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103-How to Create a Backyard Meadow: Simple Steps for Success No Matter the Space

| Grow, Podcast

When you hear the term “meadow” what do you envision? For most people, the picture in their mind’s eye is a sweeping field of grasses and multi-colored blooms. The thing is, a meadow doesn’t require much space, and it could become a favorite spot in any urban garden setting.

Meadows aren’t difficult to create, and – even better – they are low maintenance care too, which is good news for any gardener feeling a little overwhelmed.

Mike Lizotte Is an expert on the subject of meadows and author of the new book, Mini Meadows. He’s also the owner of American Meadows, an online meadow seed supplier specializing in creating customized blends for gardeners across the globe.

Hang on – customized blends? Aren’t wildflower mixes pretty much all alike? Nope – not by a long shot. So, let’s dive in and learn more.

 

Mike Lizotte

Mike Lizotte has been in the meadow seed industry for three decades and just wrote a book on the subject. (photo: Rob Cardillo)

 

Why grow meadow?

If you’ve never considered adding a meadow to your garden, there’s no time like the present. Meadows aren’t just beautiful. They offer a wealth of benefits for the home gardener – not to mention their neighbors.

If you like low-maintenance, you will love a meadow. The plants which lend themselves to a meadow environment tend to be natives, which are more drought tolerant and easy to care for. You won’t need to invest time pampering your meadow, but you’ll probably want to spend time observing the activity of all the life which will be drawn there.

Meadow space attracts pollinators, and it provides a sustainable habitat of nesting space, food and shelter which promote insect life cycles. More insects means more birds too. So if you’re a bird-lover, start looking for a spot to plant a meadow.

Do you have a difficult area – maybe a slope or a spot that’s tucked away and difficult to access? Meadow is an ideal choice for those locations. In fact, look no further than the boulevard (a.k.a. hellstrip) area between your sidewalk and the street as a great option. Oftentimes, that’s just a strip of lawn, and it’s a hassle to maintain, right? Bring on the meadow seed.

One of Mike’s long-term customers saw that opportunity and transformed his entire town. This Swiss meadow lover proposed to his town government that all the city boulevards be converted to meadow. Government officials liked the idea and now, there’s a town in Switzerland awash in wildflowers – thanks to the vision of one smart gardener and seeds from American Meadows.

Pretty amazing, right? Picture that in your hometown – or even just your neighborhood. Imagine the difference that would make in replacing wildlife habitat too. I can’t say it often enough: Each one of us really does have the ability to make a difference.

You may live in an area subject to HOA restrictions but don’t let that hold you back from the possibility of creating your own meadow space. Mike has worked with many gardeners to develop a certain look and lifespan which, when presented to the HOA, satisfy aesthetic concerns and are approved. After all, there’s no harm in asking.

 

Meadow

You can grow a meadow in any space. These welcoming strips of meadow greet guests to this home with a symphony of scents and sounds. (photo: Mike Lizotte)

 

Where to Begin

My friend, Margaret Roach, turned an area of her upstate New York property into meadow to combat her garden overwhelm. She had been mowing a significant amount of her two-plus acre property, and she was over it. So one year, she let part of the area grow wild. When the Growing a Greener World® crew and I filmed the space a few months later, it was abuzz with life which had taken hold in the space. I was transfixed.

Less work – more wildlife. It was a big win for Margaret, and she’s turning more of her acreage into meadow space this year.

You don’t need vast acreage to enjoy a meadow. No matter where you live, you can grow a little patch of meadow. Mike has even worked with gardeners who’ve grown meadow mix in planter boxes. Imagine watching wildflower blooms sway in the breeze as you enjoy a cup of coffee on the patio next to your own mini-meadow.

You’ve probably seen seed packets or containers labeled as “wildflower mix” at your local big box store or nursery, but as with all products, buyer beware. Quality matters when it comes to the mix you choose.

Have you ever used old seeds to start vegetable seedlings? If so, you know that the older the seed, the slower and lower the germination rate. The same is true of wildflower seeds. Good quality wildflower seed will provide better germination.

A quality supplier tests their seeds, and that’s true of American Meadows. All of their seed is lab-tested for germination. Since their seed is high quality, it will begin sprouting in just 5-7 days after being scattered.

You get what you pay for, and even though I’m a frugal guy, I want seed that I know I can rely on to germinate and come on strong for the best results.

It pays to check the label too. Store-bought mixes typically include fillers. Sometimes listed on a package as “inert matter,” fillers help to disperse the seed, but many store-bought options are up to 90% filler. Think about that for a minute. When you disperse the contents of the packet, you may be scattering only a few actual seeds. Talk about underwhelming.

There’s nothing wrong with filler in a seed mix, just be aware of how much actual seed you’re buying.

Some online seed suppliers, like American Meadows, sell 100% seed. Starting with 100% seed provides you with more control and, ultimately, more meadow for our money. If you purchase pure seed, you should also be provided with instructions for adding your own filler (Mike recommends using builder sand or sandbox sand) to achieve proper dispersal.

 

Meadow flowers

Meadow can consist of a riot of color and foliage types, as seen here, or it can be customized to a certain height and color palette. It’s all in the seed choices. (photo: Mike Lizotte)

 

A great meadow is lush and full of a diverse array of plants, and the package should provide that information too. If you do a bit of homework, you’ll find that many big box offerings include mostly or exclusively annual seeds. There is certainly nothing wrong with annuals, but since the plants will only last a single season, you’ll be getting less overall bang for your buck than with a blend which incorporates some perennials and even biennials.

Bear in mind that, since they are shipped nationally, the mixes from the big box store won’t necessarily be appropriate for your zone, which means the meadow isn’t as likely to thrive in your landscape.

Mix It Up

You may think of a meadow as having only one specific look, but actually, the plants within your meadow can be tailored to your space, design aesthetic, region – even to a specific event.

How tall the meadow grows, bloom time and color, density and seasonal change – it all depends on the plant species within the meadow. There are so many types of plants available to incorporate. In his early days of the seed business, Mike didn’t even know what many of those plants actually looked like, but he could identify any seed out of a lineup.

When he was just 13 years old, a friend asked if he’d be interested in helping to unload 50 pound bags of seed for a local company expecting a big shipment. Mike did such a great job that the company owners kept asking him back to help with other projects, including landscape maintenance and, ultimately, packing seeds for shipment to customers.

He became so immersed in the seeds themselves, that he could identify the seed before he ever learned what the resulting flower looked like. Over time, Mike taught himself the form and features of each plant in the company’s test gardens.

In 2007, the company owners were ready for new horizons. They sold the business to Mike and his now-partner, Ethan.

Today, Mike lends his three decades of wildflower expertise toward helping gardeners find the perfect mix. He and his team learn the gardener’s goals for the space – asking questions like:

  • Would you prefer the meadow die back at the end of the year or come up again in seasons to come?
  • Are you looking for all-season bloom or a profusion for a specific event or time period?
  • Do your HOA restrictions require the plants to remain below a certain height or to be mown down by a specific time?
  • How much space are you transforming into meadow?
  • How heavily do you want to plant?
  • Are there specific insects you’re hoping to attract?
  • Would you prefer the meadow to be a source of cut flowers for your home?

With all the details specific to each gardener’s goals, the team recommends a blend to best meet those needs. Who knew there was so much art and science in the world of meadows?

 

pollinator in a meadow

Notice the purple tones of this meadow space. That’s by design. The seeds in the mix were customized to create a specific look, but that hasn’t stopped its attraction to pollinators. (photo: Mike Lizotte)

 

You could create your own blend by purchasing different types of wildflower seeds and mixing your own floral cocktail. If you opt for that route, consider more than just height and color.

If you’ve gardened for very many seasons, you know it’s important to understand the bloom period for each of the ornamental plants for your landscape. That way, you don’t wind up with a garden that looks spectacular in May and boring the rest of the summer, for example.

The same principles apply if you want full-season interest in your meadow. Look for early, mid and late season bloomers.

Be mindful of the life cycle of each plant in your mix too. You don’t want to incorporate perennials or biennials if you’re looking to fill space for just one season. On the other hand, if you fill your mix with nothing but annual plants, you’ll be starting from scratch next year.

There’s a lot to consider, and that might seem overwhelming. If so, look for a supplier – like American Meadows – which will provide blend suggestions based on your criteria.

That way, all you’ll need to do is focus on preparing the space, spreading the seed and waiting for the magic to happen.

Preparing the Space

So, how do you prepare space for a meadow? Well if you plan to grow a mini-meadow in a planter box or two, all you need is a good quality soil, and you’re ready to seed. For most of us though, there’s a bit of work preparing the surface of landscape.

I’m adding a meadow to the GardenFarm this season. I’ve got my site all picked out, but I’ll need to remove the plants already growing in that spot. Wherever you choose for your meadow, the surface will need to be bare before you sow to allow sunlight to reach the seeds for good germination.

Removing existing growth will mean pulling weeds, solarizing, tilling, digging, or renting a sod cutter. In any case, it’s a good idea to plan ahead a bit.

Solarizing will kill existing plants without requiring any special equipment or muscle, but it will require time. Ideally, you need to allow at least four and up to eight weeks for the solarization process.

Hand-pulling and digging can clear a space quickly, but it goes without saying that those options may be a lot of work.

A tiller can make quick work of the job, but if you opt to till the space, be forewarned: Tilling will bring weed seeds up to the surface. Since those seeds will be germinating around the same time your meadow mix germinates, it will be next to impossible to separate thug from baby bloomer.

A sod cutter can be a good option. It’s easy to use, available at most equipment rental stores, and about the size of a tiller. If transporting a sod cutter isn’t an option for you, ask the store if they deliver. Most do.

Maybe there isn’t anything growing in the spot you’ve selected for your meadow? That may be an indication of a problem.

Wildflowers are very resilient. They don’t require the best soil or optimal conditions, which can make them a good option for those tough spaces where few plants want to grow.

That said, wildflowers aren’t entirely bullet-proof either. If nothing – or very little – is growing in your future meadow spot, you should take the hint and find out why that might be. Start with a soil test. The test results will identify what you might need to add to your soil, so it will be more viable for your meadow seeds.

Just remember that the more effort you put into properly preparing the area, the more success you’ll enjoy from the end result.

 

meadow

This small patch of meadow is providing important habitat for many beneficial garden creatures, and it’s just a little bit less lawn to maintain too. (photo: Mike Lizotte)

 

Sowing the Seed

Once your area is ready, a hopper or spreader will provide the most even distribution, but they aren’t a necessity. Mike actually prefers to spread seed mix by hand. He walks the area with a pail of mix (which includes the appropriate filler) and scatters handfuls. It’s what brings him the most enjoyment.

It’s a good reminder that, even when something might not be the most efficient approach, sometimes it’s just as important to embrace the small pleasure of gardening the way you enjoy most.

You might think that the next step would be raking the seed into the surface. That’s actually not necessary, and it can decrease your germination rate. A rake can bury the seed too deeply, preventing enough light or requiring too much energy to break through the surface. Wildflower seeds are so small they only need good seed-to-soil contact.

How do you achieve that? One tool for designed for just this purpose is called a “water roller.” You can rent one at a box store for about $15, fill it with water (hence, the name), and roll it across the freshly seeded area. The weight of the water presses the seed into the soil.

If you want to keep it simple, all you really need is a piece of cardboard. That’s what Mike uses. He lays a piece of cardboard down over the freshly-seeded area and presses down with his feet across the surface of the cardboard. It’s not fancy, but it gets him good seed germination results.

Mike often hears from gardeners who get impatient and worry they’ve done something wrong. They can’t understand why the meadow hasn’t filled in more quickly or isn’t blooming yet. Once you’ve sown the seeds, remember that that plants in your mix will follow the same growth and bloom patterns as similar ornamental flowers.

For example, perennials in a mix will take longer to germinate and often won’t flower during the first year. So if you opted for a mix with lots of perennials, it will take a little longer to see results, but your patience will be rewarded in years to come.

As a general rule, Mike says it take meadow mix between five and seven weeks from sown seed to first bloom, but ultimately, it comes down to the types of plants in your mix.

 

meadow strip

The hellstrip – between your sidewalk and the street – is a perfect opportunity to create meadow space. The meadow plants will be low maintenance and add color, interest and important wildlife habitat. (photo: Mike Lizotte)

 

Your meadow won’t require much supplemental water ongoing, but you will need to water daily as it gets established. So, spring is a great time to sow meadow seeds – to be specific, just after your last risk of frost is ideal. The moist soil and mild temperatures will foster good germination and establishment.

If you miss that spring window, fall can also be a good time to sow a meadow in milder hardiness zones. All that said, don’t let timing stop you from incorporating meadow this season. You may not see quite as much germination in June or July as from a spring sowing, but wildflower seeds are so hardy, you’re bound to have some success anyway. Just keep the soil moist during establishment and enjoy the journey.

Maintenance Requirements

None. Well, okay, a meadow isn’t completely maintenance free, but pretty close.

Mike recommends cutting the meadow down once a year. He used to recommend mowing the meadow in fall. Now that research has shown that the beneficial creatures in our landscapes rely on garden debris as a food source and shelter over winter, Mike suggests waiting until early spring to mow. Allow those insects to emerge from their winter homes. Your garden will be the healthier for it.

Since your meadow probably included some annual plants, which provide the most long-lasting blooms, plan to repurchase seeds each year. There will be some natural re-seeding, but typically, not enough to create the fullness of the previous season.

What you will need to buy to re-sow in spring will be based on your original mix – how much of it was annual varieties – and your goals for the new season. A good seed supplier should be able to guide your choices, and Mike and his team help gardeners select seeds for meadow maintenance every year.

That’s another beautiful aspect of a meadow. It can evolve every year. You can shift the palette season after season – or change it altogether. Your choices are nearly endless.

Meadow is a great way to get kids interested in gardening too. It grows quickly, and it generally changes all through the growing season. So, the excitement continues as kids see the newest flowers coming into bloom or observe seedheads developing.

 

Pollinator in a meadow

The flowers of a meadow will draw in a fascinating army of pollinators and other beneficial insects. (photo: Mike Lizotte)

 

So, are you picturing some meadow in your future? I’ll be sharing photos of mine on my social media channels, so be sure to check those out and follow along. The links are below. I hope you’ll share updates about your meadow in the Comments section below.

In the meantime, I hope you listened in to my conversation with Mike. He shares additional,  specific examples of how a mix can be customized, and I guarantee his passion for the subject will really get you excited to grow some meadow in your little corner of the world. Scroll to the top of the page and click the Play icon in the green bar under the title.

Links & Resources

Episode 015: Life Lessons on Gardening and Design with Margaret Roach

Episode 071: Gardening for Wildlife: How-to Create an Inviting Habitat, with NWF’s David Mizijewski

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joegardener Facebook

joegardener Facebook Group

joegardener Instagram

joegardenerTV YouTube

joegardener Twitter

Growing a Greener World® Episode 418: Garden with Margaret Roach

American Meadows

Mini Meadows – Grow a Little Patch of Colorful Flowers Anywhere around Your Yard, by Mike Lizotte

Milorganite® – Podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of joegardener.com

Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs – Podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of joegardener.com

About Joe Lamp'l

Joe Lamp’l is the creator and “joe” behind joe gardener®. His lifetime passion and devotion to all things horticulture has led him to a long-time career as one of the country’s most recognized and trusted personalities in organic gardening and sustainability. That is most evident in his role as host and creator of Emmy Award-winning Growing a Greener World®, a national green-living lifestyle series on PBS currently in production of its tenth season. When he’s not working in his large, raised bed vegetable garden, he’s likely planting or digging something up, or spending time with his family on their organic farm just north of Atlanta, GA.

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