Photo credit: Hill Town Tree & Garden 

Dear Ruth,

Now that summer is here, I am already tired of mowing.

Instead of mowing, I have decided to make a wildflower meadow. I have ½ to ¾ acre to work with.

Can I just sow the wildflower seed on top of the grass?

~Derrick in Candler

Dear Derrick,

The answer is a resounding NO.

Unfortunately, making a meadow is a bit more complicated than tossing a few wildflower seeds on top of your grass. To be successful each seed needs to come in full contact with the bare soil. Taking the time to do it right will reward you with a meadow full of flowers that is beautiful to behold.

Additionally, your meadow will provide fabulous habitat for wildlife, beneficial insects and forage plants for pollinators – it’s a win-win concept. Here are the basic steps and considerations.

Evaluate your site:

Your ideal site should have full sun at least 6 to 8 hours per day, good drainage is extremely important, and soil that is not heavily compacted. If you notice extra-weedy areas in your chosen meadow spot, consider relocating your meadow, because these areas will exert constant weed pressure on your meadow. Weed seeds accumulate in areas where fields drain.

Remove all vegetation:

By hand or by using a tool like a sod cutter, remove all vegetation from your meadow site. For large areas, a motorized sod cutter would make the job a lot easier.

Prepare the ground:

Till the ground VERY shallowly, no more than one inch deep. The deeper you go the more weed seeds you will bring to the surface, and these weeds will compete with your wildflowers. Rake the soil smooth, removing any remaining debris. Time this with your planting time, so that the ground is not left bare more than one day.

Sow the wildflowers:

Split the seed into two buckets. Mix 4-10 parts builder’s sand with your seeds (the sand will make it easier to distribute the seed evenly and make it easy to see where you have already sown the seed). Sow the first half of the seed – covering the entire area. Then sow the second half of the seed perpendicularly to the first half – again covering the entire area.

Tamp the seed in:

Do NOT rake (that will bring up weed seeds). Press the seed firmly into the soil by walking on it or by rolling the area. This ensures that the seed is in good contact with the soil. Do not cover the seed with soil (unless using a particular seed that demands covering, wildflower mixes should not be covered).

Watering:

Provide adequate moisture for 4-6 weeks. Frequent light waterings are best – so you don’t wash the seeds away. Just like in your veggie garden, you want to keep the soil evenly moist until germination occurs. Some of your seeds will sprout quicker than others, so continue to keep the ground moist even after the first seeds sprout. Once the seeds germinate, continue to keep the ground moist – but not swampy or the baby plants will drown from lack of oxygen. When the plants are four inches high you can gradually reduce watering. Meadows are drought tolerant once established, but be extra-attentive the first year, especially during the heat of summer when it can be dry for weeks on end.

Do not fertilize:

Fertilizer promotes weed and grass growth, but you want to give your wildflowers the edge…not the opportunistic invaders. If you do fertilize, use a low nitrogen fertilizer.

Maintenance:

Pull weeds and grass clumps when they appear. Mow once a year in late fall – after the hard frost and after the wildflowers have dropped their seeds. Mow no lower than 3” – mow higher if possible, using a mower or sting trimmer. Some people like to keep a pathway mowed through the meadow for their enjoyment during the season. In spring, check for bare spots and reseed those areas.

Ideal planting time:

Opinions vary about the best time to plant wildflower meadows in Western North Carolina, but most people think a fall planting is best.

  • Fall-planted wildflowers will bloom earlier in the spring, and some perennial seeds need cold weather to germinate in spring. For fall plantings, plant after a killing hard frost has occurred.
  • If you are planting on a slope, winter precipitation can wash your wildflower seeds away. Meadows planted on slopes should be planted in springtime. Plant spring-planted wildflower meadows about one week before you plant your tomatoes. Spring rains are also helpful in areas that are difficult to irrigate.

Seeds:

There are numerous wildflower mixes available. Be sure to select a mix that is appropriate for your planting zone (WNC is Zone 6, or recently declared Zone 7a). Most wildflower mixes contain a blend of annual, biannual, and perennial flowers. Usually perennials will not bloom the first year. Annual flowers will give you lots of bloom the first year and hopefully drop seed for next year’s flowers too. The quick growth of annuals also holds down the fort while the perennials are becoming established. Seeds will continue to germinate the first year as conditions (like soil temperature) are right.

You can see that starting a meadow is a commitment, so don’t be parsimonious with your seed. Buy enough seed and buy quality seed mixes. Even though wildflower seed may seem relatively expensive (ranging from about $28 to $50 per pound depending on the source and quantity that you buy). Once you have exerted the effort to establish a meadow, you will want your project to be a success and to enjoy beautiful results.

How much seed?

Start by figuring out the square footage of the area you intend to plant. Take the length times the width to arrive at the square footage. For instance 80 ft. X 40 ft. = 3200 square feet. There are 43,000 square feet in one acre, so you (Derrick) would be looking at somewhere between 21,500 sq. ft. and 32, 250 sq. ft. for your property of ½ to ¾ acre.

  • ¼ pounds per 1000 sq.ft. = half-hearted coverage (so why go to all the trouble!)
  • ½ pounds per 1000 sq. ft. = good coverage
  • ¾ pounds per 100 sq. ft. = primo coverage
  • 1 pound per 1000 sq. ft. = recommended for problem sites with lots of weed pressure

Some seed sources:

Special order from local garden centers

That’s a great question Derrick. Just remember that those tiny seeds could not readily compete with an existing lawn or established weed patch. If you decide to create your meadow, utilizing the above suggestions will create conditions that favor an inspiring outcome.

Wishing you the very best,
Ruth

Ask Ruth © 2010 Ruth Gonzalez & Organic Growers School

Ruth Gonzalez is a former market farmer, gardener, local food advocate, and founder of the Tailgate Market Fan Club where she blogs at http://tailgatemarketfanclub.wordpress.com. In her job at Reems Creek Nursery, Ruth offers advice on all sorts of gardening questions, and benefits daily from the wisdom of local gardeners.

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Ruth Gonzalez

Ruth Gonzalez

Ruth Gonzalez is a former market farmer, current gardener, and local food advocate. She has written numerous local food and gardening articles, blogs about local food, and writes the “Ask Ruth” Gardening Column for Organic Growers School. In her job at Reems Creek Nursery, Ruth offers advice on all sorts of gardening questions, and benefits daily from the shared wisdom of local gardeners. She has a special affection for clouds and finds delight in the natural world at every turn. Read more from Ruth at her blog: http://tailgatemarketfanclub.wordpress.com/