Just as you cannot plant petunias among turf grasses and expect them to survive, you cannot toss native plant seeds onto a lawn and expect to get a meadow. What you would get is overgrown grass from Europe and large numbers of weeds. Creating a meadow is harder than it sounds. For a detailed guide to meadow planning, preparation, design, installation and maintenance, click here. What follows is a brief overview.
Excellent books on the subject include Larry Weaner’s Garden Revolution and Benjamin Vogt’s Prairie Up. And watch this video of a meadow in an HOA in Loudoun County to see lessons learned.
Turf grasses are non-native cool-season grasses that spread sideways by rhizomes, forming a dense mat. By contrast, our native grasses tend to grow in bunches, and many are warm-season. Your lawn and any accompanying weeds must be killed off before attempting to introduce native plants.
Natural meadows are composed mostly of grasses with smaller numbers of flowers interspersed. In a designed meadow, you are likely to want more flowers. You can suggest nature without imitating it exactly. However, the grasses are an essential element. Without them, perennials that spread vegetatively (meaning sideways by way of roots - examples include Monarda didyma and fistulosa, Physostegia virginiana, Senna marilandica, Pycnanthemum and Helianthus species other than divaricatus) will crowd out the other species. Because grasses and sedges have compact but thick root balls, they stop that spread and create pockets where other flowers can survive.
Step One: Choose your site
Meadows need sun. If it is too shady for turf grass, you won’t get much of a meadow. Stormwater facilities in full sun may be the ideal place for community associations or businesses to put a meadow, since most people would accept a naturalized look there.
Step Two: Thoroughly kill what is there
If you simply stop mowing a lawn, over the years some native grasses will eventually come in, but you will not achieve the effect you are presumably seeking. For a real meadow, you have to either dig up the lawn, smother the turf grass and other plants, or spray it with herbicide. Do not use ordinary Round-Up, as it contains a surfactant which kills frogs. It is recommended to allow the next generation of weeds to sprout from the seeds that are stored in the ground then repeat the process two more times. To do a thorough job takes eighteen months, during which you have a big brown patch. Can you tolerate that? Should you do small areas at a time?
Step Three: Pick your seed mix
Do not buy a “meadow in a can.” Many of those seeds are likely to be non-native. Various seed sources are listed here. Ernst Conservation Seeds offers a whole range of seed mixes, or you can have them create a mix that is appropriate to your specific conditions. A proper mix will include a variety of species that fill various niches:
Occupy different layers (taller and shorter above ground, deeper or shallower roots below)
Quick-to-establish for early success and slower-to-mature for long term survival.
Bloom in succession from spring to fall.
Together create a dense planting that crowd out weeds.
The presence or absence of deer will determine how much variety you can have.
An alternative planting method is to start with the native grass, allow it to grow a little, then transplant container-grown perennials. If your area is large, you may want to buy flats of “plugs” to save a lot of money. However, many of these small plugs will need to be very carefully watered and protected from deer if they are to have any chance of survival. Buying larger plants may be more cost effective in the long run. Using transplants rather than seeds allows you to design your meadow artistically, with swaths of color and with taller plants such as Joe Pye weed placed strategically. Either way, many people have more success with transplants than they do with seeds, which require really good soil preparation.
Step Four: Spread your seed, or plant your seedlings
When using seeds, seed-to-soil contact is essential. Rake the seeds in to 1/4-1/2" deep. A light cover of straw will help protect your soil from erosion and your seeds from the birds, who will otherwise enjoy a big meal at your expense. This website has detailed instructions.
Step Five: Weed
Until the native plants are established, weeds will try to dominate. It is unwise to plant an area that is larger than you are capable of weeding. For some of us, the best approach is to do one small area and gradually expand year by year.
Step Six: Mow annually, in late winter/early spring
Mowing is necessary to prevent shrubs and trees from turning your meadow back into woods. In smaller areas, you can weed out these plants by hand.