Meadows in the NY Times

One of my plans this fall and winter is to redo my front yard meadow. A Sept 10th NY Times article on meadows titled "The Natural Look, With Much Effort" may have some lessons for those of us on the west coast, despite the featured meadow in the article being in Connecticut. Let's read along and find out.

...A perennial meadow in bloom, its colors constantly changing with the play of light and shadow, may be nature at its most alluring. Yet, as random and natural as a meadow looks, there is nothing haphazard about creating one. Planting a meadow, it turns out, is as rule-bound and time-consuming as planting any perennial border, according to Larry Weaner, a Pennsylvania landscape designer and one of the pioneers of meadow design in the United States.

...Nine years after he was hired and eight years after it was planted, this vast expanse of meadow is now fully mature, with plants and grasses more than five feet tall in some places. On a recent August morning, he conducted a tour of the meadow, offering a hands-on lesson in the science of creating a meadow.

“Weeds are the No. 1 enemy,” he explained, noting that before any planting gets under way, the ground must be cleared.

Check. That's a common problem whether east or west coast.

Since most grassland plants thrive in poor soil, one of the most important rules of meadow gardening is that no fertilizer, topsoil or compost should ever be added.

Check, but top mulching is often essential in California. Also, since I don't think I'll ever plant in an area that has not been previously planted, I'll have to factor into my plans the fact that soil fertility has already been altered. This might sway plant choices.

Mr. Weaner uses only plants and grasses that are adapted to a specific location and acclimated to its particular soil. For meadows smaller than three acres, he uses a ratio of 60 percent plants to 40 percent seeds, so he is able to control the way the colors are distributed.

60% plants is huge for my budget unless I grow them from seed or cuttings myself. I'm planning some of that this year.

For this meadow [40 acres], he used eight different seed mixes with approximately 25 plants or grasses in each, he said, including a “nursing” crop of annual oat or winter wheat grass added to the mix to keep seedlings from being choked by aggressive weeds.

So there must be at least 200 plant varieties altogether?

“Probably even more,” he said.

A fantastically huge number, at first blush. Are there even that many native meadow species in California? A quick search of CalFlora.org for Los Angeles County plants native to a coastal prairie habitat (where I live) turns up only tens of plants. A search including chaparral habitat goes up to about 400. They index 518 California native species in the combined coastal prairie and valley grassland habitats.

Planting can take place any time between March and early July, and is done with a tractor pulling a no-till drill feeder...Although no one would want to plant a conventional border as late as July, Mr. Weaner explained that, once again, the rules are different when it comes to meadows, because the hotter weather discourages weed growth.

Check and no Check. Generally, after weeds are abated for the final time you don't want to turn the soil over and expose more weed seeds, but the planting time is not true for California. Conventional wisdom is probably right in this case and it says plant just in advance of the wet season. Fall is the easiest time if we have a normal rain year.

During the first year, the ground is mowed three times during the summer to keep the weeds at bay and to stabilize growth. After that, it is mowed only once a year, at the end of winter.

I don't know how this compares to how one ought to do it in S. California. I "mowed" mine twice in the first year, but not for weed suppression. If I did have a mow once per year schedule, it would probably have to be in September or October at the end of California's slow growth period (equivalent to Connecticut's winter).

By the second year, the meadow still looks a little ungainly. Fast-growing perennials and bi-annuals like black-eyed Susan and coreopsis have started to flower, but “it’s certainly nothing to take your breath away,” he said. These flowers are short-lived, but they take up space that would otherwise be occupied by weeds and provide floral interest until slower-growing perennials like eryngium, joe-pye weed, blazing star (liatris) and purple coneflower make an appearance during the third year, when the meadow reaches its early maturity.

The tapestry of colors continues to develop in the fourth and fifth years, with perennials like oxeye daisies, baptisia and prairie phlox.

Wrong flowers for California, but perhaps that's the pace one ought to expect. The subject of the article started with meadows in 1982.

Eight years after it was planted, the meadow is a canvas of changing colors — yellow predominating in the summer, lavender in the fall. It requires almost no maintenance. Other than an annual mowing and a walk-through during the summer to spray herbicide or cut down the more noxious weeds like Canada thistle and mugwort, it requires virtually no upkeep.

Mr. Weaner said that most of the meadows he designs run between $3,000 and $10,000 an acre, depending on how much preparation the site requires, what kinds of species are included in the seed mix and how many live plants are used.

Ouch! Though if I didn't price my own time at $0, I wouldn't scoff so loudly.

Acquire at least a rudimentary understanding of the complicated processes that govern plant growth, he said. Beneath the meadow’s surface...are “intricate interactions working together to foster the plants in the meadow and suppress invasive weeds.”

Check. I've spent time on this, but could easily afford to take it to the next level.

The California Native Grasslands Association offers a pdf file on how to create a meadow.


  1. But an acre is 43,560 sq ft and my back and front yards are 700 and 650 sq ft respectively. Using the higher $10,000 per acre cost makes redoing my front yard as a meadow $150. Sounds like a bargain.

  2. Put in those terms it does sound like a bargain. There must be some fixed costs that are distributed over the large acreage and as well as mechanization advantages that we can't apply. Too bad they don't want to share the costs more exactly.

    Certainly I've paid more than $150 for my little front yard meadow (counting my labor).

    If I were budgeting your front yard and purchasing 1 gallon plants at a full retail price of $7 each, then $150 would give me 15 plants and abundant seed (close to the 60% plant materials figure given in the article if the 60% applies to dollars). That is enough plant materials, but it doesn't account for any labor.

    Having now put in two small native gardens I can tell you that it is a substantial amount of labor.