Lawns are not only water-hungry wildlife deserts, they are also high maintenance. So why not replace your lawn with an eco-friendly wildflower meadow. By doing so you will create a colorful natural refuge that will attract wildlife to your garden. Learn how to plant a wildflower meadow of native plants that provides food and shelter for wildlife by following these simple steps.
Wildlife Habitat Lost to Urban Sprawl
In the United States alone, suburban homes are surrounded by more than 24 million acres of lawn. As towns and cities continue to grow and suburbs spread out into open land and forests, natural meadows, consisting of native plants that provide natural wildlife habitat, are being lost to development.
But we can do our bit to restore some of this lost habitat by replacing at least some — if not all — of our lawn with native plants that attract wildlife by providing them with food and shelter. By doing so, you will not only help wildlife survive in the ‘urban jungle’, but you will also be afforded the opportunity to watch wildlife and learn about different creatures as they go about their business in your own backyard, which can be very rewarding for the young and old alike.
While lawns do have some benefits, a large expanse of lawn displaces natural habitat and reduces biodiversity of both plants and animals. A nice neatly mowed lawn offers little in the way of food or shelter to wild creatures. Lawns are also high maintenance, requiring regular watering and trimming to keep them looking good. This has an impact on the environment too: lawns require a LOT of water, and the energy (both fuel and manpower) used to keep your lawn trimmed could be better spent. Many homeowners are now becoming more aware of the economic and environmental costs of maintaining a lawn, and are choosing to convert their lawn to a wildlife-friendly habitat.
Before you dash outside and start ripping up the lawn, give careful thought to how much, if any, of your lawn you wish to keep. If you have children or pets, you may wish to reserve a patch of lawn for them to play on. Once you have decided what is staying and what needs to be replaced, you can begin the conversion process.
Wildflower Meadows: A Wildlife-Friendly Alternative
If your garden gets a lot of sun, you may wish to convert your lawn to a wildflower meadow garden consisting of a mixture of native wildflowers and grass species.
Types of Wildflower Meadows
Wildflower meadows are classified as either annual or perennial.
Annual Wildflower Meadow
An annual meadow grows rapidly within the first year and quickly produces a colorful display. However, in order to retain the original mix of species and color, an annual meadow will need to be replanted every year. Commercially packaged meadow mixes typically consist of a mix of annual plants but may include some perennial plant species too. However, commercial mixes may include non-native species that have the potential to spread into local wild fields. If you opt for a commercially packaged meadow mix, check that the species are native and/or not aggressive plant invader species.
Perennial Wildflower Meadow
Perennial meadows take a little more time to grow – usually requiring 2-3 years to become established. In the first year of growth, perennial plants establish their deep rooted systems, extending roots deep into the soil. The second year sees the roots and shoots spread out laterally as the perennial plants spread both above and below the soil surface. The meadow becomes fully established in by the third year, whereafter it requires very little maintenance. You can establish a perennial meadow by carefully choosing and planting perennial species native to your area. To increase diversity you may wish to add some annual species to your meadow.
Adding native grasses to your meadow not only makes it a more natural habitat, it also helps reduce maintenance, provide additional habitat for wildlife, and can be aesthetically pleasing. Grasses tend to be deep rooted, which helps prevent weeds from taking hold to reduce the need for weeding. Grasses provide seeds for rodents and birds to feed on, as well as nesting material and cover from predators. Grasses change color with the seasons providing a beautiful display of bronze, golden hues in autumn.
How to Select Species for your Wildlife Haven
By converting your lawn into a meadow, you will provide a wildlife haven that attracts a wide variety of creatures to your garden. The more variety you have in the plants you select, the wider the variety of wildlife species you will attract. Wildflowers provide pollen for bees and a source of nectar for butterflies and hummingbirds, they also provide a source of food for larvae of insects such as butterflies. Wildflowers and grasses provide seeds for birds to eat and a refuge for insects. These insects provide a source of food for insectivorous birds, frogs, lizards and small mammals.
How to Prepare and Plant a Wildflower Meadow
Planting a wildflower meadow involves three steps: 1) Removing your lawn; 2) Planting the wildflower and/or grass seeds; and 3) Maintaining the meadow while it get established.
How to Remove Your Lawn
The first thing you will need to do to prepare your meadow is to get rid of any existing lawn or unwanted vegetation. There are several options you can choose to remove your lawn:
- Dig up the lawn – Using a shovel, you can cut the grass into strips, digging underneath to a depth of between 1-1ｽ inches to ensure all traces of the lawn is removed. Once the grass sods have been removed, you will need to prepare and plant the soil immediately to prevent weeds from taking advantage of the cleared area.
- Smother the lawn (solarization) – If you only have a small patch of lawn, you can kill off the lawn by smothering it. You will need to cover the vegetation with either black plastic, sheets of plywood, a 6 inch layer of wood chips, or with a thick layer of newspaper (20 sheets) covered with wood chips. Solarization kills vegetation by speeding up the germination process, then it bakes the plants and deprives them of light necessary for growth. The lawn should be covered towards the end of spring and left on the lawn for a minimum of 60 days. When the vegetation is dead and the ground dry, you can remove the covers, tilling the ground or raking away any dead grass. If you are only planning on planting your meadow the following spring you should mulch the area with shredded leaves, bark or wood chips to prevent weeds from taking hold and soil from being washed or blown away.
- Apply a herbicide – You can also kill your lawn with a herbicide, such as Roundup, but take care to follow instructions as these are hazardous chemicals which can kill plants indiscriminately and thus can harm the environment. Apply Roundup to growing plants, allowing a week or two for the herbicide to work. Reapply to any green patches of grass that haven’t died. Run a lawn mower over the dead grass, cutting it very short, to remove the dead grass stalks. Till up the area by hand or with a rototiller to between 1–2 inches deep to prepare the area for seeding.
- Plant a Cover Crop – If the area you want to convert to a meadow is extensive, the easiest solution would be to till the soil and plant a cover crop. The cover crop competes with existing plants for nutrients, space and light, quickly outgrowing and shading out the existing vegetation. Harvest the crop when it matures, then till up the soil again during hot, dry conditions to kill the roots of any persistent grasses or weeds. For larger areas it is best to use a rototiller or plow to do this, but for smaller areas the soil can be tilled by hand with a hoe or shovel. Use whatever method works best for you, but to ensure the success of your meadow, make sure that you seed bed is free from weeds.
How to Plant a Wildflower Meadow
You can use either seeds or plants, or a mix of both to plant your meadow. Wildflower seeds can be sown in fall, winter or spring, with the latter being the optimal time to plant in most areas. Once you have planted your meadow, cover with a thin layer of mulch, watering as necessary for the first month or two.
Another inexpensive option is to stop mowing and simply let nature do its thing. Wildflowers will pop up on their own, but you will need to weed out the more aggressive plant species or pull off the seed heads before they release their seeds if you wish to maintain a wide variety of plants. By letting nature take its course you will establish a natural meadow that will attract a wide range of wildlife. The only drawback with this method is that you have very little control over what species grow in your meadow.
How to Maintain a Wildflower Meadow
The initial three years before the meadow becomes established require the greatest input in terms of money and effort. However, once the meadow is established it will be cost-free and require very little maintenance other than occasional weeding and an annual mowing.
Maintenance mowing during the initial growth season is important to prevent weeds from out-competing slower growing plants. When weed growth reaches a height of 8 inches it is time to mow the meadow. Trim to a height of between 4-5 inches. Mow as often as necessary to prevent weeds from growing higher than 8 inches and to prevent them from seeding. Stop mowing towards the end of the growing season as taller plants will protect younger plants during the winter ahead.
In spring of the second year, mow the meadow before the start of the growing season to cutback weeds and allow native plants to flourish. Keep an eye out for invasive weeds and either pull out any unwanted plants, or trim them off at the ground. From now onward the meadow should be mowed annually towards the end of winter/beginning of spring, before the start of the next growing season.
The initial work will be well worth the effort in the long run. Instead of spending your free time watering and mowing your lawn, you can sit back in your hammock and enjoy the birds, bees and butterflies that are now attracted to your relatively maintenance-free natural wildflower meadow.