Conversion of turf lawn to native meadow

Asked March 4, 2018, 11:32 AM EST

We want to convert about 1/3 of an acre of turf lawn into a native meadow, featuring deer resistant plants wild flowers and pollinators. What is the most efficient way to clear the turf and make the ground ready for planting? Thank you for your assistance. Regards,

Howard County Maryland

1 Response

One of our UMD faculty has been visiting meadow plantings around the state, and she has learned that the vast majority of Marylanders who start a meadow planting invest a lot of time and money only to experience disappointment and failure in the end. Two of the challenges that Marylanders in particular face are:

1. A prevalence of bad meadow making instructions

2. Locally native seeds are not commercially available

Until these problems can be addressed, we’re recommending that people try smaller meadow projects using the following, modular approach:

1. In late winter, select a small lawn area of only a few hundred square feet for your initial meadow module.

2. Remove the turf and the topsoil underneath it. This eliminates weeds and the weed seeds that would compete with your meadow. Native meadow plants are generally happier growing on the poor soil beneath your topsoil anyhow.

3. Have a long-term plan for keeping the lawn grasses out of your meadow. Most lawn grasses cannot be stopped by a simple mulched path. Lawn mowers must always side-cast clippings away from the meadow.

4. Order plugs from a nursery that specializes in locally native plants.* If your nursery cannot tell you which ecoregion you are in and which ecoregion their plants were sourced from, look for one that can. Such a nursery will be able to advise you as to the species appropriate for a meadow given your location and site conditions, including deer pressure.

5. The desire to plant flowers is strong, however stable meadows are composed of 50 to 70% grasses. Order more grass plugs than flower plugs.

6. Expect to pay somewhere around $1 per plug, depending on size and species, and toplant one plug per square foot. This high density provides for quick canopy closure by the natives, thus reducing weed competition.

7. When your plugs arrive, plant them. Water the plugs as needed over the next few weeks, until they are established, but do not fertilize. Mulch is not appropriate for dry sunny meadows, but can be useful for shade meadows. Imported mulch often contains weed seeds.

8. Keep a close eye on your meadow during the first year. Learn to distinguish the native plants from the weed species that will try to invade the meadow.

9. Don’t be surprised if your young meadow doesn’t flower much. Many native meadow species do not bloom the first year.

10. When your meadow produces seeds, and they shatter on the ground, watch to see when the seedlings germinate and what they look like. For many species, seeds shatter in late summer or fall, and germinate in spring. It will help you to know your native seedlings so you don’t pull them. These seeds are building up the soil-seed- bank. In future years, when there is a disturbance in your meadow, the seeds that germinate will be those of desirable meadow species.

11. When your first meadow module is blooming, producing seed, and you are comfortable that you have the resources to add a new module, begin harvesting stems with the seeds on them. Place the stems upside down in paper bags, and store the bags in a dry, place safe from breezes and mice. Over the next few weeks, seeds will fall from the stems into the bags.

12. In the fall, remove the turf and topsoil to create the next module. If you think you might also like to plug the next module, fall is the ideal time to order your plugs.

13. In late fall or early winter, sprinkle your seeds over the soil. Scratch them into the soil very shallowly, 1/8” or less. Then tamp the soil gently with your feet and water. A light covering of clean straw can be beneficial, but make sure only to purchase straw that is weed-seed free.

14. In the spring, monitor the germination of the seeds you have sown, and plant any additional plugs you may have ordered. This brings you full circle!

15. By repeating this cycle, you can successfully add new modules to your meadow each year.

You may also find these resources helpful:


· Cullina, William. 2000. New England Wildflower Society Guide to Growing Wildflowers of the United States and Canada. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York NY.

· Cullina, William. 2008. Native Ferns, Moss, and Grasses. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York NY.

· Phillips, Harry R. 1985. Growing and Propagating Wildflowers. The University of North Carolina Press. Chapel Hill NC. 331 pp.

· Stein, Sara. 1993. Noah's Garden: Restoring the Ecology of Our Own Backyards.

· Weaner, Larry. Garden Revolution: How Our Landscapes Can Be a Source of Environmental Change. Timber Press, Portland, Oregon. 328 pp.

Other Online Resources:

· Environment Canada, Downsview, Ontario. 2004. Planting the Seed: A Guide to Establishing Prairie and Meadow Communities in Southern Ontario. eMeadowCommunities2004.pdf

· Maryland Native Plant Society Events. Look especially for hikes in real native meadows. Learn about the plants, soils, insects unique to your ecoregion.

· Maryland Native Plant Society Nursery List. Only a few of the companies on this list will sell plants native to your ecoregion, so you must ask.

· Maryland Native Plant Society. 2002. Guidelines for Collecting Seeds From Native Plants.

· Tallgrass Prairie Center. High quality meadow-making videos and publications. Their work is specific to Iowa, so the plants are different but the methods are the same.

Also be sure to visit our own Native Plant information page, and keep checking back, as more information on native meadows will be posted in 2018!