The truth about wildflower meadows

An ideal wildflower meadow. — Scorpions and Centaurs/Flickr

An ideal wildflower meadow. — Scorpions and Centaurs/Flickr

Everyone’s lawn was looking incredibly lush this year, what with all the rain. But there’s a dark cloud in every silver lining.

That happy grass is always demanding something. Feed me! Weed me! Mow me! Who hasn’t felt just a little oppressed by a lawn actively growing in the cool, wet conditions it loves best? In your daydreams, you might have idly thought about an easier, lower-maintenance alternative.

One especially romantic choice might be the wildflower meadow, a flowery mead that, being chock full of plants that seem to get by on their own, would require a little less input from you, your mower and your wallet.

Ah, yes, bring on the soft-focus lens, the sunshine and the pretty girl in her lace bodice and linen skirts, bounding in slow motion through frothy fields of daisies and lupines. Butterflies would be flitting, bees a-humming and you, clever soul, will be lounging in the hammock instead of firing up the John Deere.

I’m terribly sorry to wrest you from such beguiling fantasies, but building a wildflower meadow from scratch is not for the faint-hearted. I’ve seen those “meadow-in-a-can” come-ons, too, and I’m as much a sucker for the shy little flowers of the wild as the next person.

But dig into the whole business a little deeper, and you’ll learn that it’s not as easy as flinging seeds on the ground “as if you were feeding chickens,” in the sage words of that doyen of wildflowers, Lady Bird Johnson.

For starters, you need the right seed mix, that is to say, annual and perennial plants adapted to conditions in the Northeast, not the arid Southwest or the steamy Deep South.

What’s the point of planting wildflowers that will only spend their lives being homesick for the prairie, or unleashing on an unsuspecting landscape alien wild species that move in and take over? That way lies environmental vandalism.

Before you sow, it’s important to destroy any existing perennial grasses that hog the territory and can prevent your flower seedlings from breaking through. Tilling alone is unlikely to do the trick, since pernicious rhizomatic grasses can regrow from every single particle of chopped-up root. You may have to go for the scorched-earth approach, either using herbicides or covering your plot over with black plastic or some such until the weed grasses below have expired.

And then there’s the issue of soil. Flowering meadows need poor soil to flourish and prevent the more aggressive weeds from taking over. When you do your annual or biannual mowing, once in midsummer and once in fall for starters, you’ll have to remove the clippings to prevent the soil from becoming too rich.

Thistle going to seed. — Lotus Johnson/Flickr

Thistle going to seed. — Lotus Johnson/Flickr

Last but not least, there’s the weeding. Despite your best efforts, the weeds will come, and if you don’t want them to crowd out your wildflowers, you’ll have to resign yourself to culling the weeds from all that knee-high growth. Otherwise you’ll have a meadow, all right, but not necessarily the kind you’re looking for. Building a wildflower meadow takes time, as in three to 10 years.

All of this was brought home to me reading an essay by Bailey White, the homespun public radio commentator, who recounted her own meadow-making experiences in “Momma Makes Up Her Mind” (Addison-Wesley Publishing).

In year one, she prepared a half-acre and planted her wildflower seeds out in rows, the better to hoe them. Examining each seedling as it sprouted, she weeded on her knees and with a hoe. Her hands got hard and calloused; her hoe blade wore thin.

In the second spring, she went after the Bermuda grass with a vengeance, but a terrifying mint crept in from the edges. She wore the handles of her cultivator “as smooth as ivory.” She hoed “violently.”

In years three and four, the flowers began to fill in and the meadow began to come into its own. By then, her knees were shot, her doctor sighing. But thistles wafted in from somewhere. She grubbed out every thistle and planted a wildflower seedling in its place. More sweat, more toil.

(Just as an aside, thistles can produce about 1,500 seeds per plant. Nearly 90% of the seeds germinate within one year. Seeds remain viable in the soil for 20 years. Thistle do you in.)

By year five, the meadow was, in fact, established. It was lovely, that meadow, and she bought her white dress. But Bailey’s attention had drifted. She gave away the white linen dress. She bought another hoe. She wanted a double-dug, raised bed garden, where everything starts from scratch each spring.

She never looked back.