Q: I’ve heard all the hype about instant meadows, but they seem too good to be true. Can I really just sow the seed and stand back? — Jane Eloy, Sturgis, Mich.
A: You’re right to be skeptical. Most so-called wildflower seed mixes are a mishmash of annuals and weedy nonnative perennials that rarely look good for more than the first season, if ever. (In fact, I just saw one mix that was 50-percent clover!) The only way to get consistent performance from such a mix is to wipe out all vegetation and reseed annually. Even then, you’ll have to contend with weeds invading your prairie or meadow for years. You’d be better off taking the time to plant patches of native perennial seedlings in the grass and letting them spread, adding more areas from year to year. You’ll still have to eliminate all the existing vegetation in patches several feet in diameter, but the herbicide glyphosate (Roundup) will kill it quickly — you can begin replanting within days. If you’re organically inclined (and patient), you can smother the vegetation with mulch: Cover the patches with black plastic this fall. When you remove it next summer, everything underneath will have been killed off.
Plant prairie perennials and grasses right through the dead duff of the vegetation. This organic material serves as a mulch, protecting seedlings and preventing weed seeds from germinating. If some aggressive meadow grasses begin to encroach on your planted areas, you may need to spray again to keep them out. Choose perennials that will give you extended bloom, such as false indigo, bee balm, monarda, and queen-of-the-prairie for early summer; purple coneflowers, blazing stars, and black-eyed Susans for mid-summer to late summer; and goldenrods, joe-pye weed, and big bluestem for autumn.