How to Plant a Meadow
Meadows are embedded in human consciousness. Open, sun-filled expanses of golden grasses and wildflowers are the foundation of our own ecology. We are animals of the savannah and prairie. We evolved in these spaces. We invented agriculture within them. As children we gravitate to them knowingly, already nostalgic for these magical places we are only first discovering, full of soft, tangled undergrowth and hidden life. We memorialize meadows in sketches and photographs and paintings. Meadows are pollinator habitat, and home to frogs and foxes. They are intricate carbon sequestration machinery, and complex water filtration systems. Meadows are art.
The best art is imperfect and practical. Appreciating this is the first step in planting a meadow: your meadow will have its share of weeds, it will look messy and chaotic sometimes, and once you plant it, you can’t control it. You can only try to nudge it into new expressions of itself. Your meadow will ultimately decide what kind of meadow it's going to be.
The information below provides a general roadmap to meadow-making (we call it meadowscaping, or meadowcraft). There’s lots of other ways, besides this way, to make a meadow, just like there are lots of different routes to arrive at any destination. In our decades of experience, the process described below consistently offers some of the best results for the least cost and effort. That said, we continue to plant new meadows all the time, and constantly trial new approaches, tools, and timing. We’ll update this information with new developments and technical approaches on a periodic basis.
Handling Seed and Seed Pre-Treatment
Seeds are alive. They are a magical combination of “quiet rest” and “aliveness,” this incredible packaging has allowed wild plants to survive and multiply through thousands of years, and to rebound after fires, floods, cold winters, and so much more. This combination of traits also requires a little bit of care on your part to help your seeds germinate and survive.
First, always store seed out of direct heat (such as enclosed vehicles on a sunny day). The best way to store seeds until you are ready to plant is in a cool, dry, dark place. (Refrigerators are great).
Second, some of your seeds may be ready to immediately germinate, however native seeds are often dormant, meaning they have physical or chemical properties that inhibit germination until conditions are optimal for growth. To make matters even more complicated, some plants produce both seeds that are ready to germinate and some that are dormant and will not germinate until their dormancy is switched off. This is very different from garden vegetable seed, which is bred to have immediate and fast germination rates. Native seed can be SLOW to get started.
Our general rules of thumb for planting success are:
- All native seed is best planted outside in the fall. Both ready to germinate seeds and dormant seeds will typically germinate best in cool weather (cold weather exposure switches off the dormancy of many seeds).
- Some seeds can be successful spring-planted (prior to early May), however, keep in mind that spring-planted wildflowers and grasses usually need supplemental irrigation to get them established throughout the first growing season. (Another advantage of fall-planted species is that they get much of their water needs supplied by winter precipitation, developing good root systems before things begin to dry out in late spring).
- If you are not fall-planting, you should “cold stratify” your seeds in a refrigerator for 2-weeks prior to planting. This will switch off the dormancy for many species, allowing them to germinate when exposed to light, ample moisture, and warm soil. In the case of seed mixes that you intend to direct sow, you can mix the seed with damp sand prior to refrigeration for even better germination.
- Some seeds also benefit from pre-soaking in warm water for 2-days prior to planting (following cold stratification). In particular we recommend this approach with showy milkweed (which is a notoriously finicky species), lupine, barestem biscuitroot, blue-eyed grass, cow parsnip, mule’s ears, irises, columbine, and native clovers. When pre-soaking, we recommend changing the water 3-4 times daily during the pre-soak period, then directly planting the seed.
Please know that there is an element of mystery with many native species, and the exact germination protocols for some plants are not well understood.
Direct Seeding or Growing Transplants?
Our seed mixes are best planted directly in the ground, in the fall, or in the spring following cold stratification for 2-weeks in the fridge (followed by ample irrigation after the mix is planted).
For single species packets, you may want to grow them in containers for later transplanting. In particular, small, fragile, and slow growing species are often best started in containers where they face minimal competition from weeds or faster growing native grasses and wildflowers. We typically have the best success growing species such as blue-eyed grass, springbank clover, camas, Douglas aster, checkermallow, showy fleabane, sea thrift, milkweed, irises, and columbine as transplants.
Some of the species that tend to do well from direct seeding include yarrow, lupines, meadowfoam, and all types of clarkia.
Site Preparation and Direct Seeding
When planting native grass and wildflower seed, we recommend sowing on bare, weed-free ground following extensive site preparation to reduce as much dormant weed seed as possible.
Our preferred method for preparing new wildflower meadow areas is to cover newly cultivated areas with opaque tarps or black plastic for a full growing season before planting (a full calendar year is even better). We’ve prepared up to ½ acre for planting this way in a single season, and with careful treatment, large tarps or plastic sheeting can be re-used over multiple seasons to cover new areas – slowly increasing the size of wildflower plantings year after year.
NOTE: WE DO NOT RECOMMEND USING CLEAR PLASTIC FOR SITE PREPARATION. "SOLARIZATION" WITH CLEAR PLASTIC HAS NOT PROVEN TO BE CONSISTENTLY SUCCESSFUL IN NORTHERN CLIMATES. ALSO NOTE: WE DO NOT RECOMMEND THE USE OF ANY PLASTIC SMOTHERING NEAR THE ROOT SYSTEMS OF TREES, WHICH NEED THE BREATH (JUST LIKE YOUR LUNGS) AND WHICH NEED ACCESS TO RAINWATER.
When planting native seed, we recommend you hand scatter it directly onto the soil surface. Do not bury the seed or cover it with soil, however it can be lightly raked into the soil after planting. We recommend planting in the fall to take advantage of natural winter precipitation, however spring planting can also work. Note that the later into spring planting occurs, the more irrigation plants will need throughout the remainder of the growing season to get established. Fall-seeded plants usually don’t require any supplemental irrigation.
IMPORTANT INFO ABOUT PLANTING MIXES – PLEASE READ
Please note that the seed size for many of the plants we sell is extremely small! A single tablespoon might hold several thousand seeds of some plants such as Western Yarrow, Farewell to Spring, and even some of the native grasses.
While we formulate our mixes at robust seeding rates, the small seed sizes result in a relatively small volume (at least if you were expecting seed the size of lima beans!).
To efficiently spread a seed mix over a large planting area, we strongly recommend that you “bulk up” your seed mix with an inert material to increase its overall volume. We use an organic granular plant-based cat litter ourselves, but other people commonly use vermiculite, sand, corn meal, or dry non-clumpy soil.
To do this, we recommend mixing the seed and inert bulking material together in buckets, wheel barrels, or plastic totes. Ideally, try to at least add 2 to 3 times more inert material to increase the volume of the seed mix. Carefully combine all the material, and mix extensively until the seed is held in a solid suspension with the inert ingredients. It’s also a good practice to include slug bait to reduce damage from invasive slugs. (Iron-phosphate slug bait is safe for people and pets, and is organic-approved).
Once mixed, the seed can be hand scattered (like chicken feed) over the planting site. We recommend dividing your materials into at least two equal batches. Spread one batch over the entire planting area while walking back and forth. Then scatter the second half over the entire site again, walking back and forth, this time perpendicular to your first paths. As you do this, it’s a good idea to shake the mix periodically to ensure the seed remains evenly distributed in the mix.
SOME COMMON QUESTIONS THAT WE HEAR
What can I plant to compete with blackberry and other weeds? No native meadow plants can completely prevent the encroachment of blackberry and other invasive weeds. Rather, to reduce weedy vegetation you should implement three strategies: 1) Perform very comprehensive site preparation to remove all the weeds in advance of planting a meadow (including working to minimize soil disturbance which can bring up long buried dormant weed seed), 2) Establish a dense cover of desirable meadow vegetation to help reduce open spaces for weeds to grow, 3) Conduct regular hands-on inspections for weeds in your meadow and selectively eliminate them. Meadows are low-maintenance, not “maintenance-free.”
Do you recommend sheet mulching to prepare new areas for planting? Sheet mulching (covering existing vegetation with lots of organic matter to smother it) can be an effective way to prepare an area for meadow planting. We don’t personally use it ourselves because it is cost and labor prohibitive to sheet mulch on a large scale. The materials needed can be very heavy, time-consuming to apply, and it can be hard to find cost-effective sources of materials to work with. In addition, it is important that the sheet-mulching materials be weed-free. For an alternative (and an alternative to the use of black plastic) we have seen good results from people using large flattened cardboard boxes to smother an area in preparation for planting. Usually the cardboard is weighed down with rocks, and watered to form a heavy, soggy barrier that kills off existing vegetation after several months, leaving a nice planting site when the cardboard is removed.
Should I cover the seed with wood chips after planting? Please no! Wood chips and wood mulch create a tough barrier for very tiny seedlings to emerge from. We also think the added weight of rain-soaked wood chips compacts soil, leachate from the wood chips can create an unhospitable chemical environment for seeds to germinate in, and we’ve seen way too many wood chips that included ground up blackberry bushes (including live seeds).
Should I amend my soil with compost? In general, no. Native plants, especially wildflowers are adapted to natural soil conditions, including nutrient poor conditions. Non-native turf grasses and other weeds tend to thrive in enriched soils and can out-compete native plants – especially wildflowers.
How do I keep birds from eating my seed? Many songbirds are primarily insectivores and eat seeds only as a lesser portion of their diet. We don’t see much real-world harm to newly seeded meadows caused by birds, even when they do pick-up a few seeds. Many of our native wildflower seeds are really, really, (really!), tiny and make an unrewarding food source for birds. Larger wildflower seeds, and grass seeds, face more pressure. Aside from a scarecrow, you can lightly rake seed into the upper surface of the soil. Where possible, it also helps to water newly seeded areas immediately to help settle the seed into the soil. Additionally, we have had good success covering newly seeded areas with very light layer of weed-free grain straw, or thin straw erosion mats to help hide seed and make it less accessible to birds.
What can I plant that will be deer resistant? Deer will browse most native meadow plants periodically, even occasionally species that they supposedly don’t like. Still, they do have strong preferences, such as newly emerged Camas flowers. Some plants they prefer not to eat include: Lupines, Gumweed, Selfheal, Sneezeweed, Seablush, Blue-Eyed Grass, Irises, Western Buttercup, Yarrow, Common Fiddleneck, Lacy Phacelia, Oregon Sunshine, Spring Gold, Barestem Biscuitroot, Pearly Everlasting, Douglas Aster, Meadowfoam, Showy Tarweed, Milkweed, and most native grasses.
Should I direct sow my seeds or start them in containers? This depends entirely on your goals. Most annual plants are best started by directly seeding them in the ground where you want them to ultimately grow.
Among perennials you can either seed them directly in the ground, or they can be grown in containers until they are big enough to be transplanted into specific places where you want them. This latter approach is a great way to produce your own transplants for adding to existing grassy or natural areas to increase meadow diversity. It’s tremendously rewarding to grow your own native plants from seed over the winter in containers, then transplant them out into a field in the spring.
A few native perennials produce large roots that need immediate room to grow. These include Big Leaf Lupine, Mule’s Ear, Barestem Biscuitroot, Yampah, Cow Parsnip, Milkweed, and Spring Gold. We recommend planting these directly in the ground, or in very deep containers so their young root systems can grow to their full potential.
What can I plant directly into existing grass? Seeding into existing grass usually produces slow results. That said, with repeated annual sowing, a few native plants can establish within existing grass. Some of the ones we use with moderate success include Farewell to Spring, Riverbank Lupine, Self-Heal, Prairie Burnet, and Camas (note that Camas planting from seed may not appear in flowering form for many years, and will be most successful with ongoing repeated sowing). The density of wildflowers will always be less in dense grass plantings compared to sites where all grass was removed prior to planting. Heavy seeding rates will increase wildflower establishment success among established grasses.
Can I plant meadow species over a septic system? Yes. Native grasses and wildflowers are compatible with most septic systems, and do not produce the expansive woody root systems that make trees and shrubs problematic in those same locations.
What do you recommend for abused sites, such as areas compacted by construction? Among meadow plants, some of the best colonizers of difficult conditions and damaged soils are Common Fiddleneck, Foothill Clover, Riverbank Lupine, Yarrow, Gumweed, Red Fescue, and Prairie Burnet.
NEED ADDITIONAL HELP?
We love hearing from people who are interested in planting meadows and native wildflowers, and yet increasingly struggle to keep up with the many questions asking for site-specific advice. Because of this, to better support folks with big projects, or complex situations, we offer one-on-one remote consulting via Zoom or Facetime. Due to limited capacity, we are only able to take on a very small number of on-site consultations and installations each year -- remote consultations have allowed us to help more people successfully implement new projects and manage their existing meadows. You can read more about this process and schedule a session here.