant for this reason, though there are also "wet meadow" plants that are suited to growing near ponds, streams, or in poorly drained depressions - and are well suited to areas that are wet in the spring and dry in the summer.


We can recreate a meadow or prairie in our own yards to experience the colorful display of flowers throughout the summer while attracting butterflies, birds, and beneficial insects. It isn't necessary to turn your whole yard into a meadow to experience its beauty (though you certainly can!). It is possible to have a meadow as small as 10x10 ft or as large as you can imagine. Besides the benefits already mentioned, whatever area of lawn you turn into a meadow is that much less area to mow every week.


One important criterion to consider when planning a meadow is the ammount of sunlight available to the plants. There are a few sedges and wildflowers adapted to living in the shade of the forest or the dappled shade of the forest edge, but the majority of meadow plants prefer full sun to thrive. Once a meadow is established it is virtually maintenance free. The only real and most important maintenance task is the fall or early spring cutting or burning. Because much of these plants mass is in their roots, they will survive burning or cutting and be rejuvinated, while trees, weeds, and dead material will be eliminated. Burning returns many nutrients to the soil and is probably easier than cutting, but typically requires a permit from the fire department, and is probably better suited to rural areas. If you want to enjoy the beauty and structure of the grasses and plants throuhg the winter, then burning or cutting can be done in early spring before new growth starts (March or April). Large meadows can also be mowed/burned in sections (1/2 or 1/3) on alternating years. This will help preserve nesting birds and overwintering beneficial insects.


Most of the effort in having a meadow goes into establishing the plants in the first two years. When the plants become established, they will naturally outcompete the weeds, but before that happens, weeds will pose the greatest challenge to your native meadow. Non-native invasive plants will try to take over any disturbed area, so some effort will be needed to keep them in check.


While not essential, proper preparation of the planting site will help with weed control. This means killing all weeds and grass several times during the course of the spring and summer preceeding planting the meadow seeds in the fall in order to deplete the stock of weed seeds already in the soil. This can be done by using a mild herbicide, such as Roundup, or can be done with organic methods such as repeated tilling, cooking the soil under black plastic, or sheet mulching with cardboard and mulch or compost. This will create the optimum conditions for sowing seeds in the fall, which will sprout the following spring (note: seeding must take place in the fall, as most seeds require an overwintering period before they will sprout). If the site is not initially infested with invasive weeds, it is also possible to seed the meadow directly without any initial preparation.


The first year of growth, the meadow will need to be weeded by hand from time to time, or it can be kept mowed to about 5" to allow the growth of roots while eliminating weeds. Because prairie plants are putting most of their effort into root growth, there will be minimal flowering the first year. This can be offset, however, by including a mix of annual wildflowers in the seedmix which will bloom the first year, and die out over subsequent years. The second year will probably also require occasional hand weeding, but after that, the only maintenance should be the yearly cutting or burning. One of the benefits of weeding is that you will become intimately familiar with your plants as well as your common weeds, which will make you a much better gardener and naturalist!


An alternative approach which will get plants established sooner is to use plugs (small potted plants) instead of seed. This would be best suited to a small area of meadow, as it will be significantly more costly. This also allows the flowers to be placed in more deliberate groupings, which may be desirable, but it may unintentionally create a less natual appearance. It depends on the look that you are going for.


While there are some meadow plants that flower in the spring and early summer, the most spectacular meadow display will occur from mid-summer to late fall, and grasses can provide interest through the winter as well.






















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