Photo by: Kuttelvaserova Stuchelova / Shutterstock.

In recent years, the trend towards more environmentally friendly landscapes has continued to grow. Meadow gardens are gaining in popularity as more homeowners ditch the traditional turf lawn for more sustainable yards. Creating native plant colonies that closely resemble those found in nature is beneficial to wildlife and requires fewer resources to maintain than a traditional garden or lawn.

You don’t need a large property to create a meadow planting. A curbside strip, slope, or other sunny spot is all that’s necessary. Here are some tips to get you started.

WHAT IS A MEADOW GARDEN?

There are no hard and fast rules for what defines a meadow garden. These areas consist of plants—primarily regional natives—that are naturalized together to give the appearance of a wild meadow. Though many of these plants consist of flowers, native grasses play a primary role. Meadows provide habitat to support wildlife, including bees, butterflies, and other beneficial insect pollinators.

Meadow gardens require no fertilizing and little supplemental water once established, do not use harmful chemicals, and don’t require regular mowing. Not all meadow gardens are created alike. Plants can consist solely of natives, or may also include annuals or other favorite plants.

PLANNING A MEADOW GARDEN

Photo by: Firmansyah Asep / Shutterstock.

Choose a site.

Find an area in your yard that meets the criteria for growing a meadow.

  • Does it receive enough light?
  • Is it accessible for planting and maintenance?
  • How big will your meadow garden be?

Even a small corner of a yard can be dedicated to meadow plants. A curbside strip is ideal for a meadow garden as long as it receives enough light.

Be a good neighbor.

Front yard or curbside meadow gardens may be more accepted in some neighborhoods than others. Make sure local ordinances or homeowner associations allow these types of plantings.

Do your research.

To find out what kinds of plants comprise a natural garden in your area, visit local meadows or consult with experts at a local nursery, conservation department, or university extension program. Make a list of plants that will thrive in your area, and what varieties or seed mixes are available to buy. If you are trying to attract butterflies and other beneficial insects, choose plants that will provide food, shelter, and a place for breeding.

Draw up a plan.

Even though a meadow garden has an informal appearance, it still requires planning. Here are some points to consider:

  • Calculate how many meadow plants or seeds you’ll need, based on the square footage of the area and spacing of plants.
  • Meadow experts recommend a mix of 60%-65% native grasses and 35-40% flowering perennials, though this is not a hard and fast rule. Grasses provide texture and movement as you would experience in a natural meadow, contrasting with flowering plants for a more pleasing effect.
  • Choose grasses and perennials that provide food and shelter for birds, insects, and other wildlife.
  • Include plant varieties that are native to your particular region. A meadow garden in California will consist of different plants than one in Missouri. (More on native plants)

HOW TO PLANT A MEADOW GARDEN

Designers: Jay Withgott and Susan Masta. Photo: Janet Loughrey.

Light.

Most meadow plants need at least 6 hours of direct sunlight per day.

Clear the area of weeds.

This can be accomplished in several ways:

  • Cover the area with a tarp or black plastic for several months—or up to a year—to kill weeds and their seeds.
  • Place clear plastic sheeting over the area for several months to solarize weeds and seeds.
  • Lay down layers of newspaper or cardboard and cover with 6 inches of mulch.
  • Hoe or till the area, removing as much of the weeds and their roots as possible. (Note: this method may also bring new weed seeds to the surface.)

(Learn more about controlling weeds.)

Soil.

To prepare the soil for planting, break up the dirt in the planting area and mix in a small amount of compost. Add sand or gravel as needed to improve drainage. Natives tend to grow in poorer soils, so don’t over-amend the soil.

Planting Tips:

  • Space plants to their mature width, with the goal of having plants completely cover the soil, which will suppress weeds and reduce long-term maintenance.
  • Plant in drifts of 3 or 5 of the same plant for greater visual impact.
  • Sow seeds of easy to grow annuals such as poppies, cosmos, or zinnias that will quickly fill in gaps and provide additional color, especially in the first year when perennials are becoming established.
  • To sow wildflower seeds more evenly, mix with sand before spreading.

HOW TO MAINTAIN A MEADOW GARDEN

Water.

Provide regular water until plants are established. Many natives are drought-tolerant and need little or no supplemental water once they have developed a healthy root system. For seeds, keep the soil surface evenly moist until plants germinate.

Fertilize.

Native plants need little or no supplemental fertilizer, preferring lean conditions and poor soil.

Prune.

Dormant plants can be left over winter to provide food and shelter for songbirds and other wildlife. Cut plants back to the ground in late winter or early spring before they break dormancy.

Mow.

For established meadows, mow plants to about 2 inches high in late winter or early spring. This will help to keep errant shrub and tree seedlings from establishing. Mow grass pathways several times a year, depending on rainfall and the type of grass.

MEADOW PLANTS

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Grape Crush New England aster. Photo by: Proven Winners

ASTER
Symphyotrichum spp.

Zones: 3-8
Exposure: Full to partial shade
Habit: Upright spreading habit
Size: 1 to 6 feet tall, 1 to 4 feet wide, varies by type

With daisy-like flowers in hues of purple, pink, white, or blue, aster is an important late-season source of nectar for bees, butterflies, and other pollinators. This tough North American native is tolerant of different growing conditions.

Learn more about growing asters.

Pictured: Grape Crush New England aster from Proven Winners.

'Little Goldstar' black-eyed Susan. Photo by: Proven Winners

BLACK-EYED SUSAN
Rudbeckia spp.

Zones: 3-9
Exposure: Full to partial sun, flowers best in full sun
Habit: Upright spreading habit
Size: 1 to 9 feet tall, 1 to 5 feet wide, varies by type

Brightly colored daisy-like flowers occur in colors of yellow, orange, red, or bronze. Flowers of this North American native are an important food source for a wide array of wildlife including bees, butterflies, and songbirds.

Learn more about how to grow black-eyed Susan.

Pictured: 'Little Goldstar' black-eyed Susan from Proven Winners.

Arizona Apricot blanket flower. Photo by: Proven Winners

BLANKET FLOWER
Gaillardia spp.

Zones: 3-10, depending on variety
Exposure: Full sun
Habit: Upright, mounding, or spreading habit
Size: 1 to 3 feet tall, 1 to 2 feet wide

Cheerful multi-petaled flowers occur in bright hues of orange, yellow, or red, many with eye-catching patterns. This North American native combines well with many other perennials and native grasses.

Learn more about growing blanket flower.

Pictured: Arizona Apricot blanket flower from Proven Winners.

'Blue Whiskers' blue fescue. Photo by: Proven Winners

FESCUE
Festuca spp.

Zones: 4-11, depending on variety
Exposure: Full sun
Habit: Upright spreading habit
Size: Average 1 to 2 feet tall and wide, but can vary 4 to 36 inhes tall and wide

Fescue is a type of grass with 300-400 species, including some that are used in traditional lawns. The finely textured foliage can be green, blue, or red. Some of the best ornamental varieties for meadow gardens are blue fescues (F. glauca). Some such as red fescue (F. rubra) may be invasive in certain areas.

Learn more about growing ornamental grasses.

Pictured: 'Blue Whiskers' blue fescue from Proven Winners.

Prairie Winds® ‘Blue Paradise’ little bluestem. Photo by: Proven Winners

LITTLE BLUESTEM
Schizachyrium scoparium

Zones: 3-9
Exposure: Full sun
Habit: Upright habit
Size: 2 to 4 feet tall, 1 to 2 feet wide

Grown for its striking foliage and graceful habit, little bluestem is an ornamental grass that forms a dense clump. Arching blue-green leaves appear in spring, turning tawny reddish tan in fall. Seedheads provide food for songbirds, with plants offering winter color and structure.

Pictured: Prairie Winds® 'Blue Paradise' little bluestem from Proven Winners.

'Ruby Giant’ purple coneflower. Photo by: Proven Winners

CONEFLOWER
Echinacea spp.

Zones: 3-9
Exposure: Full sun
Habit: Upright spreading habit
Size: 1 to 5 feet tall, 1 to 2 feet wide

One of the most popular North American prairie plants, purple coneflower is a source of nectar for insect pollinators, with seed heads that provide food for songbirds into winter. Tolerant of drought, heat, and poor soils.

Learn more about how to grow coneflower.

Pictured: 'Ruby Giant’ purple coneflower from Proven Winners.

Evergold sedge. Photo by: Proven Winners

SEDGE
Carex spp.

Zones: 3-10, depending on variety
Exposure: Full sun to partial shade
Habit: Upright mounding, arching, or spreading habit
Size: 2 to 48 inches tall, 2 to 36 inches wide

Carex is one of the most common sedges, with some 1,500 species. The deciduous or evergreen foliage comes in colors of green, orange, gold, brown, blue, or variegated. Leaves can be fine and grass-like or strappy, with a neat mounding habit or graceful weeping form that lends structure and texture to the landscape.

Pictured: Evergold sedge from Proven Winners.

Amazing Daisies® Daisy May® Shasta daisy. Photo by: Proven Winners

SHASTA DAISY
Leucanthemum x superbum

Zones: 5-9
Exposure: Full sun to partial shade
Habit: Upright spreading habit
Size: 6 to 48 inches tall, 12 to 36 inches wide

The quintessential summer flower, daisies produce long-lasting, clean white flowers with a yellow center that are perfect in cut bouquets. Plants are tolerant of heat, drought, and different soils.

Learn more about how to grow Shasta daisies.

Pictured: Amazing Daisies® Daisy May® Shasta daisy from Proven Winners.

Prairie Winds® 'Cheyenne Sky' red switch grass. Photo by: Proven Winners

SWITCH GRASS
Panicum virgatum

Zones: 5-9
Exposure: Full sun
Habit: Upright spreading habit
Size: 3 to 7 feet tall, 2 to 4 feet wide

This ornamental grass produces finely textured foliage in shades of green, blue-green or red. Fall color is golden yellow or coppery orange. Plants are highly adaptable, but prefer average, well-draining soil. Site to take advantage of low level backlighting in fall, and leave for winter structure.

Pictured: Prairie Winds® 'Cheyenne Sky' red switch grass from Proven Winners.

Uptick™ Yellow & Red tickseed. Photo by: Proven Winners

TICKSEED
Coreopsis spp.

Zones: 3-9, depending on variety
Exposure: Full sun
Habit: Compact mounding habit
Size: 1 to 4 feet tall, 1 to 3 feet wide, depending on the variety

Tickseed produces cheerful daisy-like flowers in an array of colors and patterns. This tough prairie native is tolerant of different growing conditions, with long blooming flowers that are beneficial to bees, butterflies, and other wildlife.

Learn more about how to grow tickseed.

Pictured: Uptick™ Yellow & Red tickseed from Proven Winners.

Other meadow plants include:

  • Penstemon
  • Purple love grass
  • Queen of the prairie
  • Tufted hair grass
  • Yarrow

MEADOW GARDEN DESIGN TIPS

Design: Eric Groft of Oehme, van Sweden. Photo by: Jason Dewey.

Pathways.

Create gently meandering pathways for strolling and easy access for maintenance. A path can consist of stones or pavers, or grasses that can be mowed.

Create color succession.

Include bulbs, perennials, and annuals that bloom at different times for continuous color throughout the growing season.

Repeat plantings.

Create repetition with similar colors and textures to lend cohesion and draw the eye through the landscape.

Keep it simple.

For smaller spaces, limit your plant palette so the design doesn’t become too busy.

Consider scale.

Pay attention to plant size. To keep the appearance of an open meadow, stick to lower growing plants no taller than 3 to 4 feet high. Create swaths of plants in varying heights for a layered look. For smaller areas, use dwarf varieties for a miniature meadow.

Break the rules.

There is no single definition of a meadow garden. Mix native perennials with quick-growing annuals, or emphasize colorful flowering perennials, with grasses playing a secondary role. Intersperse some of your favorite flowers that still retain the look of a meadow.

Finishing touches.

Include boulders as they would appear in a natural meadow for year-round structure and contrast. Install a waterfall to re-create the experience of a native stream. Place a rustic bench where you can relax and enjoy your meadow garden.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

What is the difference between a meadow garden and a wildflower garden?

The terms “meadow garden” and “wildflower garden” are often used interchangeably, but there can be distinct differences. Wildflower gardens may have some of the traits of meadow gardens, but are often grown from seed mixes that may contain annuals or non-natives. There is nothing wrong with a wildflower garden, but it may not be as long-lasting, environmentally friendly, or intentionally designed compared to a meadow garden.

When should I start a meadow garden?

Site preparation can be accomplished at any time during the growing season. Plant during cooler months of fall or spring. Wait until after all danger of frost is past, and allow enough time for plants to get established before the first hard frost. Plants will be more readily available during spring.

Do wildflower gardens come back every year?

Whether or not wildflowers return year after year depends on what types are planted. Seed mixes can consist solely of native wildflowers, a mix of natives and non-natives, or both annuals and perennials. For the best longevity, choose long-lived perennials that thrive in your area.

RELATED:
Wildflower Meadow: A Pasture-Perfect Meadow Garden
Lawn & Grass Alternatives for an Eco-Friendly Landscape

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