So ... you want to create a meadow (small or large) but the idea of plowing up the entire area, seeding it with
a premixed 'meadow mix', and keeping it watered all season seems daunting. There is an alternative which is
quite easy, and can yield quite good results without using up all the energy to till the field and all the risks
involved in such an approach.
First of all, let me say a few words about tilling soil. I have nothing against tilling your soil, per se.
We certainly till our vegetable garden each year. However, one of the things that you accomplish when you
till soil is that in addition to killing the plants that are already growing there and loosening up the soil
(which is what you are usually trying to do), you also bring a lot of seeds to the surface (including weed seeds)
and you greatly increase the risk of soil erosion. Particularly for large tilled areas, soil erosion can be
a real problem. An additional problem that folks run into when they till a large area and seed it to meadow
plants is how in heavens name do you keep all those little seedlings watered as the heat of summer comes on.
Here at Toadshade, we have about a 1.5 acre meadow that had been mowed and treated like a somewhat neglected
lawn for many years before we got a hold of it. We took a long term and ecologically based approach to starting
our meadow. First, we allowed everything to grow to see what we had. In some cases, if you do this, you
find nothing but invasive weedy species. We did not. We found that we had Foxglove Beardtongue
(Penstemon digitalis), Broomsedge (Andropogon virginicus), Slender Mountain Mint
(Pynanthemum tenuifolium), Lance-leaved Goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia),
Northern Blue-Eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium), Deertongue Grass (Dichanthelium clandestinum),
Switch Grass (Panicum virgatum) and a variety of other plants present that made a
good basis for a meadow.
If we had allowed nature to entirely take its course, we would have been relying on what ecologists refer to as
'Primary Spread' to introduce new plants into our meadow. Primary spread occurs when a plant (or anything else for
that matter) is first introduced into an area where it did not occur before. In the wild, plants may arrive having
their seeds carried on the wind, deposited in animal droppings (bird, mammal, reptiles, insect), or even deposited
by animals while grooming themselves. 'Secondary Spread', on the other hand, refers to new plants that spring up
within the field that are offspring of the 'Primary Spread' individuals. So look at it this way - quite a few years
ago we had a single plant of Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) show up in our lower meadow (Primary Spread).
That year we allowed it to go to seed and let nature have her way. In subsequent years, the number of plants has
increased until we have Common Milkweed scattered over about a 200 square foot area (Secondary Spread).
(The Monarch Butterflies and caterpillars enjoy this patch very much, by the way!)
So how do we use these principals to our advantage? To improve our meadow, we took an approach that mimicked
nature and gave us a manageable way to increase the diversity of plants in our meadow. We use what I like to call
the Pocket Approach (or, perhaps, managed Primary Spread).
- First - we choose small areas of the field or 'Pockets' (really small - 1 sq yrd) that have nothing
interesting growing there.
- Second - we choose native plants that we want to introduce - perennials adapted to partial sun or full sun
and average to dry moisture for our meadow conditions - and we plant them into our 'Pockets' . (Primary Spread)
- Third - we cage each 'Pocket' (we have a LOT of deer and woodchucks/groundhogs that come to visit).
- Fourth - we visit the 'Pocket(s)' periodically over the season to do any weeding/watering that is necessary
to establish the plants in the field.
- Fifth - we allow the plants to go to seed (hopefully leading to Secondary Spread) and remove the cages from
the 'Pockets' after the first season.
This procedure is not very time consuming and can produce very good results! You can put as many or as few
Pockets in your meadow as you think you can manage. Pockets can be planted to all one species, or each Pocket
can contain a small mix of species that you are trying to introduce.
Of course, even a meadow needs some care. We usually mow our meadow once a year (sometime between late
fall and early spring) which helps to keep out the woody species that want to come in and continue the process
of old field succession (meadow turns to shrubby meadow which then turns to young forest and finally turns to
old forest, see the Rutgers site at
Once your meadow is established, mowing too late in the season can discourage or disturb some wonderful ground
nesting birds (for example, the beautiful Blue Winged Warbler (Vermivora cyanoptera) which we
have been fortunate enough to have nest in our meadow!). We also establish paths through our meadow early in
the season - we keep these mowed and they give us a way to walk the meadow and enjoy it! They also make it
easier to get water to our 'pockets' and allow us to keep an eye out for alien invasive species so we can
try to rogue them out.