Why meadows are better than lawns
The insane heat and drought and wind and sun conspired against Connecticut vegetation last summer (2022) resulting in a mass die off of natural native vegetation as well as lawns and landscaping planted by people. Lawns suffered more than any other form of vegetation mainly because of the nature of lawns: monocultural swaths of short-cropped leaves where the sun hits the soil baking it and killing off surface roots that turf typically has.
2022 was not the first year this has happened, and it won't be the last. At the end of the worst, hottest, dryest, windiest, sunniest summer I have ever had to suffer through, weather forecasters said that 2022 will be/was the coldest summer we will have for the next one hundred years.
The writing is on the wall for lawns- they are no longer the wisest and best option for covering soil. They require babysitting, irrigation, weed killers, fertilizers, insecticides, fungicides, and mowing to achieve the desired result. All this costs money, time, equipment, and knowledge, not an easy combination if low maintenance is what you want. Added to that is the substantial damage all these chemicals do to the environment on a biological scale downstream from lawns.
When lawn mowing costs, exhaust and noise pollution are added to the equation, lawns start to look like not-so-nice-an-option.
So as I mowed the dusty weeds last summer at home and at the nursery, I was struck at the stupidity of my lawns- they had turned from a nice place into a place of frustration and toil.
2022 July- my dog sniffing her way through the best part of my lawn, a meadow I had planted 18 months before in an area where the grade angles towards the southern sun and gets baked. The turf here dried out every summer. I would fix it every year and it looked great in the spring, dying in the summer, fixed in the fall. Six years in a row I took part in this insanity until I realized I did not want to do it anymore, just wasn't worth it. In went the meadow which flourished all through the drought of 2022, nicest place on my property.
In September of 2022 I realized that I needed to kill most of the rest of my lawn and install more of the meadow I had planted before, as well as the lawn in the front of the nursery that I installed almost 50 years prior and had repaired dozens of times during those years.
This blog will be a "tutorial" of sorts for those interested in installing a meadow in part of or on all of their property to replace turf or decorate land for humans, insects, and birds alike.
The meadow mix we seeded with has 14 species of wildflowers and one grass species which is vegetative the first year and reproductive from then on, producing wheat-like plumes 18" tall atop 3" tall clumps of foliage, swaying in the slightest wind like seaweed on the ocean floor. You cannot see the plumes in these pictures because the meadow is not even a year old- they will be produced next year.
Morning view of a dew-covered meadow 5/2023. Light angles change colors interestingly. I've visited my meadows repeatedly since they started flowering. I never visited my lawn.
I'm not going to say that there was a heated argument about putting this picture into this meadow description (but there was), and I overruled everyone because one of the reasons I LOVE meadows is that there's life in a meadow, while in lawns there is not much life. Insects pollinate the flowers, birds eat the insects, a classic food chain segment missing in lawns. America has lost a whopping 75% of the insect population that existed since 1970, and 40% of the bird population. Who is responsible for this? We all are, so it's up to us to correct this. Anyway, Peetee sniffs around the meadow daily, detecting nocturnal visitors long after they have left their scent and this time, her nose led her to this poor rabbit. That's the life and death that a meadow offers mother Nature.
Many people fail with wildflower seeds because they buy the seeds and toss them around onto hard packed soil or onto existing vegetation, which is just a formula for disappointment. Do you sleep on concrete? Nope, you sleep on a nice soft bed, and that's what new seeds want also in order to germinate at the highest percentage (good visual for you to keep in mind when pulverizing your meadow).
The following is a step by step set of instructions for anyone to follow on any scale, large or small, so you can get the same great results we got from our work.
Meadow light requirements- As much as possible, with the approximate least amount of light being about six hours of full direct sunlight.
Once you have chosen where you want to have your wildflower area, you must kill all existing vegetation because its incompatible with a uniform meadow appearance and competes with meadow flowers. Do not begin to pulverize the area until all existing vegetation is dead. I spray roundup (41%ai) at the rate of one ounce per gallon in a 4 gallon backpack sprayer with dye added so I am basically "painting" the weeds/lawn blue. In dry weather roundup takes longer to work because the physiology of the vegetation is much slower. You'll get much faster death spraying it after a rain or when the soil is already moist, and in those situations, three days is the yellowing time. As soon as it's all dead, you can mow it down as close to the soil as you can to make incorporating the dead vegetation into the soil easier. Do not remove the dead stuff because organic matter will increase the health of the soil as it decomposes. The higher the soil quality, the happier the seeds will be when they are sown.
Once you have sprayed the area where you want the meadow and it has all turned yellow it is time to pulverize the soil. Do not begin to pulverize the soil until everything has turned yellow. Otherwise, there will be a large percentage of weeds in your meadow, an unwanted result.
In the video above, you can see how I have just begun pulverizing/incorporating the dead organic matter into the soil. You can also see that the grass doesn't look completely dead, but I know from experience that it is on its way out. The machine you see in this video is a commercial-sized bobcat on tracks with a pulverizing landscape rake that removes rocks, loosens soil, and regrades into a flat surface which is important as you will be mowing your meadow about once per year.
Here you can see how different the surface looks after about 4 hours. I know that I will be the one mowing this every year, so I want to make sure that it is as flat as I can make it, and as fluffy as possible, so that the seed germination is at the highest percentage. Remember what I said before, the quality of the soil determines the seed germination percentage, so do not be in a hurry during this step of installation whether its a large or small area. I found earbuds and reggae music helps pass the time. Do not do this work when you are in a hurry, or you'll be sorry later, a point I'm making over and over again on purpose.
This is your last chance to ensure the quality of the soil before putting the seed down. You can see here in this video that at the end of a full day of pulverizing I've got good earthy fluffy soil that will make my meadow seeds happy and eager to germinate.
Seedling variation produced this pink-blushed white poppy blossom, a rarity indeed! I wrapped a length of dental floss around it so I could collect the seed when it's time to do so later in the summer. This flower is one of the most beautiful flowers that I have ever seen, and I've seen hundreds of thousands. Propagating this one would be a real victory for me.
The seed pod of the pollinated poppy flower is TINY. Zoom in on the pod- you’ll see tiny green aphids sucking the life out of the seed pod. Don’t worry though, because lady bugs will find them and eat them as the food chain laws dictate. Some other insect will eat the ladybug and a bird will eat that insect. This life and death cycle is the primary reason to plant a meadow and discard your lawn.
Rocket larkspur is the third plant in the meadow mix to flower, starting in the first week of June, a mixed array of whites, blues, and maybe pinks atop flower stalks about 36" tall+. Last night we had a deluge thunderstorm and these flower stalks didn't care one bit. They are still standing straight and erect despite the downpour and the winds. So are the poppies and the bachelor button.
The rocket larkspur flower stalk looks spindly by itself, but it's far from alone, surrounded by millions(?) of meadow mix neighbors. Red/white, and blue, perfect for July 4th. Colorful (but a little corny combination if you ask me). Hundreds of people have commented on our meadow, dozens have bought the seed mix.
White yarrow looks like a weed but its a tough plant, capable of living in depleted and infertile soil. All kinds of insects pollinate it, and its seeds propagate themselves easily, assuring that it will live easily from year to year. This white yarrow started flowering the last week in May.
6/7/23- this post will be updated with more information about our meadows as other flowers do their thing, as well as a tutorial for spring/summer wildflower meadow installation.
Summer Meadow Installation
Because the meadows I installed last fall are so incredibly beautiful, I wanted to convert other areas of my property into meadows also, and I didn't want to wait until fall. I destroyed the area with a skid steer, removing all vegetation and flattening out and distributing the soil evenly over the entire area.
As described in the earlier post, I went over the entire area with the mindset that I am going to need to mow once a year and the soil needs to be as flat as I can get it with nice loose fluffy soil. Doing this takes a really long time and you cannot be in a hurry or you'll regret it later if you plan on mowing it. Remember, this is your only chance to flatten it so take your time.
Time passes faster when you have a helper.
You will know when you're finished.
It will be obvious that any more time spent doing this is just a waste of time. I'm DONE, and it's time for the seed and hay.
The number one reason to wait for fall for meadow installation is that you do not need to water at all in the fall. If you want to install in the spring or summer, make a serious mental agreement with yourself to start watering and keep watering so your new meadow's needs are met. Turning your back on this essential requirement is ill-advised. You'll need to water to trigger the seeds to germinate. You'll need to water to keep the little plants growing, and you'll need to keep watering once the area turns green. Its going to be a job, but well worth it! Check back for updates as this first summer meadow installation progresses!
Two weeks after seeding, I can see a lot of germination. Fall germination time was faster, with much more uniformity and zero effort vs. twice a day summer installation watering. It's definitely easier and cheaper and much much much less work installing in late September/early October. Word.
MEADOW INSTALLATION LEARNING CURVE
August 15th, 2023- Rather than editing what I have already written about what I thought were prudent and valid instructions for installing meadows, I thought it best to leave it all there and explained what went wrong this year with last year's fall meadow installations and what went wrong with this spring's meadow installation.
Last fall's installation of the seed occurred late september, and seed germination began within a week. The grass and the perennials developed nicely, and unfortunately so did the annual flowers which turned into little plants that were later killed by winter freezes. Wondering what went wrong, I called the manufacturer who told me to delay seed applications until after Thanksgiving to prevent the annuals from suffering. He said its ok to seed even later than that. We are also going to be selling the poppy seed, annual flowers, and perennial portion of the seed mix separately so if you want more poppies you can increase the percentage in your meadow. The annual portion of the seed mix will need to be applied every late fall/winter/early spring for the summer flower display.
ANOTHER problem I had with last year's fall meadow installation was that a big weed problem got both meadow areas from a tall annual weed called Canadian Horseweed. This stalky plant took over the nursery meadow because there's a huge weed field next to the nursery that belongs to the state and this weed seed blew into our meadow from that field, and at my house it blew into my new meadow from weedy areas around the edge of my lawn. Control of that weed in the meadow just involved mowing both fields- no problem for the meadow grass nor the perennials because they grow right back.
Lessons learned this summer from last year's meadow installation:
1. Kill the existing foliage in your new meadow in August repeatedly with Roundup until EVERYTHING is dead and stays dead. Churn/pulverize/prepare the soil in October/November in preparation for December/winter meadow seed application.
2. Kill surrounding weedy areas so weeds do not blow in- especially Canadian Horseweed.
3. reapply the annual flower seeds each wilter if you want the splashy summer color (not always necessary).
Spring Installation Learning Curve- I was so excited with the results of the meadow at home and at the nursery, that I wanted to add more square footage of meadow at my house, so I didn't follow my own rules and went about it too quickly. I did not spray the area with RoundUp before I pulverized the soil and all the grassy weeds grew and started creating a problem so I had to kill the meadow with round up and wait until December to re-seed it. Moral to the story is that you have to spray all the foliage with RoundUp and make sure its completely dead before you try to install a meadow or you will be sorry. The other problem with a spring installation of a meadow is you have to water the hell out of it and it's just not worth it because the cost of water and time it takes to babysit a meadow in the summertime is too time consuming and expensive.
This is the May 2023 spring meadow installation that I installed in too rushed of a manner. You can see at the bottom where it is all brown, I had to spray the grassy weeds. I think I'm gonna end up killing the entire thing because I know that inside all those beautiful flowers are a whole lot more grassy weeds that will come back to haunt me in the future. The other violation of my own rules was the fact that when I installed this meadow I used hay that introduced weed seeds and if you remember at the beginning of the blog post I advised everyone not to use hay. Because I did not take my own advice, I have to start all over again. From the picture you can clearly see hoe beautiful the annual portion of our wildflower seed mix is and how totally worth while the little bit of extra effort is in ensuring the annual portion of the seed mix does well.
I hope that this learning curve portion of this blog post is helpful. If you have any questions please feel free to give us a call and we will be happy to help you.
There is very little maintenance to having a meadow on your property other than mowing once a year. The reason for doing this is so that tree seedlings that get blown in and start to grow can be eliminated. Last year we had a thunderstorm after a 12 week drought and the drought-weakened stems got flattened so I mowed it in early september. I set the mower at the highest setting and went around the outside shooting the clippings back into the meadow area so the seeds wouldn't grow in the neighboring lawn. After I had chopped up the clippings again and again I lowered the mower deck a little and repeated step one. after all this was done, I was finished until the next mowing a year later.
Meadow experts advise that the best time of the year to mow your meadow is early spring/late winter because birds and insects find food/forage/nesting materials in meadows all year round, and the winter months are no exception.
The above picture shows the meadow a month after mowing for the first time. The grass will stay at this height until next May when the plumes are produced, which is one of the greatest benefits of this type of meadow- extreme low maintenance that almost eliminates all mowing. All of the characteristics of this meadow make it easy to view this slightly untidy appearance as a thing of beauty and awe, making the transition from a lawn lover to a meadow lover seamless.
Lastly, the no-man's strip of death is designed to keep the creeping bluegrass out of the meadow. I spray it twice a year to keep my meadow a meadow and my lawn a lawn.