Marvelous Meadows

Meadows seem to call out to poets. Their tall grasses and wildflowers have inspired hundreds of poems. But poets are not the only creatures who find meadows irresistible.

Bluebirds. Goldfinches. Juncos. Harriers. Butterflies. Others are there, too, just less visible to us. Many birds make nests in tall grasses, and the whole point is that it’s hard to see them, so the babies are safer from predators. Bees buzz around the wildflowers and make little burrows in the shelter of the grasses. Fireflies hide there during the day, just waiting for the darkness hours to rise, flashing, into the air.

Paths through the meadow look inviting.

Wow, no wonder poets are so infatuated with meadows. Makes you want to gaze upon one with your morning coffee. Too bad there aren’t more of them…

It is too bad. Meadows are powerhouses for life of all sorts, most particularly insects, which are leading the current mass extinction. Insects, which we may or may not like, are beloved by many other creatures, like the birds we do love. Birds, in fact, eat so many insects sometimes it’s hard to find them. Fortunately, some do manage to escape the voracious avians so that future generations can feed yet more birds (baby birds can’t eat seeds; they need soft food, such as caterpillars and other soft bodied insects).

In fact, if insects disappear, so do the birds that need them desperately. And there’s nothing like a meadow to get healthy populations of insects, which then leads to large populations of our delightful birds. Ultimately, we’re just like the birds that depend upon the insects, not that we feed them to our babies. But insects pollinate much of the food we eat and feed other creatures, like many fish, that we like to eat. Insects are, quite simply, the basis of many, many food webs.

Want to have a meadow of your own? It’s surprisingly easy.

Grow a meadow, give nature’s smallest a home, and you’ll support a myriad of food webs. You’ll see more pollinators for your veggies, more birds, and more butterflies. Both birds and butterflies like to hide in meadows when they’re resting. The birds will eat so many insects you probably won’t notice how very many you’re graciously giving home to except the butterflies, which are quite visible when they’re not hiding in the grass. You’ll see lots and lots of birds. Even hummingbirds like meadows – they eat mostly insects, though we think of them sipping nectar and sugar water. Likely you’ll see more fireflies, too (did you know fireflies are endangered?).

There are lots of ways of growing the meadow of your dreams. For your Earth Day project, perhaps you can clear the sod. Lawns consist mostly of European grasses, which tend to do poorly in this country. Don’t worry – you don’t have to dig them all out.

You can lay down the ubiquitous black plastic, of course, but it really doesn’t seem very “earth friendly”? Much “earth friendlier,” and actually just as easy, is to lay down cardboard. At last! Something to do with all those online shopping boxes. Or, use newspaper if you and/or your neighbors have some to recycle. Don’t use magazines or other high-shine paper – all that ink can put some heavy-duty metals in the soil. Or, if you happen to have saved up last fall’s leaves, pile them instead. It’s a gardening technique called “smothering.”

Laying down cardboard is a natural way to kill sod, making way for a beautiful meadow.

“Smothering” is great. The grasses will slowly die off, still holding the soil with their roots, adding valuable nitrogen to the soil. Then, place wood or pine mulch on top to hold down the smothering material. Come back in the fall, rake off the mulch, and enjoy the brief vision of plain, un-lawned soil. Then plant your meadow with seeds or plugs.

Seeds are easier to plant than plugs, but less certain. Seeds have to be planted just like a lawn – sprinkle them down, walk back and forth over the area you’ve sprinkled to ensure “good seed to soil contact” and water. Keep the soil moist and get ready to enjoy the show. Plugs must be dug in like any other plant you hope to establish in your yard.

Choice of seed or plugs is important. Seeds from local strains of the native grasses will do well. Good seed sources will tell you what seed strain they’ll sell you – on the Eastern Shore, we need eastern varieties. The same grasses grow all over the country, but the same grass or flower from New Mexico might not be as well adapted to the Eastern Shore as the local strain.

Once you’ve chosen a good seed supplier, your next thoughts should run to “annuals or perennials” in the seed mixture. Grasses are most likely to be perennials (they come back every year) but wildflowers can be one or the other. Many seed mixtures are touted by “a mixture of annuals and perennials” – please, avoid those. It’s pretty much one or the other with a brand-new meadow. Believe it.

Perennials are little, tiny babies their first year, while annuals go for broke. Each year annuals go from seed to seed-production. This means that the annuals will quickly overtake the perennials, shading them out. If those little baby perennials don’t get enough sun, they’ll die – and won’t be back next year. What a disappointment if they were what you were hoping to see.

So, while perennials are, in the long run, easier to manage, they are harder to establish in the first year. To get perennials established you’ll need to mow the whole meadow to roughly 6” every couple of weeks, just to be sure they’re getting enough sun or plant full size plants, which can be expensive. You might also want to water them in times of drought because they’re little babies and they’re tender. Don’t worry – once they’re past their first season they will be fierce plants, blooming year after year after year. And, once the perennials are going strong, you can always toss down some annual seeds, and have both.

Many people are saddened by the idea of grasses in their meadow – they want only flowers. While that’s possible, it’s not really a meadow and it isn’t self-sustaining the way a meadow is. All-flower-no-grass areas are better known as flower gardens and, as with any flower garden, you’ll have many weeds, because grasses are much better at keeping weeds down than the average wildflower. A good meadow, a self-sustaining meadow, should be 50 to 70% grasses. This is fine – our local grasses are much better looking than the European lawn grasses, and they look great in the winter, too (many gardeners plant them as specimen plants simply for the “winter interest”.)

Many recommend mowing a meadow once a year to spread seeds and keep the plants healthy. Others recommend a good burn every couple of years, which is what frequently happens to nature’s meadows. Some don’t feel the need to mow or burn at all. This is up to you.

It’s difficult to figure out the best time to mow as it is; some recommend fall mowing, others, spring, and all mowings are terrible for small creatures who inhabit the grass. In the fall, mowing might destroy the seeds that feed birds and the winter home for many birds and pollinators; mowing in spring might remove the food source last year’s parents tried to leave their offspring. Any time you do it, you can be wrecking the habitat and food webs you’re trying to foster.

Still, mowing the meadow may be a good idea to spread seeds, which could be useful for annuals. You could try mowing the meadow in parts, so that there is always some area which provides habitat for birds and other creatures. Paths through the meadow look inviting. If you mow a path, then let it grow back and next time mow a different path. That way you can fulfill the “mowed meadow” approach without destroying the entire backyard habitat you’re trying to maintain.

Whether or not you mow or burn, you will want to check your meadow at least annually for invasive plants which might sneak in or trees that birds have planted. Trees and shrubs are great, but they have a tendency to take over the meadow; this happens in nature, too.

A typical Eastern Shore meadow is a marsh, which is a really wet meadow.

A large lawn ornament in the meadow may help neighbors understand exactly what you’re trying to do. In other words, they’ll understand that a meadow has a purpose and that you haven’t just forgotten to mow the grass. Perhaps they’ll notice the increase in happy birds and butterflies and install their own. A meadow! Go for it!

Maureen Rice is a Master Naturalist living and writing in Talbot County.

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