What Is a Meadow?

5 Steps to Grow a Meadow. A Meadow Is More than a Lawn Gone Wild

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A meadow offers colorful appeal for people and wonderful support for bees, butterflies and birds. ( c) David Henderson, Getty Images

We have all seen pictures of flowering fields in movies and books, usually depicted as panoramic extravaganzas of uncontrolled floral madness. Think of Julie Andrews singing in the Alps amid a field of alpine flowers. Remember Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz asleep in a field of poppies. Images such as these are part of our collective imagination. 

The big screen version may be accurate under certain rare circumstances, but successful meadows in the real world are usually more subtle, varied and ever-changing.

 Both flowering meadows and grassy fields have gained some interest as lawn replacements, but success with this type of planting is often elusive for the first-time meadow grower. Meadows are not maintenance-free, though they do not require the type of maintenance provided to conventional lawns. 

A meadow, after all, is not simply a lawn unmowed. For one thing, a meadow is vegetated by bunching grasses, not the "running" grasses most often used for low-cut carpets of green. There are several types of meadows, each thriving under different conditions. For most residential and commercial landscapes, however, the important category is the "transitional meadow." *

In nature, a transitional meadow develops after a habitat disturbance such as forest fire or a beaver pond. The beaver pond, for instance, might fill with silt and create a growing bed for flowers and grasses. Eventually, the flowers and grasses are shaded by tree and shrub saplings.

Later, mature trees and shrubs dominate the area once again. The process might last a few years or many decades, but the outcome is the same. 

As landscape managers, we can simulate natural conditions to create and encourage our own meadows. The area need not be large, but it must be prepared and maintained.

 Here are six steps:

  1. Select a good site. See our article on meadow site selection and good meadow soil
  2. Remove existing vegetation as thoroughly as possible. See our article on site preparation
  3. Seed or plant the newly prepared area with a mix of grasses and flowering species. In a persistent, long-lived meadow, grasses are a key part of the species mix. The initial seeding should be 50% - 80% grasses though the mix of actual living species may change as the meadow matures. Most human-made meadows contain both cool-season and warm-season grasses. 
  4. Remove woody species and weeds as often as necessary. These invaders can out-compete many grasses and flowering perennials. They also lead the area back to a forest-type covering. 
  5. Allow grasses and flowering plants to go to seed and drop their seed in the meadow area. 
  6. Support the meadow during the first year establishment with sufficient water, if natural rainfall is too little.
  7. Fall topdressing with organic material or soil amendments can be helpful, as indicated by soil tests.
  8. During the first two or three years, spring mowing will help the flowering species to compete and become established.
  9. Late fall or winter mowing are usually done once per year. 

    Here are good sources of meadow seed:

    Ernst Seed

    Native American Seed

    Prairie Nursery

    Wildflower Farm

    Project Native

    * Note 1. There are other meadow types that persist indefinitely, including Alpine meadows that grow above tree line or coastal meadows where only salt-tolerant plants can thrive. Prairies are a type of meadow that are often subject to fire, a force that works against woody shrubs and trees.

    Hay meadows and pastures are transitional meadows. Hay meadows are mowed in summer and fall for hay, a practice which discourages woody plants. Pasture land is grazed by animals, which also discourages woody plants, and may also be mowed periodically.