The word meadow has a soft, comforting sound, akin to the feel of warm, silky chocolate enveloping the tongue. Add to its charm, the concept of a meadow evokes visions of clearings in the woods such as the spot where Bambi was first introduced to flowers and butterflies.
There is a growing trend to introduce meadows to home gardens, and the practice is well worth trying at the lake for both the relaxed beauty of a meadow and the environmental benefits.
Meadows attract pollinators and birds, the roots stabilize the soil, and along the shore a meadow can serve as a pretty riparian buffer that soaks up pollutants such as excess nitrogen from fertilizers that shouldn’t be flowing into the lake.
Once established, a meadow is relatively low maintenance, needing to be mowed only once or twice a year. According to Mike Lizotte, author of the book “Mini Meadows: Grow a Little Patch of Colorful Flowers Anywhere Around Your Yard,” the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that in the U.S., more gas is used in lawnmowers yearly than was lost in the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. Another surprising statistic: one hour of mowing produces the same amount of pollution as 11 cars driven for the same amount of time. You can do your part to save the planet by planting a meadow.
Meadows are a versatile concept. You can plant one designed to flourish in part shade, or boggy conditions, in dry areas or with a selection of plants that tolerate — and even help improve — heavy clay soil. A meadow can encompass a large span of land or a tiny 10-foot by 10-foot plot just for the fun of it.
Despite the random, natural look of a meadow, getting one requires careful planning. One of the most important steps is preparing the site. Weeds are enemy number one of a meadow. Before you plant, it’s important that you completely clear the area of unwanted grasses and weeds. The better job you do, the better your outcome will be.
Although it’s tempting to spray an herbicide to kill off the unwanted vegetation efficiently, the toxins will leach into the lake (and possibly your well water), and you are poisoning the garden. Instead, wet the ground and spread a thick layer of newspaper (at least eight to 10 sheets thick). Wet the sheets again and cover them with mulch to make the area less unsightly. Do this task now. The newspaper will rot away, and your plot will be ready to plant next spring.
Most meadow plants thrive in poor soil, so you won’t be adding topsoil, compost or fertilizer.
Choosing your plants
Your meadow should be a combination of native grasses, sedges and tough plants (see the list of some of the perennial plant possibilities). The grasses are the backbone to the meadow, adding structure to the planting, as well as providing support for the tall-growing forbs.
According to Devin Floyd, executive director of the Center for Urban Habitats (CUH) and a native plant specialist, a Virginia prairie would be dominated by little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and broomsedge (Andropogon virginicus). Other grasses that do nicely in a local meadow are the beautiful pink muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris), fountain grass (Pennisetum) and switchgrass (Panicum virgatum).
For native perennials, consider including hoary mountainmint (Pycnanthemum incanum), small’s ragwort (Packera anonyma), common dewberry (Rubus flagellaris), upland ironweed (Vernonia glauca) and toothed white-topped aster (Sericocarpus asteroides).
You can use a mixture of started plants and seeds. If you want control over the patterns of color and bloom season, start with about 60% plants and 40% seed. In your seed mix, consider adding seeds of annual oat or winter wheat grass. They will keep seedlings from being choked by aggressive weeds.
Do bear in mind that if you're putting in small, young perennial plants or bare roots, you need to be sure the soil where you're planting isn’t just rocky ridge type soil as is prevalent in much of the lake. Loosen the soil immediately around a planting hole and mix in some topsoil with the native soil. Also make sure to water when it’s dry so the roots can become established.
Looking after your meadow
While a well-planned meadow is low maintenance once it has matured, it does take some care the first year or two.
Larry Weaner, one of the pioneers of meadow design in the U.S., who is based in Pennsylvania, mows the ground three times during the first summer to keep the weeds at bay and to stabilize growth. The meadow won’t look pretty during this early stage; the frequent mowing cuts away all the flowers; the swath of ground you’re picturing as a verdant floral scene is merely a shallow layer of shorn foliage.
But take heart, after the first year, you should mow just once a year at the end of winter and by year two, fast-growing perennials such as black-eyed Susans and coreopsis will put on their first flowering show. By year three, the slower-growing perennials will begin their display, and each year after that the meadow will get better and better, with color patterns and flower textures weaving themselves through the space and throughout the changing seasons.