A step-by-step guide to making a meadow garden with native wildflowers and grasses
Demand for native plants continues to grow across North America. Consumer interest in protecting biodiversity has propelled native plants into the mainstream. Planting a few native plants to benefit pollinators – primarily butterflies and bees – has evolved into a greater desire to create a landscape that protects ecosystems and all the biodiversity they support with meadow gardens.
Aimee McDonald specializes in growing native prairie wildflowers and grasses. She and her husband, Wes, own Prairie Flora Greenhouse in Teulon, Manitoba, which specializes in native prairie garden consultation, design and installation services, as well as pre-designed garden kits.
“What I am hearing from my customers,” says McDonald, “is that they don’t want to plant just anything. They have a more mindful approach. There is a real desire to plant something that will benefit the environment and that will make a difference. It’s an offshoot of the pandemic, I think, which has been a big reminder of how fragile our world is. We are more purposeful.”
There are other practical reasons, too. Native plants have naturally deep root systems which make them more drought tolerant than exotic plants. Native plants help to control problems in the landscape such as erosion or drainage issues, and they usually require less maintenance.
How could you make a successful meadow garden with a mix of prairie wildflowers and grasses that also incorporates good design? It starts by taking your cue from nature. “If we look at a natural wildflower meadow,” says McDonald, “there is a high diversity of grasses as well as wildflowers. Every space is filled.” When McDonald is making a meadow garden, she selects native plants that are suitable as groundcovers and includes a mix of native flowering perennials to provide drifts of colour. Specific plants are selected for structural interest as well as self-seeders that bring spontaneity to the design.
Suppose you want to replace a turfed area in your landscape with a meadow garden? McDonald recommends starting with a small area approximately 250 square feet (23 square metres). She offers several plant suggestions below, including the quantities of each as well as the ideal spacing. Your first task is to prepare the turfed area for your native garden project.
There are a few different ways to go about this, says McDonald. Her preference is to use the smothering method. “It may not look pretty at first,” she cautions. Lay something heavy such as black plastic or a tarp over the designated area. It’s essential to weigh the covering down as much as possible rather than just securing the four corners. If any sunlight or air can get through to the turf grass, weeds such as quackgrass or thistles, and other types will continue to grow underneath the tarp.
The smothering technique takes time and patience, says McDonald, but is less effort and expense than hiring someone to dig up sod by hand and turn it over. A plastic tarp is an easier solution, but it takes time before the area is ready to be planted. If the area is populated by quackgrass or other deep-rooted perennial weeds, says McDonald, the process could take a full year. But if the area is primarily Kentucky bluegrass, you might be able to start planting next spring if you start in August by covering the area you have selected for your meadow garden. Warm temperatures from now until fall will help to speed up the process.
Check underneath the tarp periodically during the summer and fall, recommends McDonald, to see if the grass is still green. “Check it again in spring and if the grass is dead, remove the tarp and you can begin planting directly into the dead sod once temperatures are warm enough.” It can be difficult to plant directly into dead sod so another option is to till and then plant.
If necessary, compost can be worked into the area to help loosen heavy clay. “I find that prairie plants grow just fine and look healthy even without added compost,” says McDonald. “The plants will grow faster if compost is added but the added nutrients can cause them to get leggy. In certain situations, though, compost definitely helps. If you are putting plant plugs into hard clay, scuff up the sides of the planting hole and add a small amount of compost around the plant roots to encourage them to grow outwards into their new medium.” If your soil is loose and friable, your plants won’t need the extra nutrients from compost.
Prairie Flora’s native plant plugs are five-inch (13-cm) deep plugs known as Ray Leach Cone-Tainers. They’re 1.5 inches (3.8 cm) wide. It’s a different look compared to the more commonly seen 3.5-inch (9-cm) containers at most garden centres, however, the amount of soil is the same and once planted, they begin growing and some even flower the first year, says McDonald. There is no need to add a slow-release fertilizer. Extra nitrogen can result in the plants becoming leggy.
“The focus in the first year of planting should be on establishing the below-ground growth of your plants so that they can survive the winter,” says McDonald. For the first few weeks until plant growth is visible, check each day to ensure the soil is moist and water if the top inch of the soil is dry. Monitor regularly for weed growth.
Plant list for a 250-square-foot garden in a sunny area
|Common Name||Scientific Name||Number of Plants||Planting Distance (ft)|
|Prairie dropseed||Sporobolus heterolepis||16||2.0|
|Sheep fescue||Festuca ovina||35||1.0|
|Early blue violet||Viola adunca||26||0.5|
|Three- flowered avens||Geum triflorum||33||1.0|
|Cutleaf anemone||Anemone multifida||41||0.8|
|Purple prairie clover||Petalostemon purpureum||18||1.5|
|Meadow blazing star||Liatris ligulistylis||18||1.5|
|Showy goldenrod||Solidago speciosa||12||1.5|
|Wild bergamot||Monarda fistulosa||3||1.5|
|Joe-Pye weed||Eupatorium maculatum||1||4.0|
|Wild flax||Linum lewisii||7||1.0|
|Blanket flower||Gaillardia aristata||7||1.0|
|Giant hyssop||Agastache foeniculum||2||1.0|
|Smooth aster||Symphyotrichum laeve||2||1.0|
Groundcovers are important, says McDonald. By shading the soil from sunlight, groundcovers help to conserve soil moisture and also discourage weed growth. Grasses such as prairie dropseed and sheep fescue are low-growing native grasses that can also be used to make a low border on the edge of your meadow garden. Planting a border around a small meadow garden is useful in an urban setting.
Early blue violet is an early-flowering groundcover that hugs the ground, re-seeds readily and is a host plant for butterfly caterpillars.
Showy drifts can be created by planting native plants such as three-flowered avens, cutleaf anemone, purple prairie clover, meadow blazing star, showy goldenrod, and wild bergamot that grow naturally in swaths or communities. Take inspiration from patterns found in nature, says McDonald, by visiting areas such as provincial parks that are home to native prairie wildflowers.
Structural interest can be provided by a single tall specimen such as Joe-Pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum).
Self-seeders such as wild flax, Gaillardia aristata, giant hyssop and smooth aster have a way of popping up here and there and will provide a spontaneous element to your meadow design.
“You can always add more diversity later on,” says McDonald. “Nature, for example, is not stagnant, it is not predictable. But we can take inspiration from nature and we can learn from it. There are many layers of vegetation that go towards making a meadow garden sustainable.” While larger plants such as Joe-Pye weed require a greater amount of space, McDonald typically plants about one plant per square foot.
What about access to different areas of your meadow garden? Create a pathway using natural wood chips, pea gravel or flagstone stepping stones spaced apart to enhance moisture permeability. Eventually the groundcovers that you install will cover the spaces between stepping stones. One benefit of pea gravel, says McDonald, is it discourages weeds from taking root in it.
Prairie Flora offers pre-designed gardens for partial sun or shade as well as plants that are adaptable to wet or dry areas. For more information, visit prairieflora.com.