How to create a backyard meadow with pollinator-friendly native plants

Woodland sage (Salvia nemorosa ‘May Night’) blooms in Bruce Lockhart’s 10,000-square-foot meadow on his Petersham, Mass., property. (Sarah Crosby)

There’s something undeniably enticing about a meadow. Homeowners fantasizing about bidding lawn care adieu might see an expanse of flowering plants and grass plumes as an ecologically sound — and low-maintenance — alternative.

It seems simple enough: Dig up the yard, toss out some seeds, and you’re instantly rewarded with a dense tapestry of flowers that will make you the neighborhood hero, right? If you do it well, yes, a meadow can be all those things. But meadows are not easy to start, and they’re not entirely low maintenance, even once established. They are, however, easier to manage than a traditional garden, and proponents say the benefits of planting native plants that attract pollinators and provide refuge for local wildlife make them well worth the effort.

When Bruce Lockhart was groping for a solution to a rocky septic field on his 87-acre central Massachusetts property in 2010, he immediately thought of a meadow. The 100-by-100-foot area was basically “rocks, sand and ragweed” before the meadow installment, he says, so Lockhart figured that he had little to lose by trying. He consulted Vermont-based garden designer Gordon Hayward, who developed a list of harmonious plants, with certain repeating star performers (such as salvia) weaving throughout.

After spending half a year removing the weeds on the site, Lockhart planted 1,600 one-gallon containers of perennials and biennials. The tapestry included 10 percent grasses, such as prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), purple moor grass (Molinia caerulea) and switch grass (Panicum varieties) to create a mix that would perform throughout the year. The resulting meadow was blissfully breathtaking for two years. Then the witch grass invaded.

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Lockhart is still devoted to his meadow, but the project became more work than he anticipated. Instead of the no-maintenance configuration he envisioned, he now pencils in time for meadow weeding on his weekly schedule. A few years after installation, the meadow sages (Salvia spp), yarrow (Achillea spp) and Turkish sage (Phlomis russeliana) disappeared from the scene. Meanwhile, survivors such as ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis), New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), threadleaf bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii), Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum) and coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) self-seeded in the bald spots, increasing their presence. The ornamental grasses were so successful that he increased them to 15 to 20 percent of the composition. It’s not the original vision, but he’s delighted with the result. “I don’t have the energy to make it the meadow of my dreams,” he says. “I just watch how it evolves and enjoy it.”

Other meadow owners have come to a similar place. Sheila Perrin, of Westchester County, N.Y., established nearly four acres of meadow on her 14-acre property 19 years ago. The space includes both natural areas and formal, classical plantings as part of an overall plan orchestrated by ecology-based landscape designer Larry Weaner. They went with a combination of custom seeds and plug liners specifically targeted to succeed in her soil conditions. The resulting meadow has evolved considerably, “Every year it’s slightly different, but that’s what is fun about a meadow. There was a plan, but nature wanted it her way,” Perrin says.

But it hasn’t been easy. “Anybody who thinks that a meadow is no work is sadly wrong,” she says. Her primary battle is with weeds, particularly Japanese stiltgrass. Despite the challenges, her meadow support is unwavering. In fact, she’s expanding its footprint to eliminate a swath of lawn along the driveway, filling in with low-growing ornamental grasses. One bonus has been the meadow’s performance during drought seasons. Perrin has never watered the meadow, but it soldiers on.

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Jamie Purinton, a landscape architect in upper New York, finds that some of her most successful meadow conversions were once agricultural fields where weeds had been previously eliminated; lawn areas where sod can be removed; or newly disturbed land on home construction sites.

The rise, and beauty, of the native plant

She seeds prepared beds with a commercial native wildflower/grass mix. And to get a more “curated result,” she inserts small plug liners of native plants. Her favorites include beebalm (Monarda spp), coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), foxglove beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis), black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia spp) and love grass (Eragrostis spectabilis). Meadows are not maintenance-free, she says, “but they are less maintenance than a traditional flower bed.”

Weaner agrees. “In a typical herbaceous garden, each plant has its own space. In a meadow, plants are spatially intermingled,” he says. That closely knit structure helps create a tapestry effect, and it can reduce (but not eliminate) weeds.

In addition to weed removal, your meadow will require periodic mowing. But again, it’s far less attention than a lawn demands. Most mature meadows are mowed at least once annually to prevent early succession shrubs and trees from taking hold and eventually altering the scene into a bushland, then forest. The mowing schedule depends on your soil. My own seven-acre Connecticut property includes an acre of meadow that was established before I bought the land 27 years ago. Ideally, I would mow in spring, but the site becomes too muddy from seasonal snow melt. Instead, I mow in early winter, before the first snow. Patrolling for invasive plants has become more of a task recently due to the abundance of floating weed seeds.

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Still, the meadow remains one of the lowest maintenance “gardens” on my property, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Like most meadow stewards, I’m transfixed from the first golden alexanders of spring to the last goldenrods and Joe Pye weeds of autumn. I have a ringside seat to all of the goings on: a hawk swooping for prey, goldfinches foraging seeds among the taller flower heads, the wind sending waves of motion bowing and dancing, fireflies floating above it on steamy summer nights. And for one morning a week, when I pull the weeds, I’m more than a bystander; I become part of the fabric.

Tovah Martin is a gardener and freelance writer in Connecticut. Find her online at tovahmartin.com.

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