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Feeling ambitious? Convert an old field to a meadow garden.
Making a Meadow Garden
June 14, 2002 by Evelyn J. Hadden

Question from Yvonne in Delaware:

I want to return 2 acres of old farm land to meadow. How do I economically get rid of 1-2 acres of weeds and put down wildflowers and grasses?

Response from LessLawn:

Yvonne, here's a rough idea of your options and the steps you'll probably want to take in converting your field to meadow. It will require more research into your regional plant communities, and also it will likely be a lot of work at the beginning, depending on which tools you have available. However, I don't mean to discourage you by any means; a meadow will provide you with a colorful landscape, wildlife habitat, and freedom from routine lawn chores.

Know Your Region's Flora

With such a large area, you will need to design a meadow that doesn't require a lot of upkeep; mowing or burning it annually should be the extent of the maintenance necessary once it's established. You'll need to set up a community of plants that don't require extra watering or fertilizing, and you'll want the desirable plants to form a thick mat that discourages weeds.

First, find out what constitutes a stable meadow in your type of site. Which plants are native to your region's open areas? Much of the Eastern U.S. tends to return to forest, but there are occasional stretches of thin soil over rock, and some coastal ecosystems have few or no trees as well. The Delaware Native Plant Society can help you figure out what type of grassland ecosystem—and which grasses and wildflowers—your site will support.

Native plants aren't your only options. You can also plant non-natives that aren't invasive and that fit your land's naturally occurring soil type and moisture levels. The Delaware Natural Heritage Program has compiled a list of non-native plants; you may wish to avoid those in bold-face, as they have the potential to be invasive in Delaware.

Know Your Site's Flora

When you've researched the desirable and undesirable plants, take an inventory. Does your field contain many desirables? Or is it full of invasives that have adapted to your location but are too unchecked to allow a mix of plants to thrive? How you proceed will probably depend on your answer.

Kill Off Undesirables

If your field contains mostly undesirables, you'd best kill them off before trying to establish the meadow plants. You can try this a number of ways. It may require a full year.

  • Mow them down: Mow the field at a very low height (2 inches if you can manage it). Then mow again every few weeks during the entire summer. This will keep the current plants from setting seed and will spend their stored-up energy. The annuals will die over the winter and not return. The perennials will require more work to remove, however. You might try digging them up by hand, if there aren't many, or smothering the site if there are. As a last resort, a topically applied weedkiller might remove them without doing any lasting damage, if you choose the least persistent chemical that is available.

    In her comprehensive and well-illustrated Planting Noah's Garden: Further Adventures in Backyard Ecology, Sara Stein offers a section on how to establish grassland from an East Coast field, and how to maintain it afterward by periodic mowing or burning.

  • Crowd them out: Mow the field at a very low height (2 inches if you can manage it), then crowd the undesirables out by sowing seeds of a cover crop. You'll need to cut down the cover crop before it goes to seed, and if you leave the cuttings on the field, they should shade the soil enough to prevent other seeds from germinating. Over the next winter, they'll act as mulch and break down on top of the soil, contributing nutrients to it and keeping it smothered. The following spring, you can plant desirables through the mown hay.

    This option will only require a couple of mowings, which might be better for you if you are hiring someone to mow or renting the equipment.

    The University of Delaware has put together a short fact sheet on cover crops for Delaware.

  • Till them up: Mowing will work best if your undesirables are annuals and your desirables are perennials, whereas repeated tilling will destroy many perennials as well as the annuals. However, you may not dig deep enough to oust some roots, and some plants are able to regenerate from small pieces of root, so chopping up their roots would simply encourage a lot of new plants.

  • Smother them: Your best bet for killing off perennial weeds (if you don't want to use chemicals) is to smother the ground. You can do this as described in "SMOTHER Your Lawn", but mow first and add at least four inches of mulch over the top of the mown material. Keep the place smothered over the winter. You should be able to plant plants in the mulch the next spring. If you're looking to sprinkle seeds, they may not be able to take root in deep mulch, so you may have to uncover portions of ground and sprinkle the seeds in these.

  • Poison them: The conventional approach is to kill the field with a chemical like glyphosate, then till the killed material into the soil, then scatter seeds of desirable plants, and hand-weed until the desirables have grown large enough to prevent invasives from establishing. This combination of tactics was used to convert an old farm to a meadow at the Connecticut College Arboretum in New London. William Niering describes the project in a chapter of Easy Lawns.

If, on the other hand, there are plenty of desirable plants mixed into your field along with the undesirables, you may decide to work around the desirables—hand-pulling, smothering, or poisoning the undesirables. This may be worth the effort depending on how many desirables you have and how hard they'd be to establish from seed or plugs. You'll also be able to see mature plants right away rather than starting completely from scratch.

Design Your Meadow

You may want to design the whole site at once, even if you plan to convert piece by piece over time. If you plan to include paths and seating areas (so that you can experience your meadow from the inside!), establish those before planting the meadow plants. If you choose the smothering option, you could even set up the paths and seating areas during the first year while you wait for the planting areas to smother. If you opt for wholesale tilling or mowing, though, you might find it easier to wait until the area is prepared before laying out any structures.

Possible path materials include:

  • stone, brick, paver, or wood rounds in gravel, sand, grass, or mortar for a stepping stone or crazy paving path (will keep feet dry but may require sweeping or mowing and weeding)
  • gravel over landscaping fabric (less expensive but will encourage seedlings)
  • wood chips or pine needles (far fewer seedlings and economical too)
  • boardwalk or cement (expensive)
  • straw (may contain weed seeds)
  • upside-down old carpet or cardboard (probably free but may be aesthetically less appealing)

Plant Your Meadow

You also have choices about how to plant your meadow. Depending on your budget and your available time and energy, you can start slow or fast. Even if you plant full-size plants, though, chances are they'll need several years to settle in and weave their roots together, so you'll need to patrol for unwanted seedlings every so often.

  1. Sow seeds
  2. Plant "seed" plants and let them spread, or help them by scattering their seeds
  3. Plant "plugs" or bare-root plants and mulch between them (lowest maintenance but most initial work)
  4. Plant some plants and scatter seeds between them

Finally, don't get discouraged! If you're worried that establishing or maintaining a meadow might require too much effort, why not try out the most promising technique from above on a small section of your field? This will give you a chance to play with meadow plants, a feel for the effort required, and a taste of what a larger meadow might look like. That small meadow garden might be enough for you, or it might motivate you to convert a larger piece next year.

Good luck transforming your field into a lovely landscape! Please let us know what you decide to do and how it works.

Evelyn Hadden
LessLawn Editor

Do you have a question for the LessLawn editor?

For more information:

Design a garden using your region's native grasses.

Read about the rewards of a prairie garden.

Check out Sara Stein's Planting Noah's Garden: Further Adventures in Backyard Ecology.

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