What seeds to use for a new backyard meadow?

Asked October 11, 2018, 1:10 PM EDT

Converting most of my backyard (Towson MD) to a natural meadow. Full sun to partial sun. Swale distributes rainwater across yard How can I make sure the seed mix is appropriate? Gardener suggested: 70% little bluestem "prairie view"; 15% virginia wildrye and the rest is small quantities of partridge pea, rubeckia, milkweed, oxeye sunflower, beard tongue, various asters, mistflower, wild bergamont, various coneflowers, sensitive pea, mountain mint, various goldenrod, & hairy beardtongue. For the paths through my meadow what grass would you recommend? Or should I use gravel?

Baltimore County Maryland

1 Response

You got good information from your gardener person.
About 50 to 70 percent should be grasses and the two you mention are good choices.
A list we have here includes Milkweed, Partridge pea, Erigeron (fleabane), Penstemon, Rudbeckia hirta, Solidago (goldenrod- juncea and rugosa), Narrow-leaf mountainmint and others.
Basically, you want to try and stick to natives to our state. It can be difficult to find truly native seed sources.
Some experts suggest accomplishing this incrementally.
Here is what one says:
"Converting lawn to wildflower garden or meadow

Adding native plants gradually into a portion your yard to create a wildflower garden would be a good way to get started. One of the best resources for selecting Maryland native plants that are suitable for specific light/soil conditions is the free publication, Native Plants for Wildlife and Conservation Landscaping: https://www.fws.gov/Chesapeakebay/pdf/NativePlantsforWildlifeHabitatandConservationLandscaping.pdf

Another great resource is the Chesapeake Bay Native Plants searchable database:
I recommend that you spend some time getting familiar with these resources. Look for plants ideal for the "Piedmont" region of Maryland. You will see that there are many good choices for ornamental grasses and other types of plants.
When it comes time to look for sources of native plants, the Maryland Native Plant Society keeps a good list of native plant sales and nurseries that specialize in native plants: https://www.mdflora.org/gardening

You didn't mention the size of the area you want to convert from lawn to native plants. Some people express interest in creating a native meadow, which is a bit more complicated than a native plants garden. One of our University of Maryland 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. Lawnmowers 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. "

That said, check out Ernst Conservation Seeds out of PA. They have some seed mixes that you may find useful. For instance: https://www.ernstseed.com/product/showy-northeast-native-wildflower-mix/?anchor=2

Getting control of your planting areas existing grasses, weeds etc. is important, either by stripping sod or killing it back before seeding areas.
Some ways are here: http://extension.umd.edu/hgic/earth-friendly/alternatives-lawn
As far as your paths, we'd suggest an organic covering like wood chips or the turf grass you already have. Stones make it really difficult to change your path if you were to choose to do so in the future.