Be Careful of What You Wish For – A retrospective for years of meadow-keeping

This article by Garry Plunkett originally appeared in the RIPWS publication, WildFloraRI, Spring 2019.  Photos by Garry and Virginia Plunkett

The word “meadow” brings to mind fields of open grassland, dappled with wildflowers bending to the wind in rolling waves across the horizon. Those inviting images frequented gardening publications twenty-five years ago, about the time I was figuring out my meadow. I was all in, transfixed by a patch of grass that hearkened back to the bluestem prairies of my native Oklahoma.

I actually did not create my meadow. Our two-acre house lot was part of a hay meadow in a subdivision that broke up one of the last working “Providence Plantations.” Winnisimet Farm had the classic look of what was once a common scene across New England—fields of grasses divided by a grid of fieldstone walls. Those hayfield grasses were typically a mix of Old World, “cool-season” species originally brought to America by settlers for livestock fodder. It was known as English hay. Today, those species are still prominent in open fields and pasturelands, including bluegrass, orchard grass, perennial rye, velvet grass, timothy, and meadow fescue. They were on the house lot and still grow in my meadow today. The house was surrounded with conventional suburban landscaping, but I kept a back acre of hay meadow next to a stone wall as a bit of nostalgia from the old farm.

A couple of years had passed when I first noticed changes, new colors sprinkled among the blanket of green. Henry David Thoreau was the first to coin a term for what was unfolding— natural succession. Thoreau recorded a predictable progression of plants he saw appearing in fallow fields around his Concord home. Broad-leaf plants came first, then brambles and deciduous thickets. Ultimately, if left untended long enough, succession will produce New England’s climax community, a temperate forest.

My backyard succession brought squadrons of goldenrod, milkweed, evening primrose, St. John’s wort, buttercup, stitchwort—something new every season. This was happening about the time meadows were a popular topic in gardening circles. RIWPS was passing out “No Mow” stickers at the spring flower show and offering “meadows in a flat” at plant sales. The meadow bubble eventually burst, but I kept my meadow and have also stewarded large conservation grasslands. Both experiences provided reality checks for what can work in a grassland, and what does not.

Most people would not get a meadow gift-wrapped as I did, but must either abandon weekly mowing of a lawn, or start from scratch and plant a seed mix. Yes, one can simply stop mowing an area of lawn and voila! a meadow is born. Turf grasses are like forage grasses, cool-season species that, if left uncut, will grow vigorously in the spring and into early summer. They can grow to about three feet, flower in May, and go to seed in June.

A pure, cool-season grass meadow can certainly be visually appealing with its changing hues and textures in varying light, wind, and moisture conditions. But it does run out of gas in summer, turn brown, and go dormant. The meadow then begins to look scraggly—the perfect time for mowing. The vegetative structure is light and dry, so a garden tractor is adequate for mowing at a slow speed with the mower deck at maximum height. Extra reverse-direction mowing will produce a light, straw-like fluff that disappears after a couple weeks. The cut field will green up later and grow to about a foot high, but without re-flowering. An additional mowing in early spring, as the grass begins to grow, is useful for weed control as it exposes encroaching woodies and invasive plants that typically emerge early.

An alternative to the lawn-to-meadow conversion is the complete do-over: plowing up the sod, preparing the soil, and planting a meadow seed mix. This method permits one to choose actual meadow grass species and to mix in flower seed at the outset, but it is an arduous task . Methodical soil preparation to kill weed roots and seeds in the soil bank is very important. Done properly, with a seed mix specifically chosen for our bioregion, it can produce spectacular results—for a year or two. But alas, succession inevitably begins to change the meadow.

Some volunteer plants are desirable, such as goldenrod and milkweed,as they colonize into attractive patches. (Dare I say two-foot high dandelions will add bright yellows?) Others are not desirable, like common tansy and knapweed, both aggressive aliens that outcompete natives and reduce diversity. The key is early identification of the undesirables, and early removal.This is a rigorous process, but it doesn’t necessarily mean “forget it,” as in don’t even think of trying. Long-term success is possible with diligent soil preparation and a good seed mix from reputable sources. Then, expect dynamic changes. Better yet, celebrate them! I planted an area with a seed mix twenty years ago, and it was great fun watching the successes, failures, and surprises as the planted patch blended into the surrounding area with its own unique character.

It’s reasonable to wonder about the validity of establishing a meadow in New England. Our native grasslands are generally wetlands—salt marshes and “fresh meadows” (riparian flood plains, fens, and reedy marshes). All are threatened communities in need of protection but are not practical for individual landscapes. So, is something that is hardly a natural plant community, is a chore to establish, and needy to maintain worth the effort?

It is. So, let me count the ways:

  1. If they replace turf, meadows can host many native pollinators and reduce the pollution associated with lawns.
  2. They can be an attractive transition between a lawn and a woodland.
  3. They can function as a mini- ecotone, increasing backyard biodiversity (Who else has twinkling fireflies on warm summer nights?).
  4. They preserve a bit of New England pastoral history.
  5. Properly maintained, they can be a beautiful native wildflower display.

(It should be added that large conservation grasslands are critically important habitat for threatened ground-nesting bird species.)

Managing succession by methodically allowing a meadow to evolve into an “old field” will add beauty and environmental value. Volunteers will appear, adding colors, textures, and spatial patterns. Evening primrose, cinquefoil, cow vetch, Queen Anne’s lace, red clover, yarrow, chicory, and fall asters were welcome in my meadow— lots of flowers free of charge! Selectively controlling volunteer wildflowers to favor native species and desired locations refines the natural process. Planting additional natives that can survive competition from grasses will add further visual interest.

There can be no specific road map or species list for doing meadows because much depends on site conditions—soil, moisture, surrounding area vegetation, and land history, to name a few. I would, however, offer these general recommendations:

  • Hand-pull undesirables early and often to control invasives and manage desirable volunteers (most easily done when soil is rain- saturated and soft).
  • Favor late-season bloomers to accommodate mid-season grass mowing—asters, Joe-Pye weed, ironweed, black-eyed Susans.
  • Locate flowers around meadow edges or in islands to facilitate mowing.
  • Avoid fall mowing, as it removes highly desirable winter cover, food for over-wintering birds, and attractive winter textures and colors.
  • Dig deep, wide oversized holes when planting potted perennials— competition in a meadow is fiercer than in a flowerbed.
  • When strolling in your meadow, bring gloves—there’s always something to pull!

Finally, add the coup de grâce of a beautiful, environmentally impactful meadow: warm-season grasses. They are everything that cool-season grasses are not—native, drought-resistant, and exuberant in late summer, plus they have an amazing ability to retain structure and attractive tawny colors over the winter. (They also are excellent for conservation grasslands, because they are bunch grasses that have better structure for grassland nesting birds compared to rhizomatous spreading cool-season grasses.)

Warm-season grasses include switchgrass, broomsedge bluestem, Indian grass, big and little bluestem. They dominated the vast prairies of the Midwest, and some are found in New England, often where soils are nutrient-poor and dry. In my experience switchgrass and big bluestem are the best species for planting where there is strong competition from established cool- season grasses. But all warm-season grasses do well in well-drained, nutrient-poor soils, such as upper edges of salt marshes, roadsides, and South County’s glacial moraine.

Tackling a meadow in a bioregion where nature really would prefer a forest just might fall into the “if-it’s- easy-it-ain’t-worth-doing” category. Indeed, meadows are not for wimps. But they are rewarding for those willing to make the long-term investment in hands-on, up-close-and-personal stewardship. John Burroughs is credited with the saying, “To learn something new, take the path that you took yesterday.” Caring for my meadow has drawn me down a meadow path practically every day for 30 years, and I continue to learn new things about it and about the natural world outside my back door.