Imagine the pleasures of having your own meadow, plants swaying in the breeze, sunlight shimmering through tall blades of grass, butterflies flitting from flower to flower, birds enjoying ripe seeds. "Not enough space," you might say, or "too much work."
In fact, you don't need acres of land to reap the rewards of a meadow garden, and once it's in place, it can be very low maintenance. Even a small plot of ground can be turned into a "mini-meadow." Maybe you have a flowerbed that's in need of a makeover, or a section of lawn that seems like a waste of good garden space. As long as the location gets plenty of sun, at least six hours a day, and has ample air circulation, you're good to go.
Luckily meadow plants aren't needy, so if your soil is reasonably good (not excessively poor or rocky), you won't need to amend it. The most important prep step is to eliminate weeds. In a large meadow, weed removal can be a big challenge, but in a mini-meadow it's a manageable chore.
For plants, you can buy them in containers or as seeds. Potted plants give you more control over placement and shorten the timeframe for your meadow to mature. Also, while relying on potted plants for a large meadow can be cost prohibitive, such is not the case for a mini-meadow. The advantages of seeds are they're inexpensive and offer an extended range of species. A combination of plants and seeds can be the best of both worlds, immediate gratification plus diversity.
When it comes to selection, many meadowland plants are already popular in gardens, like black-eyed Susan, coreopsis, and purple coneflower. Other meadow-garden choices include asters, false indigo, goldenrods, gaillardia, blazing star, Joe-Pye weed, penstemon, gaura, and butterfly weed. You can stick with natives like these, or also look for meadowy, non-native plants like cosmos, daisies, rose campion, poppies, gomphrena, larkspur, and yarrow.
But be sure to include grasses. In a real meadow, perennials and annuals (referred to as "forbs" in meadow lingo) are only part of the story. Grasses and grassy plants make up 50 to 80 percent of the meadow. You don't need to follow those numbers, but grasses definitely play a key role. You just can't have a meadow without grasses!
A few good grasses for meadow gardens are big bluestem, little bluestem, sideoats grama, muhly grass, Indiangrass, switch grass, fountain grass, quaking grass, prairie dropseed, feather reed grass, and sheep fescue.
An easy approach is to buy a variety of container sizes as well as seeds. A handful of plants in larger pots will serve as anchors, then add a tier of smaller plants, then a scattering of seeds. You can also grow seeds into small plants before adding them to the mini-meadow.
An area 5 feet by 7 feet might only require three to five plants in larger containers (1-gallon, 6-inch), 10-12 in small pots (4-inch, cell packs), and a couple of packets of seeds to scatter. Most or all will continue to spread or reseed, and ultimately the garden really only needs one to two plants per square foot.
A sample planting in a 5X7 area would be:
1 purple coneflower
1 butterfly weed
2 blazing stars (Liatris)
2 blanket flowers (Gaillardia)
2 asters (different types)
1 switch grass
1 muhly grass
2 fountain grasses
3 sheep fescues
1 packet of zinnia seeds
1 packet of bachelor's buttons seeds
There are so many plant choices and infinite ways to combine them. You can even make your own seed mix. Or plant potted grasses then sprinkle seeds of colorful annual flowers like poppies and cosmos among them, though each year you might need to re-sow.
The beauty of a meadow garden is not only how it looks, but also the diversity of wildlife it attracts, and the greater the variety of plants, the better. After your meadow is up and going, you'll be amazed at the insects, birds, and other animals that show up to enjoy it with you!