How to Prepare, Plant and Maintain Your Meadow

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In my previous post we looked at the benefits of replacing your lawn with an eco-friendly meadow or prairie. Now lets look at the steps you need to take to prepare, plant and maintain your meadow.

Removing Your Lawn

The first thing you will need to do to prepare your meadow is to get rid of any existing lawn or unwanted vegetation. There are several options you can choose to remove your lawn:

  1. Dig up the lawn – Using a shovel, you can cut the grass into strips, digging underneath to a depth of between 1-1½ inches to ensure all traces of the lawn is removed. Once the grass sods have been removed, you will need to prepare and plant the soil immediately to prevent weeds from taking advantage of the cleared area.
  2. Smother the lawn (solarization) – If you only have a small patch of lawn, you can kill off the lawn by smothering it. You will need to cover the vegetation with either black plastic, sheets of plywood, a 6 inch layer of wood chips, or with a thick layer of newspaper (20 sheets) covered with wood chips. Solarization kills vegetation by speeding up the germination process, then it bakes the plants and deprives them of light necessary for growth. The lawn should be covered towards the end of spring and left on the lawn for a minimum of 60 days. When the vegetation is dead and the ground dry, you can remove the covers, tilling the ground or raking away any dead grass. If you are only planning on planting your meadow the following spring you should mulch the area with shredded leaves, bark or wood chips to prevent weeds from taking hold and soil from being washed or blown away.
  3. Apply a herbicide – You can also kill your lawn with a herbicide, such as Roundup, but take care to follow instructions as these are hazardous chemicals which can kill plants indiscriminately and thus can harm the environment. Apply Roundup to growing plants, allowing a week or two for the herbicide to work. Reapply to any green patches of grass that haven’t died. Run a lawn mower over the dead grass, cutting it very short, to remove the dead grass stalks. Till up the area by hand or with a rototiller to between 1–2 inches deep to prepare the area for seeding.
  4. Plant a Cover Crop – If the area you want to convert to a meadow is extensive, the easiest solution would be to till the soil and plant a cover crop. The cover crop competes with existing plants for nutrients, space and light, quickly outgrowing and shading out the existing vegetation. Harvest the crop when it matures, then till up the soil again during hot, dry conditions to kill the roots of any persistent grasses or weeds. For larger areas it is best to use a rototiller or plough to do this, but for smaller areas the soil can be tilled by hand with a hoe or shovel. Use whatever method works best for you, but to ensure the success of your meadow, make sure that your seed bed is free from weeds.

Planting Your Meadow

You can use either seeds or plants, or a mix of both to plant your meadow. Seeds can be sown in fall, winter or spring, with the latter being the optimal time to plant in most areas. Once you have planted your meadow, cover with a thin layer of mulch, watering as necessary for the first month or two.
Another inexpensive option is to stop mowing and simply let nature do its thing. Wildflowers will pop up on their own, but you will need to weed out the more aggressive plant species or pull off the seed heads before they release their seeds if you wish to maintain a wide variety of plants. By letting nature take its course you will establish a natural meadow that will attract a wide range of wildlife. The only drawback with this method is that you have very little control over what species grow in your meadow.

Maintaining Your Meadow

The initial three years before the meadow becomes established require the greatest input in terms of money and effort. However, once the meadow is established it will be cost-free and require very little maintenance other than occasional weeding and an annual mowing.

Maintenance mowing during the initial growth season is important to prevent weeds from out-competing slower growing plants. When weed growth reaches a height of 8 inches it is time to mow the meadow. Trim to a height of between 4-5 inches. Mow as often as necessary to prevent weeds from growing higher than 8 inches and to prevent them from seeding. Stop mowing towards the end of the growing season as taller plants will protect younger plants during the winter ahead.

In spring of the second year, mow the meadow before the start of the growing season to cutback weeds and allow native plants to flourish. Keep an eye out for invasive weeds and either pull out any unwanted plants, or trim them off at the ground. From now onwards the meadow should be mown annually towards the end of winter/beginning of spring, before the start of the next growing season.

A meadow or prairie provides an eco-friendly alternative to a lawn that will provide a haven for wildlife and will compliment any green home.