Creating a Wildflower Meadow to Help the Bees, Birds, and Butterflies

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My 80’ x 30’ meadow took two years to fully mature. In late June black-eyed Susan, echinacea, oxeye daisy, monarda, and Queen Anne’s lace are in full bloom. Yarrow is a better native choice than Queen Anne’s lace, which is considered “naturalized” in Virginia. Photo: Clover Carroll.

I had been dreaming of a wildflower meadow to attract pollinators for many years, so when I moved to my new (and, I hope, forever!) house in June, 2020, I went all in. Having tried to do it myself with limited success, I decided to enlist the help of professionals this time. I designated an 80’ x 30’ area at the back of my yard for the meadow—which I hope to expand in the future. On the recommendation of native plant landscape consultant Jessica Primm, I hired Scott Watkins of Watkins & Co, LLC—a local company on Rt. 250 West across from Blue Ridge Builders Supply (now Cardinal Home Center) to create a native, pollinator-friendly wildflower meadow. I signed a one-year contract, and I could not have done it without them.

The six-step process was complex and a lot of work. We began in November of 2020, with hopes of spring blooms. First, Watkins sprayed twice—one month apart—with Roundup, which they argued was the only way to eliminate all the former grass and weeds. I know this herbicide is controversial; other landscapers, such as The Natural Garden in Staunton, might use a more eco-friendly method, or you could use the lasagna mulching recommended by Piedmont Master Gardeners. Watkins then bush-hogged and weed-eated the entire area. This was followed by two mowings, each time at a lower setting, leaving a stubble that would hold the seed in place. Using a large, backpack leaf blower, they blew off the chaff and debris into the woods. They then hand-scattered a deer-resistant mix containing 27 seed varieties including little bluestem grass, Virginia rye grass, echinacea/coneflower, milkweed, beardtongue, monarda, mistflower, goldenrod, black-eyed Susan, spiderwort, and many more varieties. I was able to add in additional seed of my choice including cardinal flower, joe pye weed, and turtlehead. They informed me that every meadow includes native grasses, which hold down weeds and help to support the flower stalks. Finally, they ran over the area with the mower with the blade removed, to push the new seed down into earth so it wouldn’t blow away. I now wish that I had requested that they cover it all with straw to prevent the seed from washing down the gentle slope or being eaten by birds. 

Preparing the yard for meadow installation. Photo: Clover Carroll.

In the spring of 2021, I had a lot of tall grass and not much else. A few poppies bloomed, but not the abundant flower bloom I had hoped for. Watkins agreed, and reseeded in May. By mid-June, I had a very few blooming black-eyed Susans, chicory, and yellow echinacea, but all growth was stunted by a major drought in the summer of 2021. My rain gauge measured just ¾” of rain from early May to late July of 2021; our first good rain did not come until September. I bought a tall, tripod sprinkler, but my watering was too little, too late. I spent this time weeding out privet, greenbrier, garlic mustard, and trumpet vine—native, but spreads like wildfire—which is an ongoing effort with any garden. Crabgrass spread throughout, which I could not distinguish from the intentional native grasses. Watkins came back for a major weeding in July. By October, mistflower and (nonnative but pretty) knapweed were blooming; monarda and echinacea sprouts were present, but not large enough to bloom before cold weather set in. Nothing else bloomed, the meadow seemed a failure, and I was sorely disappointed. Watkins mowed the whole area in November, 2021, well after the flowers had gone to seed, thus dispersing the seed and allowing the spring flowers to sprout before the crabgrass could take over. That was the end of my contract, so I crossed my fingers that my fledgling meadow could now make it on its own.

An Eastern Tiger Swallowtail nectars on monarda (bee balm). Photo: Clover Carroll.

The spring and summer of 2022 were an entirely different story. Frequent, copious rain allowed the twice-seeded meadow to finally come into its own and flourish. By June, I had golden alexander, coreopsis, small’s ragwort, foxglove beardtongue, and daisy fleabane blooming. These were followed by black-eyed Susan, henbane, purple coneflower (echinacea), lavender bee balm (monarda), chicory, and Queen Anne’s lace. Now, in late July, the black-eyed Susans are fading but blue mistflower is blooming, which will soon be followed by asters and goldenrod. I planted plugs of butterfly milkweed and scarlet monarda in late April, but have not yet seen blooms. I also planted 10, 5-6” common milkweed plants (ordered from Joyful Butterfly) in June. But the summer is really only half over! I am still hopeful they will bloom this fall or next year. 

My meadow has now become a dream come true! Along with my native tree and shrub plantings—such as serviceberry, winterberry, elderberry, pawpaw, witch hazel, and fringe tree—and my bird and hummingbird feeders, I have created a paradise in my back yard—both for me and for local wildlife. The meadow not only attracts various types of bees and butterflies, but also dragonflies, moths, ladybugs, rabbits, and even birds. It has dramatically increased the number of fireflies in my yard, who like the tall flowers and grasses as landing places. When I can afford it, I would love to double the meadow’s size. 

So when you walk past what appears to be a messy, unmowed yard in your neighborhood, it may be that your neighbor is planting native to feed local wildlife, and be glad. While meadows are beautiful in full bloom, they can look somewhat ragged when the flowers fade and turn brown. It is important to let the flowers go to seed, which will both feed the birds and drop seed to re-germinate next spring. We will weed again this fall and mow in December.

I hope sharing my personal experience will help others make realistic plans and avoid pitfalls. I have learned several lessons: primarily that a wildflower meadow is an ongoing process, and may take years to fully mature. My advice is to keep expectations low and to be patient. Seeds take time to germinate and mature. As with farming, so much depends on the weather! But the end result has been all I had hoped for. 

This sign is available from the Art Box on Crozet Ave. Photo: Clover Carroll.

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