Butterfly Meadows and a Recycled Resource


I haven’t spent so much per ounce for plant material since I was a miscreant teenager decades ago.

These three bags of seeds from Prairie Nursery in Westfield, Wisconsin, however, promise a longer-lasting high, a Monarch butterfly-friendly meadow that will sweep halfway around my house, transforming my back yard from shabby lawn to, I hope, a flower-filled habitat that should be gorgeous all seasons.  Even during its winter sleep, it should offer the forms and russets of warm-season grasses and wildflowers with a certain austere beauty.

This project has brought its own unique concerns.  One and three quarters pounds of seed may be enough to plant my 5,500 square feet of newly vacated soil, but only if evenly distributed.  However, uniformity of distribution will not only be crucial to success, it will also be challenging given that I intend to sow the seed by hand.   Straight from their bags, I have maybe a dozen handfuls of seed.  I won’t be able to stretch this to cover the entire designated space unless I bulk it up markedly.  In fact, the seed supplier, Prairie Nursery, recommends mixing each quarter lb. of seed with two bushels of some such “carrier”.   That means I need 14 bushels.

I received a number of recommendations about what to mix with the seeds for added bulk.  Vermiculite was the suggestion of a local nursery woman whose opinion I respect and who has planted a number of meadows of her own.  Prairie Nursery recommends either sawdust, sphagnum peat or cracked corn.  I don’t have a local source for cracked corn and anyway, scattering bushels of that around the yard sounds likely to attract unwanted wildlife.  Vermiculite and sphagnum peat both come at a hefty environmental cost, which I’m reluctant to pay.

That leaves sawdust, which I naively thought would be easily available and, I assumed, would be free.

Finding a source of sawdust, however, proved not so easy.  Apparently, it is no longer a waste product but rather a recycled resource.  I called a local sawmill and was informed that it sold all the sawdust it produces to a farmer.  A stop at a small roadside milling operation with a beautiful pile of sawdust brought the same answer.  Apparently, sawdust makes good bedding for chickens, horses, and cattle and once mixed with their manures is an excellent source of organic matter for crop soils.  Indeed, the Forest Service publishes a handbook on uses for sawdust, which makes it clear that this stuff is a valuable as well as versatile commodity.  Who knew?

Not for Sale!

Fortunately, I have a friend, the highly skilled craftsman who built the timber frame for my house, who will let me have some of his sawdust.  So on Wednesday I’ll be driving up to his workshop in northern Massachusetts where he has promised to fill the back of my truck with his front end loader.  I feel rich already.


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Thomas Christopher

My father was a compulsive tree planter, but it was my mother who taught me the finer points of gardening.

Her homeschooling was followed by two years in the New York Botanical Garden’s School of Professional Horticulture, and then ten years as horticulturist at an Olmsted Brothers designed estate on the Hudson River Palisades.

I’ve worked as a horticultural journalist for 35 years, contributing to publications ranging from Martha Stewart Living to the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society and The New York Times.  My most recent book is Nature Into Art: The Gardens of Wave Hill, which is a tour of the lessons to be learned from that great public garden.  I’m currently focusing on my new podcast (at thomaschristophergardens.com) which features weekly interviews with leaders of environmentally-informed gardening.

My special enthusiasms include sustainable gardening, especially sustainable lawns;  heirloom chicken breeds; and recreating vintage New England hard ciders.


Contact Tom by email


  1. I hope you’ll follow up in a couple years’ time, let us know how it’s going. In a similar would-be wild area I planted with a carefully chosen seed mix, I had great results the first couple of years, and indeed some native grasses and fewer perennial wildflowers carry on very well. Definitely there’s been a noticeable uptick in butterflies and other pollinators. But the area is increasingly invaded by unwanted, non-native species with spreading roots that make them virtually impossible to suppress. I might have had better luck had I started with a more depleted soil, too late now.

  2. Thank you for pointing out the environmental cost of vermiculite and sphagnum peat. We gardeners need to be more conscious of embedded environmental costs of supplies we use.

  3. Thomas…Great article and I hope you post updates on your meadow project! Having sown hundreds of meadows and consulted on thousands more, I’d also recommend builders sand or sand box sand as a dispersing agent with wildflower mixtures when being broadcasted. I find that it mixes well with the density of the seed and with the ‘light’ color of the sand, you can visually see when your seed is being sown. It’s inexpensive and easy to find as well.

    • I avoided sand because it’s very heavy in bulk, especially when dampened — my sources recommend that you dampen the carrier so that the seed attaches to its particles and remains mixed. But I don’t want to argue with your extensive experience.

  4. I don’t know if you have a homebrew store nearby, but you can get rice hulls pretty cheap there. Last I looked they were much cheaper than a garden supply shop. Often times you can get an even better price if you order a whole bag.

  5. I see that more and more people create butterfly and bees friendly meadows. I am really happy about that because in my grandma’s city there are markedly less insects than in previous years. What I decided to do in her small yard was to grow a mix of plants which will create a meadow. It can not only positively affect the environment but also attract butterflies. I ordered https://gardenseedsmarket.com/flowery-meadow-seed-mix-of-over-40-wild-flower-species.html this pack of seeds with 40 different varieties of flowers. When the flowers started to bloom my grandma said that this idea was amazing.

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