Feeling uninspired by your traditional grass lawn? Consider creating a vibrant, eco-friendly wildlife haven instead. If you want to sprinkle color throughout your yard and want to bring beautiful butterflies, bees, and birds fluttering into your space, look no further than a native wildflower meadow.
Here’s how to grow your own low-maintenance meadow from scratch.
- What is a wildflower meadow?
- 6 steps to plant a wildflower meadow
- Types of plants for your wildflower meadow
- Pros and cons of a wildflower meadow
- FAQ about wildflower meadows
- Going wild for wildflowers
What is a wildflower meadow?
A wildflower meadow is a garden made up of native flowers, plants, and grasses that grow well together. It’s a specifically designed community of diverse plant species — annuals, biennials, and perennials — that thrive in your region and growing conditions.
When it comes to increasing plant biodiversity, wildflower meadows are a dream. Plus, they’re the perfect home for pollinators, small mammals, and beneficial insects facing habitat loss.
Wildflower meadows reduce erosion on slopes, decrease harmful runoff, and won’t require harsh synthetic herbicides and fertilizers. They’re an eco-friendly grass alternative that will give you a colorful show right outside your window.
Where can I grow a wildflower meadow?
Wildflowers grow all across the country, but they tend to do best in open areas with full to partial sun and little to no foot traffic.
Choose a site that:
- Gets at least six hours of direct sunlight
- Has uncompacted, well-draining soil
- Does not have a persistent weed problem
- Has space (at least 400 square feet) for a variety of plants
- Is far from pesticides and household chemicals that could harm bees
Wildflowers blend well with natural or semi-natural locations:
- Adjoining a forest or woodlot
- Bordering your lawn or patio
- Next to a fence or property line
- In the corner of your yard (if there is sufficient light)
Pro Tip: While your soil must drain well, it doesn’t have to be nutrient-rich. Most wildflowers prefer nutrient-poor soils, so don’t add compost or fertilizer to your meadow.
When to plant a wildflower meadow
If you live in the cooler, upper half of the U.S., plant your wildflower meadow in mid- to late spring, after the last frost date has passed and soil has warmed up to at least 55 degrees Fahrenheit.
If you live in the warmer, lower half of the U.S., plant your wildflower meadow in late fall or early spring. If you have mild winters, planting in fall is best: It gives your seeds the chance to germinate and establish a strong root system before going dormant in winter. In spring, they’ll be healthy and ready to grow.
What you need to plant a wildflower meadow
- Wildflower seeds
- Fine sand
- Sod cutter (if removing grass by cutting)
- Black plastic sheeting (if removing grass by smothering)
- Rototiller or hoe (optional)
- Herbicide (optional)
- Metal or leaf rake
- Lawn roller or cultipacker (optional)
- Straw mulch
6 steps to plant a wildflower meadow
1. Remove existing grass
Wildflowers don’t compete well with turfgrasses, so all existing vegetation must be removed before seeding. There are two methods to remove grass for a successful start to your meadow: smother grass with black plastic or use a sod cutter.
Deciding between the two is a trade-off between time and labor. It takes two to three months to smother grass, but once it’s smothered, you won’t have to do any additional tilling (and you can skip to Step 3). Cutting sod is an afternoon task, but you’ll have to till your soil afterward.
Smother grass with black plastic
A sheet of black plastic deprives grass and weeds of the light they need to photosynthesize. It’s one of the most popular, inexpensive methods of getting rid of an existing lawn.
Start by mowing your lawn once or twice on the lowest setting, scalping the grass. Rake up debris and grass clippings. Then, lay a sheet of thick, black plastic over your area, overlapping the edge of your plastic so that no light can filter through. Place soil, rocks, or bricks around the edges of the sheeting to hold it firmly in place.
Keep your soil covered for two to three months. If you’re planting in fall, lay the black plastic in mid-June and remove it in mid-September. Once you have removed the black plastic, gently rake away organic matter and debris. You’re ready for planting!
Pro Tip: Before applying black plastic sheeting, it’s a good idea to aerate your lawn to get soil nutrients flowing for your new wildflowers.
Use a sod cutter
Start by scalping your lawn and raking up debris just like you would if you were going to smother your grass. Then, use a sod cutter (you can rent a motorized one for large areas) to remove the surface layer of your lawn. Set the blade depth to half an inch.
If using a sod cutter, you’ll also need to till your area and possibly apply weed killer.
2. Weed your area (if you used a sod cutter)
Don’t let bare soil trick you into thinking your lawn is weed-free. Weed seeds are buried under the surface, ready to sneak up on your wildflowers. Protect your meadow from weedy intruders by either tilling or both tilling and applying herbicide.
Till your soil
Till the soil deeply with a rototiller (or a hoe for smaller areas) six to eight weeks prior to planting. This will dislodge deep-rooted weeds and grasses. Then, repeat the tilling process at a shallower depth every two to three weeks to eliminate persistent old weeds and fresh new weeds.
While tilling is a wonderfully chemical-free method of weed removal, you may need a more intense approach if perennial weeds are putting up a fight.
Perform the same tilling process as above six weeks before planting. Rake the soil and wait three weeks for weeds to grow back. Then, attack them with a non-selective spray herbicide that has a short residual period. This will quickly kill weeds without sticking around to harm your fresh seeds.
Remove the dead weeds before planting your fresh seeds.
Pro Tip: To prevent new weed growth, do not till the soil after applying herbicide.
3. Scatter seeds
It’s time to let your wildflowers loose! Scatter your seed on a windless day so your seeds germinate in the right place.
Calculate how much seed you need based on the area of your seedbed: The suggested seeding rate for most wildflowers is ½ pound of seed per 1,000 square feet, or 80 seeds per square foot. So, if you want a 2,000-square-foot wildflower garden, you’ll need one pound of seed.
Mix seeds with fine sand in a proportion of one part seeds, four parts sand. Sand helps you spread seeds more evenly, and since it’s lighter in color than seed, you can still see how seeds are dispersed over your lawn.
Scatter your seeds by hand using a continuous sweeping motion. Start with half of your sand and seed mixture. Walk back and forth in one direction (north to south) over your lawn, spreading seeds.
Then, grab the other half of your sand and seed mixture and walk back and forth in the other direction (east to west). When you’re done, your lawn will look like a seed checkerboard.
4. Compress seeds
After scattering your seeds, rake lightly (just ¼ inch deep), so that seeds have good contact with the soil but are not buried.
Once your lawn is evenly raked, tamp down your seeds either with your feet or with a lawn roller or rented cultipacker (a heavy-duty roller designed to firm up large seedbeds). Add a light layer of straw mulch to protect the seeds. Straw is especially helpful in preventing erosion if you are planting wildflowers on a slope.
Keep soil moist for the first four weeks after planting (until wildflower seedlings are 4-6 inches tall) to ensure successful germination.
Mowing: To promote fresh growth in the spring, mow your wildflower meadow in late fall (the first fall after you plant it), after most of your flowers have dropped their seeds. Mow on your highest mower setting (4 inches or more). This will remove dead flower heads so your wildflowers can focus their energy on growing new flowers the following spring. Leave the flower clippings on your lawn for natural reseeding.
Weeding: Herbicides can damage or kill wildflowers, so when weeds pop up, you’ll have to cut them with scissors or shears, weed them by hand, or spot spray them. Cutting weeds with scissors or small shears is the best practice, as it won’t damage surrounding plants or roots. Just snip their stems at the soil surface every other week.
Watering: As wildflowers mature, their roots grow longer and stronger and they require less water. You’ll need to give your water 1 inch of water weekly for the first year, but you may be able to water less frequently in the second year. By the third year, your meadow will be largely self-sufficient. It will only need watering during especially dry periods.
Pro Tip: Never mow tall grasses in your meadow at a blade setting below 6 inches, as this can damage or kill them.
Types of plants for your wildflower meadow
The best types of native flowers for your meadow depend on your specific growing region, but check out these popular flowers to attract a garden full of fluttering friends.
10 popular wildflowers for butterflies and bees
- Black-eyed Susan
- Common madia (tarweed)
- Arroyo lupine
- Purple coneflower
- Gum plant
- Golden Alexander
If you’d rather not buy a bunch of individual seed packets, you can find a gold mine of wildflower seed mixes at your local gardening center. There are wildflower mixes for all different growing conditions and soil types, so you can choose which blend best suits your lawn.
Best grasses to suppress weeds
Think that a wildflower meadow is mainly made up of, well, wildflowers? Think again. For optimal growth, prairie managers recommend that native grasses make up 50%-80% of your meadow.
- If you live in a cooler climate (in the upper half of the U.S.) or in the Transition Zone, consider planting hard fescue, sheep fescue, Canada wild rye, or little bluestem to prevent weed growth.
- If you live in a warmer climate (in the lower half of the U.S.), go with buffalograss, sideoats grama, blue grama, Lindheimer’s muhly, or big bluestem. These grasses won’t compete with your wildflowers, but they will stop weeds from rearing their heads.
- Avoid Kentucky bluegrass, bermudagrass, and annual ryegrass. Aggressive growers can crowd out your flowers.
Pros and cons of a wildflower meadow
Before you commit to a wildflower meadow, consider the benefits and disadvantages of a wildflower-filled yard.
Pros of a wildflower meadow:
✓ Great for pollinators
✓ Promotes biodiversity
✓ Adds natural color and texture to your landscape
✓ Reduces erosion and runoff pollution
✓ Grows in poor soil
✓ Little to no harsh chemicals required
✓ Improves soil health
Cons of a wildflower meadow:
✗ Takes time for plants to flower and grow strong
✗ Cannot tolerate heavy foot traffic
✗ Looks less tidy than a traditional lawn
✗ Most wildflowers need full to partial sun
✗ Not a good play area for children and pets
✗ Requires a large lawn space
✗ Susceptible to weeds
FAQ about wildflower meadows
Yes! You can plant a combination of seeds and container-grown plants to speed up the maturation process. Buy containers of slow-growing perennial wildflowers to give them a head start in the growing and blooming process.
Plant your container-grown flowers before seeding so they don’t disturb the soil while seeds are germinating.
If crabgrass starts to smother your wildflowers, you may need to apply a post-emergent selective herbicide. One spray application to growing crabgrass (before it goes to seed) will kill it. In general, though, herbicide should be avoided, as it can stress or kill wildflowers.
Weed invasions and bare spots are major hurdles in the second growing season, so give your garden some extra TLC.
—Clip weeds weekly as they sprout. Avoid hand weeding and chemical sprays when possible. —Reseed or spot transplant in bare areas to ensure even distribution of wildflowers.
—Water about 1 inch per week. Your plant roots aren’t fully mature yet.
Living in an arid region doesn’t destroy your wildflower options. Popular drought-tolerant and drought-resistant wildflowers include:
—Zinnia (Zinnia elegans): USDA zones 2-11
—Blue flax (Linum perenne) : USDA zones 3-8
—California poppy (Eschscholzia californica): USDA zones 6-10
—Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca): USDA zones 3-9
—Common yarrow (Achillea millefolium): USDA zones 4-8
—Gumweed: (Grindelia camporum): USDA zones 7-9
To find wildflowers perfect for your specific region, check out the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s guide to regional wildflowers.
Going wild for wildflowers
A wildflower meadow takes time to mature, but it’ll make a stunning debut in its third year. Perennial flowers will finally bloom, giving your yard gorgeous new color, and native plants will grow more densely, naturally crowding out weeds. You can sit back, relax, and enjoy the beautiful butterfly show.
Want the butterflies without the strenuous weeding and seeding? Contact a local lawn care company to transform drab grass into a magical meadow.
Main Photo Credit: JillWellington | Pixabay