How to install a wildflower meadow
If you want to consider converting turf into a natural wildflower meadow that attracts beneficial insects, birds, and looks beautiful all year long with essentially no work, this “tutorial” might help you.
The small meadow area above was installed because the area slopes south toward the sun and the summer heat would kill the lawn continually. Every fall it was fixed, every spring it looked great, and every summer it died. For years. It took too long to realize that repairing that turf was a thankless waste of energy.
Finally it was killed with roundup, pulverized with a huge dethatcher, with the dead grass incorporated into the soil and seeded with a wildflower meadow grass combination.
Normal turfgrass is incompatible with the meadow mix because the unmowed turf grows way too tall, grows too thick, and will suffocate the wildflowers, so it must be gotten rid of. The dead grass is a valuable compost material so you don’t want to remove it from the place where the new wildflower area is going.
Once pulverized, the area was seeded with low-growing white clover (to feed the wildflowers as well as the insects), and then seeded with the wildflower mix. Hydroseeding mulch was spread over the top to protect the slow growing wildflower seeds during their long germinating process that continues throughout the winter months in a fall seeding. The hydroseeding mulch is superior to hay in that it forms a mat that prevents erosion, holds the seed in place, does not blow around in even the stiffest winds, and above all does not incorporate any weed seeds.
The first year took some getting used to with the change from turf grass to wildflowers. The wildflower plants looked more like weeds than flowers. The picture above was taken the following year (2022) in mid-July during the middle of the hottest, driest, worst summer drought I have ever had to suffer through. Because the plants were in their second year of growth, they were mature enough to flower, and the grass plants were old enough to produce a wheat-like plume. The first year of growth of these plants is vegetative, and every year after that is reproductive, with plumes and flowers, so be patient when planting a meadow as it matures.
As the rest of the lawn dried up and died this summer, this patch swayed in the slightest breezes like seaweed on the ocean floor, flowers popped up irregularly and sporadically yet spectacularly. I never watered it, fed it, nor mowed it. For 20 months, I did ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to this area. It was a full year and a half after installation that mother nature’s “lawn” shined brightly.
After two months of heat, wind, drought, we got a thunderstorm that flattened the drought-weakened plumes, and I mowed the area at the highest mower setting. I didn't just mow it, I mowed it over and over and over again to chop up the seed heads of both the grasses and the flowers.
Freshly mowed meadow mix allowed to grow stays low for a prolonged period of time. This small patch was mowed once in two years, about three weeks before this picture was taken. It's not the vision most people have for a lawn, but the extreme self-sufficiency of this patch has it's own natural beauty and logic.
Closest area (obviously) is the meadow three weeks after mowing. Furthest away is the recovering lawn that will probably never recover from this summer- it looks "good from afar, but far from good." You will notice that the grass in the meadow mix has grass blades that are very fine bluish-green, but only 3" tall. Their plumes grow18"-24" tall only, and look like the prairie in Kevin Costner's "Dances with wolves."
Because of the low maintenance and beauty of this area, I'm going to add 25-30,000 more square feet of meadow to my ridiculously large lawn, and add pictures and explanations to this post as I do it in case anyone out there is interested in doing it at their house also.
This isn't my first go around with this, though. My first attempt at getting rid of the pretty but toxic American lawn was to install clover lawns that seem to have suffered in this last extreme heat/drought summer. Here is the link to that blog post in case you're interested:
The first thing you need to do is identify the area of lawn you no longer want, and kill the existing lawn. I spray the area with roundup to kill all existing plant material, wait for it to die, and dethatch with a bobcat, dethatcher, or core aerator. If you don't want to use roundup, you'll need to dig out the area, cover it with black plastic during the summer heat, or choose some other method. I leave all the soil and dead plant material there because that stuff decomposes and supports the future meadow.
This is just the beginning of the death of the old lawn, and you can see how the roundup has begun to kill the lawn (weeds). The dying area extends over into the shadow another 100'. I'm going to kill the entire upper flat part as well as the left slope. I figure the meadow will be 1,000 times more beautiful than the ridiculous lawn, but won't hide the old stone wall. One quick note about mowing a meadow- mow at the highest mower height in December after the finches and other birds have eaten the flower seeds out of the seed heads, and after miscellaneous birds and insects have collected plant parts for their overwintering structures.
This is the list of perennials in the wildflower mix I used, mixed with blue sheep fescue ratio of wildflower seed to grass seed 1:26. the per thousand square feet rate is .11 pounds wildflower seed to 3 pounds blue sheep fescue.
This is the POV from the bobcat pulverizing the old turf/weed combination. Because it’s late, the roundup hasn’t turned the weeds brown yet but it’s all dead. This machine is great at pulverizing and incorporating organic matter. A skilled operator can do quite a job on quite a large area in a day. It’s boring after a while but no problem with noise cancelling earbuds playing reggae music.
DON’T FORGET that you may want to mow your meadow someday so making your meadow soil pretty flat will make that mowing much easier in two years when you mow it for the first time. One reason I’m going to mow my earth-friendly meadow is to prevent tree and weed seedlings from being anything more than just that.
I needed to go over the same areas multiple times to get the soil/turf combo blended together into a homogenous soil medium for the baby seeds to fall into when applied. the more you do this soil pulverizing, the better your results will be. DO NOT be in a hurry to get this step completed because its really your only chance to do it. The meadow inhabitants will thank you for decades afterwards by being happy, healthy, and beautiful.
You can start to see the fluffiness of the soil has improved, and so has the uniformity. It's still not done yet. Again, set aside enough time to do this properly. Do not rush or take shortcuts.
After a day of grinding, I hopped off the machine and grabbed a handful and sifted it through my fingers, and it felt like all my efforts accomplished my goals with soft rockless soil falling through my fingers. If I were a seed, this soil is where I would want to be born!
When I realized how much erosion I was going to get all winter long, I decided to hydroseed the seed onto the area instead of using hay that blows around and introduces weed seed. I try not using hay whenever possible.
Hydroseeding is only necessary on a slope or when seeding in the summer. You need not hydroseed on flat areas with a fall seeding especially when agitated turf yields lots of fluff (dead grass blades) that serves the same function as hay for free and doesn't introduce weed seeds or blow around. I haven’t used hay in years. It looks nice when you are finished, but rarely does the hay stay where you put it, often ending up where you don’t want instead of where you do.
Figures that the night I finished it rained pretty hard and washed away some of the protective hydromulch. I have to re-hydroseed without the seed to keep it from washing away during the rainy winter months.
There it is, the almost finished product that hopefully is going to produce a wonderful thing to stare at and walk through for decades to come.
Since the lawn at the nursery is pretty pitiful, I killed it also and pulverized it, seeded it, and soon we will have a meadow there too. People are going to think to themselves as they drive by the first year "Boy, that place looks messy," but the wonder and beauty will be arriving soon thereafter to the delight of insects, birds, and humans alike.
10/21/22- Just one week after seeding, we have germination! These are the monocot blue sheep fescue. I never watered it nor did anything else to hasten the conversion of seeds into seedlings. The perennial flowers will take longer.
The distribution of the germination is even and consistent throughout the area, easily seen in the early morning light. The speed of this process with zero watering is further confirmation of the superiority of fall for all things horticultural in your yard. If this installation were done in the spring, I would not be writing this post so soon after installation.
When I was investigating wildflower germination I saw tens of thousands of worm casting volcanoes evenly distributed in the grassless soil that I had pulverized to prepare the meadow, and it reminded me of the ridiculous and poisonous goal we have striving for a nice lawn. Step 3 in a four step lawn program is an insecticide blended with a fertilizer. Americans have been brainwashed into thinking that we need to do this, almost as if it's unpatriotic not to. When these insecticides are applied to the soil and watered in, you don't need to be a rocket scientist to realize that EVERYTHING in the soil is killed, including aerating ants and earthworms. Insect activity in the soil is extremely important for plants because roots exhale carbon dioxide and inhale oxygen. This gaseous exchange is impossible or restricted in compacted "insectless" soils, and by killing all the insects, multiple other problems may develop, requiring even more chemical remediation. As I got back on my feet, I was rewarded with the knowledge that I was on the right track getting rid of most of my lawn square footage both at home and at the nursery.
Looking at the area with a dog's eye view, you can see the green sheen in the field, illustrating the teeny seedling existence. In a week, there should be actual grass blades and possibly the beginnings of the flower germination. Fall seeding ROCKS!
This "no man's land" strip of death is sprayed once or twice a year to keep the creeping bluegrass out of the meadow. As I said before, traditional turfgrass grows too thick and tall for the meadow grasses and wildflowers, and will eventually destroy the blue sheep fescue and wildflowers, so you need to keep the two areas separate.
It figures that the night after I finished hydroseeding it rained pretty hard and rivulets of erosion washed away the beginnings of little grand canyons that will only deepen and widen between now and spring, so I had to come up with a solution to this problem.
I grabbed a few bags of hydroseeding pellets and scattered them handful by handful as best as I could to fill in the rivulets with the pellets. When rain hits them, they fluff out in to a paper mache-like mat that slows down the water and prevents severe erosion. I also mowed the lawn and blew the grass cuttings up and onto the eroded areas then used a backpack blower to scatter the cuttings up onto the steeper parts of the slope as far as the cuttings would go. Hopefully, between the growing seedlings, the pellets, and the grass clippings, the water wont do so much damage between now and spring.
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Horticulture B.S.1983, in the nursery business since 1976. I'm migrating away from traditional American land use towards a more natural, logical, organic, nature-friendly approach.