September 29, 2013

Maine Gardener: Patience pays off for wildflower meadow

By TOM ATWELL

Meadows are an iconic part of the American landscape. Grasses and wildflowers are allowed to grow and sway in the breeze. Birds and other animals thrive there.

click image to enlarge

A two-year-old meadow test plot at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, N.H.

Tom Atwell photo

Natural meadows in the United States are found mostly in the Great Plains states. But if you have a large piece of property that you want to look good and don't want to work hard to maintain it, creating a wildflower meadow is an option.

Cathy Neal, a horticulture professor at the University of New Hampshire who works with landscapers, and Amy Papineau, a UNH Extension educator, presented a program about their wildflower meadow trials in Durham, N.H., earlier this month.

The conclusion I came away with is that a New England homeowner can create a wildflower meadow. But it takes time.

"By July of the first year it looks terrible," Neal said.

"People are going to be disappointed for the first two years," Papineau added.

Neal and Papineau outlined several ways to make the gardens look better during the first two years. After three years, the meadows should look good.

Neal said the goal of the trials is to create a good-looking meadow of native wildflowers and grasses that requires very little maintenance. She said all of the plants used are native to somewhere in New England, and all are perennials, in part because most meadow annuals are not native.

The assumption of the trials is that people are starting with a field of mostly grasses. And the first step is to kill all of the grass and any other plants in the field.

Because Neal and Papineau were speaking to professional landscapers, they assumed the landscapers were going to get a call in the spring saying a client wanted a meadow planted that would look great that summer. In addition, the clients would not accept wildflowers covered with crabgrass during the first two years.

In that case, the only way to get started is with a chemical weed killer such as glyphosate, sold under the trade name Roundup.

For people against using Roundup, the answer, to use a baseball phrase, is "wait till next year." By tilling, using black plastic or some sort of mulch, you spend a year killing what is now growing in the field.

The meadow trials at UNH set up several variables: Planting with plugs (very small seedlings) or with seeds; planting in the spring or in the fall; using Poast to kill crabgrass or using no chemical treatment on crabgrass.

In all cases, the plug gardens looked better sooner than the seed gardens. The plugs fight crabgrass better, they get larger more quickly and survive better. However, it costs $100 to $150 to plant 1,000 square feet with seeds, compared to $875 with plugs.

For meadows planted with seeds in spring, none of the plots were considered acceptable unless Poast was used to kill crabgrass. The seed-planted plots were 100 percent crabgrass with no treatment and nearly 100 percent crabgrass when the crabgrass was mowed twice. When Poast was used, the beds saw good wildflower growth, but minimal flowering.

Using plugs with no crabgrass treatment and mulching with straw, the wildflowers survived but were overgrown by crabgrass. Planting with plugs after using Poast, the plots were rated as excellent, with the wildflowers living and blooming well.

Fall planting works better in part because crabgrass requires sun and does not sprout in spring until after the soil gets warm. That means both seed-planted and plug-planted wildflowers will be growing before the crabgrass, and will at least partially shade out the crabgrass.

By the second year of a wildflower meadow, the wildflowers are beginning to defeat the crabgrass -- although there is still a lot of crabgrass.

"It looks nice from a distance," Papineau said, but the landscapers agreed that their clients would not be happy with those gardens.

By the third year, the wildflowers are so well established that the crabgrass gets pushed out.

Neal and Papineau planted 40 species in their gardens, of which 18 flowered regularly and eight flowered some, and the rest flowered seldom or not at all. The gardens also include five native grasses.

The first flowers to bloom are rudbeckia, or black-eyed-Susan, and for the first year the gardens look like they are almost all black-eyed Susan.

The second year, the dominant plant is Monarda fistula, which is a tall plant with light purple blossoms. These are related to the popular bee balms, which are hybrids of the species Monarda didyma.

After that, plants like echinacea, Joe Pye weed, asters, milkweed, goldenrod, heliopsis and baptisia come into their own.

One plant that Neal really likes is Ratibida pinnata, a yellow coneflower that is not commonly found on the market.

Most of the plants in the study came from Prairie Nursery (prairienursery.com) in Wisconsin and Prairie Moon Nursery (prairiemoon.com) in Minnisota.

UNH cuts its wildflower beds once a year, sometimes in the spring and sometimes in midsummer. They leave the plants up through the winter to provide food and habitat for wildlife.

One of the best side benefits of this research on wildflower meadows is a website (extension.unh.edu/wildflower-meadows) that shows you what the plants look like at various stages of their growth. Once at the website, click on the wildflower guide for New England meadows.

Most people can identify plants in bloom, but they have trouble when they first come out of the ground and later. This website shows about 50 types of plants at different stages.

Now, if I can only memorize the photos, I will be able to do a better job of weeding.

Tom Atwell has been writing the Maine Gardener column since 2004. He is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth and can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

tomatwell@me.com

 

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