To Make a Meadow


Maintenance requirements for the first season after plugging consisted of
about 20 hours a week of hand weeding and weekly watering with a
sprinkler unless an inch of rain had fallen during the week.

Maintenance in subsequent years is all about the constant encroachment of invasive plants and tree
seedlings, which are hand-pulled or spot-sprayed.  (Plants with the
urge to invade this meadow include Ailianthus, oriental bittersweet,
Lonicera japonica, Polygonum cupidatum ‘japanese smart weed’, Pyrus and
ampelopsis.)  The other maintenance is a thorough mowing every February, with more frequent mowing of the paths.

But critters must love the results because the meadow’s inhabitants and visitors include: Red
fox, eastern box turtles, black racer snakes, red shouldered hawk, red tailed
hawk, indigo buntings, eastern bluebirds, orchard orioles, eastern kingbird,
gold finches, swallows, carolina wren, carolina chickadee, cedar waxwing, song
sparrow, brown thrashers, as well as hundreds of butterflies including
Fritillary, Eastern swallow tails and Painted ladies and several thousand native

And more meadows:

  • A meadow at the National Arboretum was created by just letting a
    field grow and removing the woodies and invasives individually. (And
    your intrepid blogger will be doing a site visit to report on the
  • Midsummer mowing keeps the meadow short enough for the wildflowers
    to actually be seen, but has to be timed correctly to avoid destroying
  • Alternatives to Round-up are the old newspaper trick, and solarization with the use of clear plastic.
  • Use of forb plugs rather than seeds increases the chances of success.
  • Meadows are transitional stages, usually on their way to becoming
    forest, so no wonder they’re so much work.  Prairies, on the other
    hand, are stable communities, mainly grassland.  So if you live
    someplace that naturally reverts to prairie, go for it. 

I’ll end with this sobering assessment from the article:  "While
meadows appear to come about as gracious, spontaneous gifts of nature,
appearances deceive."  But the author also makes this very important
point – that the initial maintenance of meadows may be intensive, but
ultimately they have a low impact on the environment. 

Thanks to American Gardener editor Davis Ellis and
horticulturist Peggy Bowers of the AHS for help with this article.
Lower photo – Bowers hard at work – courtesy of the American
Horticultural Society.


  1. I quote: “…that the initial maintenance of meadows may be intensive, but ultimately they have a low impact on the environment.” My container of RoundUp specifically warns about using it near streams or rivers–yet the article says it was used multiple times, what appears to be a scant 1/4 mile from the Potamac?

  2. Oops – sorry about that. From Wikipedia: A forb is a flowering plant with a non-woody stem that is not a grass. Since it is non-woody, it is not a shrub or tree either. Thus most wild and garden flowers, herbs and vegetables are forbs.

  3. With a few exceptions, plant communities move inexorably toward climax species. It is only with the expenditure of considerable energy that you can arrest that development at ‘meadow’ — unless you are where grasslands are the climax.

    A more ecologically sound way of arresting that development might be to use grazing animals. Most folks use managed grazing to maximize animal production and end up with a grass/legume mix. But it could probably be done to favor ‘wildflowers’.

  4. It’s interesting that if we’re asking plants to do what they wouldn’t do if left alone, it’s not easy. There are no perfect ways to get there, even when the result is so beneficial to the environment, as is the case of meadows. Plus, starting with disturbed land, as in this case, adds to the challenge and it’s really a process of remediation.

  5. Georgia pointed out what I was going to say… it just seems odd to start the making of a natural space with the liberal use of Roundup. Why not a series of very controlled burns, like natural meadows often experience?

  6. Last Saturday I attended a talk by Andre Viette ( and in his presentation he showed a slide of the USNA meadow and slammed it — then showed what a “real” wildflower meadow on his dad’s nursery (Martin Viette) in Long Island looked like. Gotta say – he had a point. The latter was solid flowers and color, the former a mass of weeds. His talking point was “gardening is easy,” but in this case, even for the pros, creating a wildflower meadow is demonstrably difficult – LOL

  7. Here are just a few of the more than 50 different herbaceous perennials–mostly American natives–that have been planted in the meadow at the American Horticultural Society’s headquarters:

    Asters–many, including A. ericoides, smooth aster (A. laevis), Michaelmas aster (Aster novi-belgii);
    Milkweeds, including crimson milkweed, (Asclepias incarnata);
    Perennial sunflowers, including Helianthus maximiliani;
    Gayfeather (Liatris spicata);
    Beebalms, including wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa);
    Penstemons including Penstemon barbatus and Penstemon digitalis ‘Husker Red’;
    Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium fistulosum);
    Mountain mints (Pycnanthemum pilosum and Pycnanthemum tenuifolium);
    Mexican hat (Ratibida columnifera and Ratibida pinnata);
    Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia amplexicaulis and Rudbeckia fulgida var. speciosa);
    New York ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) and Ozark ironweed (Vernonia arkansana, syn. V. crinita);
    Baptisia (Baptisia australis);
    Purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea).

    Regarding the comment about spraying Roundup near water–the manufacturer’s directions for using the product, which we rigorously follow, state not to spray directly on water or in intertidal zones. In designing the meadow, we integrated a 150-foot buffer zone between the lowest section of the meadow and the high-water mark for the river, and our horticulturist applies Roundup only when there is a minimum 48-hour window with no rainfall predicted.

    In response to the comment about burning, ideally we would have liked to conduct an annual controlled burn of the meadow. However, River Farm is located in a suburban community and our application for permission to hold controlled burns was turned down.

    If anyone has questions about the meadow or would like to visit, I’d be happy to help. Just drop me an e-mail at

Comments are closed.