The idea of turning your garden or lawn into a meadow is appealing. Meadows are low maintenance and attractive. They include a lot of U.S.-native plants, although not all are native to New England, and they are good for bees, butterflies and other pollinators.

Meadows grow wild in the prairie states, and we’re no colder than they are. Seed companies sell packets that suggest you can just scatter the seed and sit back and wait until you end up with a beautiful meadow.

I’ve received pitches from at least a dozen companies promoting wildflower mixes, either as seeds or seedlings, and promising these almost instant meadows. I hate to be negative, but it just isn’t that easy. You can grow pollinator-friendly wildflower meadows in Northern New England, but it will take time and effort.

To get the latest, most scientifically sound information I contacted Cathy Neal, a researcher and ornamental horticulture specialist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. Five-plus years ago, I attended a program in which Neal discussed test meadow plots in Durham, New Hampshire, that she and her co-workers had begun planting in 2009. Those plots are still there, she told me, along with newer ones planted as recently as last year.

The first, most important step is soil preparation. While wildflower meadows occur naturally in the plains, but New England has different growing conditions. Generally speaking, our soil is wetter, and if meadows aren’t tended here, they’ll turn into forests – this region’s natural ecosystem.

“Start by getting rid of all existing vegetation where you want a wildflower meadow to grow,” Neal said. “Without a clean slate, the wildflowers will get overtaken with weeds and non-native grasses” such as crabgrass.”

You have a couple of choices for eliminating the existing vegetation – well, three, but I’m assuming my readers will reject glysophate, sold as Roundup, which some studies have shown can cause cancer.

The remaining two will start in May and continue until the end of the gardening season in September or October.

The most effective method is to smother the plants and deny them light. Start by mowing the site with the blade as low as possible, down to scalping the sod if possible. Rake the vegetation from the site, partly to get rid of any potential seeds. Then cover the entire area with heavy black plastic, weighting or pinning down the edges.

An alternative is to till the garden in May and till it again whenever weeds sprout, which they will because new seeds will be brought to the surface with each tilling. This method will require three or more tillings in a season, and even then won’t be as effective as smothering.

Although planting either in the fall or the spring will work, fall is better if you use seeds (as opposed to seedlings) because the seeds will begin sprouting as soon as the ground thaws, before weed pressure gets high.

When I visited the New Hampshire test plots, those planted with small seedlings – called plugs in the horticultural trade – had done better than the ones using seed because the plugs had a head start. Since then, Neal said, she believes that using seeds works better. When planting plugs, people tend to leave a lot of space between each plant – which gives more room for weeds to sprout. Using seeds, the garden gets more sprouts and can fight weeds better.

She added that the weed problem is minimized if the area between the plugs is mulched. Also, using plugs looks better for people using a wildflower mix in an ornamental home garden.

Neal said that a wildflower meadow takes some room; the minimum size she recommends is 20-by-20 feet, or 4,000 square feet. Meadow plants tend to be tall, and they need the wide space so the plants will support each other and not flop. If planted in a perennial border that is about five feet wide, they wouldn’t have adequate support and would flop into the path or lawn that is beside the meadow.

Now we get to plant selection. More is better. The White Flower Farm meadow package has five plants each of 10 varieties, which the catalog says will cover about 60 square feet. Other nurseries – Neal mentioned Prairie Nursery and Prairie Moon Nursery – have similar mixes.

The UNH extension’s list has 19 flowering plants and three grasses. (All of the grasses, I was pleased to note, are native to Maine and appear in “Grasses and Rushes of Maine,” which I wrote about on Feb. 17. I’m mostly ignoring ornamental grasses here but will write more about them next week.) The grasses make up 50 percent of the recommended seed mix, although there are many fewer varieties. Grasses do pretty well at keeping out weeds, Neal said.

The recommended mix is just that: recommended. It can be adjusted for personal taste and availability. With a recommended seeding rate of 10 to 20 pounds per acre, people doing a minimum 20-by-20-foot plot would need only one to two pounds. Buying individual seeds to create the right mix would be difficult. Look for a pre-packed mix that comes as close as possible to the recommendations, Neal advises.

As the plots grow, look for obvious weeds. If you find dandelions, bittersweet, horsetail, swallowwort and the like, pull them up.

As for cutting back at the end of the year, it’s up to the gardener, Neal said. The meadow will provide more benefits to wildlife (insects, birds and mammals, such as field mice that people might think they don’t want but are part of the ecosystem) if they let the plants stand over the winter.

But every three years or so, mow the meadow in order to cut down trees saplings. Left to their own, oaks, maples and other trees would take over in New England.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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