California native meadow apology / apologia

I owe some time and effort to my California meadow, which despite my neglect for a year or more, has come back to life with our recent rains, but it hasn't come back as it was originally envisioned or planned. It looks nice and green, but it's weed city.

This blog is both apology and apologia for my meadow, and a bit of a How-Not-To as well as a How-To for those considering a California native meadow of their own. Here's short time line of my learning process.

I started in December of 2006 or January of 2007 with an over-seeded (by a factor of 10 at least!) little patch next to the curb that I thought was ruined by the termite crew who trampled the seeds into the mud. The crew may actually have stimulated germination, and I grew a veritable jungle of wildflowers that first year. It was a visual and audible triumph with what must have been hundreds of bees buzzing into the mix of too too many flowers.

The original mix of nine(!) types of seed has had some winners and some losers:

1. Wild Heliotrope (Phacelia Tanacetifolia) - flourished in the meadow area for the first year. Afterwards spread to less competitive parts of the garden.
2. Goldfields (Lasthenia Californica) - I had a small patch the first year but these were overwhelmed by the taller flowers and I never saw them again.
3. Botta's Clarkia (Clarkia bottae) - never saw it.
4. Elegant Clarkia (Clarkia Unguiculata)- this grew nicely in the meadow and then spread to areas of the garden where it didn't have such competition.
5. Purple Needle Grass (Nasella Pulchra) - Didn't like the meadow area but flourishes beside it. I since read that if incorporating bunch grasses in a meadow, one should give the grasses a season head start to grow on their own before incorporating annuals.
5. Red Fescue (Festuca rubra molate) - This has been popping up in scattered locations for a while and making the whole thing look unplanned.
6. Globe Gilia (Gilia capitata capitata) - Vigorous grower, but it too now likes other parts of the garden with less competition.
7. Yarrow (Achilea millefolium) - Outgrew them all like the tortoise racing the hare. The root system and dense mat of yarrow kept out most wild flowers in subsequent years. It then died back and we've had a bit of a revival lately with mostly poppies among the yarrow.
8. California poppy (Escholsia of a couple varieties) - I didn't know enough to chose the coastal variety when I started so I have hybrids.
blue eyed grass (Sisyrinchium douglasii)- inhabits the occasional spot where it can wedge in.
9. Foothill California Fuchsia (wild selection - most likely Epilobium canum latifolium) - A surprise success. It keeps popping up at the edges of the meadow, but can't seem to establish itself firmly.

I should have planted just a few different types.

After the first crop of wildflowers had bloomed, I realized that the taller wildflowers had allowed the lower-growing yarrow to insinuate its roots into all corners of the meadow and I was left with an almost monoculture yarrow "lawn" for the remainder of that year.

I thought it was pretty cool, but I allowed the yarrow to flower and get dried out and rangy looking and a year later it wasn't quite so cool. The lesson here is that since I have a suburban yard and garden, not an actual meadow in the wilds, it ought to look a bit more groomed which means mowed or string-cut every so often and irrigated enough to stay greenish. Plenty of people maintain mowed yarrow "lawns", so this isn't unreasonable.

The profuse wildflower bloom was never repeated, but the flowers have mostly managed to hang on in other parts of the front garden, so I haven't lost all annual wildflowers. I since learned that botanic gardens that maintain meadows actually work really hard to maintain the meadow aspects and even go so far as to solar-sterilize the soil every few years to keep the invasive weeds down. They also sow seed in defined drifts as opposed to my method of all mixed together - a good garden design guideline. They would also NEVER sow nine varieties in a spot this small. I ought to have started with two or three well-chosen varieties - maybe yarrow transplanted from a flat in order to space it out and control it more, the coastal variety of poppies, and one other.

In 2009 I took "drought tolerant" at face value, perhaps because I was feeling ambivalent about the whole thing, and the yarrow all but withered away so that by the end of last summer the whole meadow was looking pretty desolate and weedy. I had sprinklers, but I chose not to use them. I wasn't feeling good about my yard. When the yarrow dies back, the wind brought weed seeds to my yard which have infested the meadow area. Maybe some well meaning saboteur even scattered weed^H^H^H^Hgrass seed to help me out.

This brings us up to winter 2010-2011. Enough yarrow survived that with this winter's rain it's come back somewhat - but not to the monocultural levels that it previously was at. In the mean time, poppies have "popped" up in profusion among the weeds, perhaps because I scattered some more seed at some point. It turns out that the two dominant native plants still surviving are the same as a"lawn" mixture that Larner Seeds is selling.

The Grassless Lawn Combo

For light lawn use, strolling not soccer, we have had good success on the coast with a combination of Achillea millefolium, yarrow, and Eschscholzia californica var. californica, the coastal poppy. These two tough and vigorous perennials can be mowed for a lawnlike effect or left to flower for a flowery meadow. Drought-tolerant on the coast once established, it needs occasional water inland. Seeding rates: 12-15# per acre, 1# per 800 sq. ft., and one ounce sows approximately 50 square feet.

So I'm going to go with it. I have a 12 year old who can learn the art of weed pulling and we'll pull all those grassy weeds, put down some fine mulch to prevent more weeds, and let the yarrow and poppies duke it out.

1 comment:

  1. Wow! If I didn't know any better I would think you were writing about my yard. I need to come by and check out your yard.