Getting back to nature Garden: There's more to making a wildflower meadow than just scattering seeds.

May 04, 1997|By Ary Bruno | Ary Bruno,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Now that wildflower meadows are the up-and-coming thing in lawns of all sizes, it behooves us to take a look at how they are best acquired.

Contrary to the blithe representations of the "Meadow-in-a-Can" sold at many suburban garden and home-improvement centers, there is more to establishing a successful wildflower planting than simply walking out and scattering some seeds about the yard or on bare spots. While there is something splendidly beguiling about such a lighthearted approach, it is notdestined to get you many flowers, meadow or otherwise.

Preparation, as in all gardening, is the first key. It is no use arguing that short or tall grass prairies have done very nicely without a rototiller or a dose of pre-emergence herbicide, because nature has provided these in her own way and spent several million years working out her techniques.

Real prairies, for example, frequently suffer purging by wildfires, sometimes two or more times a year. This reduces competition from seedling shrubs and trees, clears the ground of accumulated debris and weed seeds, enriches the soil and supports the deep-rooted grasses, flowers and forbs that make up a natural meadow.

Unfortunately, most municipalities (not to mention one's neighbors) tend to have a dim view of activities like burning one's lawn.

If you plan to transform a very large portion of your property over to prairie-style planting, some less daunting alternatives can be used to eliminate turf grasses from the area and suppress the suburban lawn weeds that might otherwise take over.

One of these is to cover the existing grass, or whatever, with several layers of newspaper, and top that with alternating thin layers of purchased topsoil and sand to a depth of about 8 inches. Wildflower seeds can be broadcast by hand or with a hand-cranked fertilizer-spreader. (Mix sand with very small seed to get the proper spacing between seeds.) Water the seeds in well, and then water lightly until the seedlings have emerged. Plantings may also be mulched lightly with clean straw.

Plant selection is next. While it is possible to begin with wildflower plants or seedlings, this is expensive, and it is nearly .. impossible to replicate the balanced yet haphazard planting of a dozen or so different wildflowers and grasses. It is better -- and less work -- to start with good seed and let the plants sort themselves out.

Seek out high-quality seeds suitable to your geographic location and physical situation. Make sure the supplier is selling nursery-grown stock -- and not removing plants or seeds from endangered species or ecosystems.

The best of these companies will give you not only color photos of the plants, but also regional maps indicating where different flowers can successfully be grown, and often pictures of the plant seedlings for easy identification.

Information should also be included on what type of environment the plant favors. The Prairie Nursery in Westfield, Wis., 608-296-3679, is one of the best at doing this.

Part of the charm of meadow plantings is the graceful presence of grasses, which form a green canvas against which the flowers show to perfection. The proportion of grasses to flowers should run about 1: 1; this will still leave you with a season-long procession of color and bloom.

While there are many grasses to choose from, there are a handful that look exceptionally good in and out of season.

Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is a familiar one, being used by the Maryland Highway Department for many of its wildflower plantings. It grows about 24 inches tall and turns a beautiful tawny-rust color in the winter.

Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans) is another. It has silky-soft, golden-brown seed heads, reaches 5 to 6 feet tall and is a strong presence in the late-summer landscape. A smaller grass, prairie drop seed (Sporo boles heterolepis), makes a graceful fountain of emerald green about 18 inches tall and is a lovely backdrop for flowering plants. Prairie cordgrass, on the other hand, while often recommended for moist or wetland plantings, can easily get out of hand, as it spreads aggressively by underground rhizomes.

It is also a good idea to include some annuals with your planting, particularly in the first year. This will give you some immediate color while the perennials are establishing themselves, and help to crowd out any errant weeds.

After your meadow is well-started, it will require very little in the way of actual maintenance. Most experts advise mowing in mid-spring to open the soil surface to the sun to encourage the heat-loving prairie plants and control invading trees and shrubs. The cuttings should be raked off and composted.

Wildflower plantings do not require fertilizers or pesticides. If weeds that you do not want are creeping, it is better to root them out by hand or by careful individual application of a spot herbicide.

Pub Date: 5/04/97

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