How to Establish a Wildflower Meadow
Over the past couple of years, I’ve been working to establish a wildflower meadow on the lower part of my property, zones 3 & 4. In time, trees may be added, but for now I would like the native meadow to provide habitat, diversity, nectar, pollen for my bees and the other pollinators, and beauty, all in a low maintenance package.
I originally planted the meadow in the fall of 2013. My thinking was that in nature, this is the time she plants. Wildflowers go to seed in the fall. At the time I was concerned about getting some cover before winter. I didn’t want exposed earth over the winter, so I put in clover and alfalfa in the mix for nitrogen fixation. The clover and alfalfa did great and took over the meadow, very few of the flowers in the mix germinated the next year like I had envisioned. I think the main reason is that the clover was rampant, already taking up available space and light. On the positive side the nitrogen fixers were preparing the soil to support wildflowers. So, this spring I decided to try again.
1. Decide when to plant the seed. I’ve tried the fall and the spring. I think spring works a bit better here in zone 6. There is less weed competition in the fall, but you also have the bare earth issue in the fall, and if you do get germination, the plants may die over the winter, without a strong root system.
2. Get your wildflower seed. One thing about perennial wildflowers is that they generally do not germinate the first year you plant them. So, I think it is a good idea to incorporate annuals and perennials wildflowers into your meadow, so the first year you get the annuals, and after that the perennials can take over. I used a mixture of annual and perennial wildflowers appropriate for my climate.
3. Prepare the site. This can be done any number of ways, but basically you need to get rid of the vegetation and create a seed bed. Sheet mulching works well for small areas, but for larger areas, I think tilling makes sense. I am not a big fan of tilling, but in my situation where I tilled an acre, sheet mulching is not practical. The only other alternative would be to spray an herbicide and do a no-till drill. To be honest, I’m not sure which damages the soil life more, but I’m chemical free here, so I went with the tilling.
4. Apply the seed. I had planned to seed drill the seed with a tractor mounted seeder. The problem is that the rate of seed applied with wildflowers is really low, and I was worried I might run out of seed. So I applied the seed with a walk-behind spreader and then ran the seeder over the seed to plant it. I had about 1 pound of seed per 1000 square feet to apply, so I weighed two pounds of seed and put it into the walk-behind spreader. Then I measured out a 2000 square foot area and applied the seed. I then adjusted the seeder to give me the right amount based on what was left or when it went empty. This was more labor intensive, but I didn’t run out of seed. It is crucial that the seed be incorporated into the soil at the proper depth. This is a bit tricky when you are dealing with lots of different seed sizes that like different depths. I used a quarter inch depth to plant, as this wasn’t perfect, but worked for most of the seed. It is a mistake to till an area and simply throw the seed on the surface. You will not get very good germination results this way. It is important to have a shallow covering of soil over the seed. After planting the seed, if you apply a thin layer of straw, this can help protect the seed and provide additional moisture. I did not do this, as I did not want to apply straw over an acre of ground. Also, if you want to apply a seed starting fertilizer, one that is high in phosphorus, it is not a bad idea. I did not, because the soil was fertile because of the clover and alfalfa that was tilled under.
5. Water frequently until germination, then less frequent deep watering. For those of you with big plots like mine, it is difficult to water, so we hope for rain. I actually had a very dry patch right after planting. We were supposed to get a stretch of rain that never came, so I did actually drag around hoses and sprinklers. If you have a big patch, it is smart to seed right before a rainy patch of weather.