My California meadow - almost like a turf lawn, if viewed from a distance

I'm focussed on how to upgrade my front yard meadow. It's shown below in a recent photo - groundcover in foreground is turf grass and on the far side of the sidewalk is mostly yarrow. It's looking good after recent rains.

In the past year I've had remarks from passers by that they either loved or hated the wildflowers, so when planning changes I have been sensitized to neighbors' impressions; I don't want to fight a battle with my City and / or neighbors* over "weed" laws, so the phrase "almost like a turf lawn, if viewed from a distance" isn't really the backhanded compliment that it seems. In fact, for now it's almost a design criterion / defensive posture. (See comments below for amplification.)

Closeup of yarrow (Achillea millefolium).

I've found and learned some nuggets of information about meadow design that I want to consolidate in this blog post. Of course, even if I had read all these sources last year when I was overseeding the meadow, I doubt that I would have paid that much attention. Generally, you have to do things several times in order to get them right. This is attempt number 2, so I have at least one more attempt before I get really irritated with myself.

My reference sources are various and include my direct observation as well as knowledge gleaned from books such as the excellent California Native Plants for the Garden book by Carol Bornstein, David Fross, and Bart O'Brien, and various web resources. The California Native Grass Association has a pdf publication that provides a wealth of guidance and clarification, particularly if you plan to base your garden meadow on a natural grassland plant community. I use some of their info here, but am not planning to follow the guidelines for an orthodox grassland since this is about 300 square feet in a suburban front yard. Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Garden has a brief writeup on the meadow near their front entrance. Yerba Buena nursery (N. Ca) has a great photo essay week by week for their meadow from prior years. Finally, last year's Payne Foundation garden tour was a bit of an inspiration.

There are two grassland communities that can be used a models for garden meadows: coastal prairie and foothill grassland. To the degree that the grasslands influence my plans, I'll be focussed on the coastal prairie.

If incorporating grasses, allow the grasses to establish themselves first otherwise they will be overwhelmed by wildflowers. This is what I observed in my garden and what I read in Bornstein. I have a few strands of festuca poking up, but nowhere near what I expected given my seed mixture.

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is a perfectly good foundation for a meadow. Bornstein et. al mention something like a "simple combination of dune sedge and yarow" as one possible meadow foundation mix. I'll assume that "simple" in that context is a compliment in the less it more category, and I'll add the sedge this fall having concluded that it's a good idea.

Don't try to establish a meadow on sandy soil. Clay or loam is preferred. I have clay soil for the most part, so no concerns there.

Don't try to interplant cool season and warm season grasses. It's usually a mess rather than the all-season treat that you'd think.

Flowers, when used in abundance, seem most attractively placed when in massed drifts, not scattered across the landscape. Scattered flowers are attractive too, and possibly more appropriate for my smaller space. My first attempt at a meadow was random (and overly dense) seed placement. It was OK, but it didn't allow for the smaller plants to shine since they were overwhelmed by the taller ones and it had no staying power since the only perennials were low growing and crowded out by the taller flowers.

Seeds won't sprout through bark mulch, so don't use it on the meadow if starting from seed.

Seeding rates (referring to initial seeding of bunchgrasses) : "The desired number of single or combined species of seeds per square foot should be approximately 30 seeds total. This allows for seedling mortality, ensures that the plants are separated from each other, and minimizes the chances for competition between species." (CNGA paper)

Suggested plants from the CNGA paper:

Carex pansa (Pacific dune sedge)**
Danthonia californica (California Oatgrass) signature bunchgrass of the coastal prairie. Can be maintained as low evergreen "turf"
Festuca rubra (red fescue) coastal prairie meadow
Agrostis diegoensis (thingrass) coastal prairie meadow
Deschampsia holciformis (tufted hairgrass) coastal prairie meadow

Nassella pulchra (purple needlegrass) coastal prairie in central and N. Ca where foothill grassland flora co-mingles with coastal grassland
Koeleria macrantha (junegrass) coastal prairie in central and N. Ca
F. idahoensis roemeri (Idaho fescue) coastal prairie in central and N. Ca

** Some words about Carex: There seems to be significant disagreement between practitioners about nomenclature among the Carex genus. At San Marcos Growers they cite " Carex praegracilis (California Field Sedge)" and then note "We received this sedge from John Greenlee as Carex pansa but later was keyed to the very closely related Carex praegracilis. We listed it as Carex praegracilis with the common name of California Field Sedge in our 2001 and 2002 catalogs but unfortunately the plant had become popularized in the California horticultural trade under the name Carex pansa and we reluctantly began listing this plant as such. In an article in the summer 2006 issue of Pacific Horticulture titled "A Sedge By Another Name" the authors urge growers to correctly identify this sedge as Carex praegracilis and to use the common name Clustered Field Sedge instead of Meadow Sedge, which may be confused with an eastern U.S. species. We have decided to return to listing it as Carex praegracilis - California Field Sedge with the designation [C. pansa, Hort.] to indicate that is has been previously listed incorrectly by this name."

*Some neighbors are even stirred to violence in the face of plant disputes. Take the case of 65 year old Anita Spriggs of Anaheim, who shot 64 year old neighbor Gary Hall in the shoulder while in the course of trimming their shared fence hedge.

Shrubbery dispute leads Anaheim woman, 65, to shoot neighbor, police say
By Dave Mckibben, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
11:11 AM PDT, October 1, 2007


  1. I'm trying to imagine what kind of rude-ass passer-by would say, "I hate your wildflowers."

  2. A few months ago my immediate neighbor was moving and the neighbor several houses removed said, "You must really want them to stay!" Implying (in the context of our passing friendly jibes) that my yard was in disrepute.

    I had another neighbor (who isn't so friendly to me) ask me why there were so many weeds. I explained that I had yarrow, not weeds. This is the neighbor that swims in a chemical soup all in the name of green grass, the ignorant asshat.

    On the other hand, some regular neighborhood walkers gave unsolicited compliments.

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