Small Meadows: Practical and Beautiful

By David Savage (reprinted from Winter 2014 issue of INPAWS Journal, Vol 20. No. 4)

Early settlers of the lower Midwest wrote glowingly of beautiful, flowering meadows and of prairies filled with a blaze of color. There is a yearning today to try to recreate these visions on a smaller scale. The words prairie and meadow are being heard more often when talking with gardeners and in everyday conversation.

Thinking of a prairie calls up a vision of miles and miles of tall, waving native grasses and flowers. Meadows bring to mind a large area of unmown land in a rural setting with grasses and flowers that may be cut for hay. A prairie is usually much larger, with a higher percentage of grasses. A meadow is typically smaller and dominated by flowers.

Over the past 20 or 30 years, smaller prairie and meadow gardens have increased in popularity as people become more aware of the advantages of this type of landscaping. Meadows offer strong practical advantages. If you would like to mow less grass and enjoy savings on fertilizer and lawnmower fuel, a meadow may be appropriate. (Be sure to check on your local ordinances before turning your front yard into a meadow.) If you would like to cover a bothersome, unsightly area, a small meadow may do the job. If you want beautiful flowers from spring into fall, wonderful wildlife and lovely butterflies, a meadow may be just the thing. Other important benefits of meadows include carbon sequestration and filtering of pollutants.

Creating a meadow takes much patience and determination but the results can be incredibly rewarding. Sophisticated horticulturalists and gardeners have come to grief in their initial attempts to start a meadow. At River Farm, home of the American Horticultural Society in Virginia, two acres that once had been a field and subsequently a lawn were disc-harrowed and seeded with a wildflower mix. Quickly the entire two acres produced a bumper crop of pokeweed, probably because the harrowing brought to the surface pokeweed seeds that had lain dormant for over 40 years. (1)

A well-known gardener and writer learned the hard way that it is not easy to have the meadow of your dreams. She simply let the pasture grass grow, mowing it only once a year in late fall. For the first few years, tall wavy grasses dominated and slowly a few asters and goldenrods moved in. But soon vetches and bindweed, followed by alfalfa, began to take over large swathes, pushing out grasses and flowers. She realized she needed help and called in a professional designer of native meadows (2)

By following some tried and true steps when establishing a meadow, most pitfalls can be avoided. Recent books (3,4) give detailed step-by-step instructions for meadow development and maintenance. It is generally agreed that a four-step process should be followed: (1) eliminate weeds, (2) sow seed and plant plugs and/or potted plants, (3) water and weed, (4) mow or burn periodically. However, there are many ways of carrying out each of these steps.

In September, 2012, the Brown County Native Woodlands Project, at its annual field day “Nature Daze”, arranged a discussion of small meadows with panelists who could offer practical, hands-on advice from their own experiences in developing and maintaining small meadows ranging in size from one-eighth of an acre to three acres. Here are highlights from their comments.

Site Preparation

The first step in making a meadow is eradication of the existing vegetation, with minimal soil disturbance. This may be done by smothering the vegetation with plastic sheeting, by stripping out the vegetation with a sod cutter, by spraying with an organic herbicide, or by singeing the vegetation with a flamethrower. Based on experience in south-central Indiana, it is recommended to use at least two applications of glyphosate several months apart. Plugs may then be planted with an auger or by hand a month or two after the last glyphosate application.

Lawson Ridge Meadow

This Brown County meadow was developed in 1991 on an eighth of an acre. The gently sloping plot had been a traditional lawn on both sides of a driveway. Several false starts were overcome before a beautiful meadow was finally obtained. The let-it-be /wait-and-see approach was tried first with addition of seeds from native plants found in an old cemetery in Indiana. Second, sheets of black plastic were used to smother the area, but they were removed too soon and the result was mainly weeds. Third, after spraying with herbicide, a truly beautiful meadow of butterfly milkweed, black-eyed Susan, coneflower, goldenrods, cup plant, bee balm, false indigo, phlox, ironweed, false sunflower, liatris, grasses, sedges and many other native plants were in bloom after four years. Maintenance is by burning one-third of the meadow each year. This allows wildlife to move from the area being burned to the undisturbed part of the meadow.

Butler University Prairie

This prairie was started from seed in 1987 on a three-acre level field along the western side of the canal near Butler University in Indianapolis. The prairie combines elements of several different prairie types in its planting design, taking advantage of wetter and drier zones of the land. Originally the western half of the field was planted with tall grass prairie mix, the eastern half with short grasses. A mature meadow of colorful flowers spread across the entire three acres after about five years. Maintenance is by prescribed burning of the entire prairie every three to five years, supplemented by work with loppers and herbicide to keep down woody growth. The prairie is used by the university mainly as an outdoor laboratory for ecology studies (e.g., demonstration of different habitat types), a public education resource and as a natural area for birds and wildlife.

Bluebird Trail Meadow

In 2004 a sloping, 100-by-50-foot area over a septic field was cleared in a wooded region in Brown County. Starter grass seed had been put down the year before to stabilize the soil. The area was cleared of vegetation by skimming off grass with a shovel; herbicide was used in areas containing a thick growth of fescue. Potted plants with well-developed roots were planted rather than seeds or plugs.

About 20 species of native flowers were originally installed with some grasses. Holes were dug 12 to 18 inches apart, wide enough to allow plants to bush out or spread but close enough to keep down weeds. Most plants of the same species were planted in clusters of three to six. By 2007 an attractive meadow of colorful native flowers was attracting birds, butterflies, bees and other pollinators. Flowers bloom from the first warm days of spring until hard frost. In the spring, golden ragwort, Eastern bluestar, false indigo, then beardtongue, meadow rue, and Culver’s root are first to flower. The meadow then seems to pause, perhaps waiting for the ground to warm. At the very end of June and into early July, black-eyed Susan, phlox and common milkweed appear. By the middle of July to the end of August, the meadow is a profusion of color with Joe-Pye weed, black-eyed Susan, purple and grey-headed coneflowers, mountain mint, hyssop, spiderwort, bee balm, false sunflower. In August come the early goldenrods, downy sunflower, ironweed, and white turtlehead. Asters and goldenrods bloom through September into October, depending on the weather.

For maintenance, flower and grass stalks were cut back with clippers each February and in 2011 the entire meadow was burned. This meadow has survived three consecutive years of summer drought (2011-2013). Occasionally native plants are added and seed thrown down in bare areas. Some weeding is needed periodically, especially to deal with invasive plants such as Japanese stilt grass which will grow in the smallest area of open soil.

Undoubtedly the interest in incorporating small meadows into garden designs will increase as the benefits of this type of landscaping are more widely recognized.



1.Carole Ottesen, “The Allure of Meadow Gardens,” The American Gardener: The Magazine of the American Horticultural Society, vol. 85, no. 3, May/June 2006, page 31.

2.Page Dickey, Embroidered Ground: Revisiting the Garden, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.

3.Catherine Zimmerman, Urban and Suburban Meadows: Bringing Meadowscaping to Big and Small Spaces, Matrix Media Press, 2010.

4.John Greenlee, The American Meadow Garden, Timber Press, 2009.

With contributions by: Rebecca Dolan, Ruth Ann Ingraham, Dan McGuckin and Jane Savage

David Savage is co-chair of conservation on the INPAWS board, a member of the board of the Brown County Native Woodlands Project, and a member of the steering committee of Southern Indiana Cooperative Invasives Management (SICIM).

Leave a Reply