Step 1 – Site Preparation
For best result clear the area of the existing vegetation. Chemical free methods include, repeatedly plowing the area over several weeks or smothering the area with pieces of cardboard, old carpet, black plastic or a thick layer of mulch until the vegetation below is dead. Smothering usually takes several weeks and works best if started in the spring. If your site has a lot of existing desirable vegetation, you can spot remove the worst if the undesirable plant material and over-seed the area with native grasses.
Step 2 – Seeding out Native grasses
Seed the grass seed out in the fall or spring when the temperatures are cooler. Some sources suggest applying the seed in two applications, one in the fall and again in the spring. Keep the area moist until the grass seed has germinated and then monitor the moisture in the soil and water as needed while the grass is establishing.
Step 3 – Implement A Weed Control Program
Every time you disturb the soil you bring weed seed to the surface where it will germinate. Even though you cleared the vegetation there will be an on slot of weeds germinating in the area. This is one of the reasons we do not suggest seeding wildflowers and grass together as it would be hard to tell the wildflowers from the weeds.
Some of these weeds will be seedy annuals while others are harder to deal with perennials. The best way to approach this problem is by educating yourself on the worst weed offenders and what they look like at different stages of growth. This way you can identify and remove them when they are small before they get their roots established. Examples of weeds to watch out for include Canada Thistle, Smooth Broom and Scentless Camille.
A chemical free weed control program includes hand pulling the highly invasive perennial weeds and mowing the area before the annual weeds set seed. The annual weeds can even act as a cover crop that will help protect the new grass seedling. You may need to mow the area a few times as the grasses get established.
Step 4 – Introducing Wildflowers
After the grasses have established and the weeds are under control you can begin to incorporate native wildflowers. Alternatively you can mark off wildflower islands and install both the grasses and wildflowers at the same time just in seperate spaces, what ever works best for you is fine. Read Establishing Native Wildflowers for more information. Plant perennial plugs in the fall or in the early spring when the temperatures are cooler and avoid planting in the heat of summer as the need for supplementary watering will be much higher. Plant plugs into island throughout the space, this makes it easier to monitor them and once established they will begin to spread themselves around. Lightly mulch the plugs and water well at the time of planting, continue to monitor the plugs for the first growing season and water when necessary.
Step 5 – Maintaining the Meadow
Now that plant material is in, the meadow just needs time to fill in. During this process you will need to continue to watch for weeds but this will give you a chance to get out into the planting and see what’s going on which will be good for you and your meadow. You can also continue to over-seed the area with native species in an effort to help the plants fill in faster. There will probably always be “weeds” in your meadow but at levels you can live with and much less noticeable with everything else that’s going on. After a few years excessive plant debris may begin to build up and need to be removed or it will begin to smother itself. Avoid cleaning up debris in the fall as leaving it over the winter it will provide food and shelter for wildlife, insulate the plant material from temperature extremes and removing it may also remove valuable seeds. In the spring after the area has dried out remove the woody debris and mow the rest to help it breakdown but leave it on site where it will act as a natural mulch and feed the soil.
Plugs vs. Seed
Although it seems like seed is a more economical path to take wildflower plugs have a much better chance of survival and some species will flower and begin producing seed the year that you plant them. An establish flowering perennial is a continual source of seed into the naturalized area and this can speed up the maturity process of the meadow by two years. Contrary to popular belief native wildflowers as a whole are not likely to go wild in your garden - in fact they can be hard to germinate and slow to establish. The best and most economical approach is an educated one and a combination of plugs and seed based on ease of germination and speed of growth will provide the best results. Native wildflower seed that is authentic to your region may be hard to find in large quantities and can be expensive. If you want to incorporate wildflower seed choose species that will germinate quickly and do not need lengthy stratification periods. Beware of seed mixes that are machine harvested and may contain high percentages of less desirable native species and low percentage of the showier wildflowers; ask for a species list.