Low-Water Landscaping For Dummies
Book image
Explore Book Buy On Amazon
A popular alternative to a traditional, water-sucking lawn is a meadow or, more properly, a meadow bed. These plantings use native grasses and prairie-type plants or native flowers, both annual and perennial.

©M.dörr & M.Frommherz / Adobe Stock

Certain wildflower (pre-made) mixes composed of low-growing plants can also be used for meadowlike lawns. Meadow lawns are less formal-looking than most grass lawns but can be walked on or played on and have a wild beauty all their own.

Make no mistake: A meadow garden is still gardening. You can’t just sow or plant meadow flowers and grasses, and then walk away and expect the results to prosper or stay looking the same. But doing this in your yard is no more difficult than installing and caring for other planting projects. The following sections explain how to make your meadow dreams come true.

A compelling reason to do this is to create habitat for and offer sanctuary to pollinators, birds, and other ecosystem inhabitants.

If someone else a street over has a meadow area in their yard, stop by, ask for a tour, and learn from their experiences!

But what will the neighbors think?

Despite their benefits and potential beauty, meadow gardens and beds remain controversial in some communities. To the untrained eye or the eye accustomed to traditional lawn grass or even beds of gravel punctuated by succulents, these plantings aren’t welcome.

This prejudice isn’t totally unfair. A meadow area that isn’t matured (maybe its second year will be a peak show) or one that isn’t well-maintained can indeed look like a jumble of weeds.

Meadows may be prohibited or frowned upon in densely populated neighborhoods. In planned communities with a homeowners association (HOA), they may be outright banned or at least regulated. Find out whether your area allows meadow gardens. You’ve probably heard stories of defiant or distressed meadow gardeners being fined or forced to mow it all down.

Sometimes they’re prohibited in the front yard, and you can shift your plans to another part of your property. Certainly you ought to be able to landscape however you please in the back or along the sides of your home.

Assuming you get the green light and go ahead with the project, take good care of the area. Let your neighbors see you out there — that will help them understand it’s a tended garden space, not a weed patch!

Getting started on your meadow area

When you’re ready to begin, attend to these practical measures:
  • Pick a spot. Full sun and out in the open tends to be ideal. Repurpose some or all of your former lawn area, dress up a curb strip, or create a border along a driveway or walkway or along the front of your house.
  • Define the area. If your meadow garden has boundaries — edgings of stones, wood, fencing of some kind, even a buffer like a gravel moat — the whole thing looks tidier and planned, and skeptics will better receive it. Defining the area also makes the project more manageable for you.
  • Put up an attractive and informative sign. Order a customized one on Etsy, saying something like “Teri’s Meadow, Butterflies Welcome!,” “Mi Pequeño Prado,” “Habitat Restoration Project,” “Pollinator-Friendly Garden,” or “Low-Water Wildflowers.”
  • Do your homework. Read and ponder this section’s basic information. Visit nurseries and do some research online about meadow plants and design approaches.
  • Figure out approximately how many plants you’ll need. The first step is measuring the site and calculating the area (length x width). Maybe make a sketch. Because you want thicker growth in a meadow scheme, plan for plants to be installed close together. Knowing their projected size will guide you. Alternatively, armed with the site dimensions, go to the nursery and enlist the help of a staffer. You can always add more plants if you didn’t buy enough on the first trip!

Preparing the site and soil

A meadow area or bed is a gardening project, not a toss-in-the-plants-and-go affair. Get the spot ready beforehand to boost success by doing the following:
  • Evict weeds. Weeds are aggressors and can overwhelm and shade out little growing meadow plants. Remove them by the roots whenever possible. You might not get all of them but give this a good effort — you’ll save annoyance and work down the line.

    If the area is full of weeds now or in the recent past, hit the pause button and beat back the problem first. Don’t till, which brings both weed seeds and plant and root fragments to the surface where they can germinate and grow. You have options:

    • Tarp or solarize the area.

    • Let a crop of weeds germinate, then mow them down (many are annuals and won’t get tall enough to reseed; you’re basically outsmarting them with this method!).

  • Consider some soil improvement. Even when you intend to install lots of native plants, the native soil in your yard may not be welcoming to seeds or seedlings. Low-water plants do need some tough love (that is, you don’t want to pamper them with rich soil that leads to lush — and thirsty — growth), but a little soil improvement won’t hurt in this case, particularly if your soil is poor or gritty.

    Improve it before planting anything by digging in organic matter such as compost, bagged dehydrated cow manure, and/or good topsoil.

  • Install a watering system or have a watering plan. Among your options are in-ground irrigation, soaker hoses, and watering gadgets. Your water needs will be dictated by what sorts of plants you choose — really drought-tolerant plants won’t require much. But, as ever, seeds and baby plants always do. So have a plan.
  • Protect the prepared spot. A cleared area, with or without some soil improvement, is an open invitation to opportunistic weeds. They can come in from seemingly nowhere, on a breeze, or from under the ground if you missed root fragments.

    Even if the gap between getting the spot ready and planting time is only a couple of days, cover it! Tarp it, cover it with black plastic, spread flattened cardboard or old carpets over the area, whatever it takes. Anchor the edges. Don’t remove the cover until planting day.

Choosing appropriate plants

Picking plants for your meadow display is fun. Your best bet is to pay a visit to a nursery that specializes in pot-grown native and meadow plants so the staff can advise you and answer your questions. Otherwise, nose around a more-general nursery and look for ideas.

Local and regional plants are well-adapted and also offer food and shelter to area pollinators. Planting these boosts two goals: adding garden beauty and nurturing the environment.

Here are my best shopping tips:
  • Be selective. Choose wildflowers and native grasses. Planting a variety assures that you’ll always be something to admire. Aim for balance to get a more natural-looking meadow. Pick some grasses and some perennial and annual blooming flowers. (Time and experience will help you hone the look as you discover if your plans worked or need to be tweaked from one year to the next.)
  • Don’t be a purist. When you go shopping, you’ll see cultivars or nativars, which are cultivated varieties of native plants. They’re variations and improvements on the original species — either spotted by a savvy horticulturist or developed at a nursery. Their growth habit may be shorter and less rangy, or their flower size may be larger and/or flower production is higher. Color variations are available. For example, purple coneflowers now come in a rainbow of bright colors, including orange, magenta, red, and yellow.

    Some plants aren’t native nor descended from natives (instead they’re from other low-water parts of the world), and yet they deliver the color and exuberant look you wish for, so go for it! Add some cosmos, zinnias, and different kinds of poppies to your meadow display. The goal is to have lots of pretty flowers tossing in a light breeze.

Keeping your meadow looking nice

Water is a need in the early days, but over time, your meadow planting will become more self-sufficient. Still, here are things you can and should do to keep it attractive:
  • Mulch it. As with all new plantings, mulch is key. It helps hold in critical soil moisture to help sustain young plants and helps keep out encroaching weeds. Lay down an inch or more, and if possible, maintain/replenish the mulch layer, at least until the meadow plants get taller, growing thickly enough to manage these matters for themselves.
  • Maintain it. Pass through and groom your meadow, even if doing so feels like busywork (many meadow plants are low-care, but you want to let your neighbors see you working in the meadow area). You can trim off spent flowers, remove excessive or spent growth, and cut back stems or branches that are crowding out other plants or pushing the boundaries of the area. Mowing at season’s end might be a good idea.
  • Assess balance. The prettiest meadows in nature have both grasses and flowers. Although the look you wish is up to you, an equal amount at any given time looks nice. Grasses carry on most of the year (and may even bloom, though their flower spikes arguably aren’t as showy or colorful as their companions) but flowers come and go. The look can change dramatically from one season to the next, and definitely from one year to the next — simply because some plants are stronger growers. Intervene to edit — trim or take out plants — when you feel the balance is off or when you notice some of the plants becoming too dominant.
For the first year, observe which flowers do best for you. Plan to reseed more of them in subsequent years, especially near to each other so you create little islands of each variety. This action actually mimics the way natural meadows look and will be more stable as the years go by.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

This article can be found in the category: