My wife and I have a bed and breakfast in a small upstate New York village. She is trained in horticulture and landscape architecture and decided that we should convert part of our lawn into a “meadow garden.” Part of the motivation was to create a supply of cut flowers for the morning breakfast table through the May to October busy season. We also wanted to create a more interesting landscape on our corner parcel, to bring some of the rural character of the surrounding countryside into the village.
Generally speaking, one is advised to plow up the area one wishes to make into a meadow garden and then plant it extensively with wildflowers, either seeds or ‘plugs.’ The latter are rooted plants that can purchased either online or, if you are lucky, from local growers. We did not follow this advice. We don’t own a rototiller and furthermore, I was curious to see ‘old field succession’ in action.
Most people see this ecological phenomenon on a daily basis. Any vacant lot or abandoned agricultural area will quickly become an example of old field succession. It is one of those ecological phenomena that is illustrated in every basic ecology course with a series of photos or drawings that show the invasion of pioneer species, followed by perennial herbs and then the steady incursion of shrubs, saplings and eventually early succession trees like sumac and aspen. By not taking the area down to bare soil by plowing or tilling it, we changed the pioneer stage, which consists largely of annual plants that scatter enormous amounts of seed each year, by beginning with perennial grasses in place. Two full summers have now passed. New plants have appeared during both summers, with those established in the first summer expanding their presence in the second.
There were some exceptions to this rule. In the first year a large number of Canada and bull thistles appeared. We pulled some of them out because we had heard that they could become invasive and crowd out other species. The weeding seemed to work; there were only two Canada thistles this year. Lesser celandine, an invasive member of the buttercup family, covers large patches of our lawn and had been present in the area that we ‘let go’ to become a meadow. In the second year of succession, however, it seems to have been slightly overwhelmed by taller plants, even though it starts growing in March and flowers in April and May. Eventually, it may be eliminated by succession.
The meadow garden includes a wet slope that is marked by natural seeps and is also the location of the dry wells that I dug for the downspouts that come off of our roof. Consequently species associated with moist meadows and marshes are multiplying. A type of sedge that I have not yet identified to species is becoming particularly common, but showier is the clump of joe-pye weed and boneset that survived repeated cropping by the neighborhood deer. The boneset was more heavily browsed and ended up becoming bushier and having even more flowers than it would have unmolested by the deer. This year a clump of sensitive fern came up among the other moisture-loving plants. This was a pleasant surprise, as I have not seen this plant anywhere near here. We had a clump of wood fern near one of our sugar maples, but when we took that down and had the stump ground, the ferns got ground too.
Goldenrod has started to come into its own this year. We seem to have mostly the tall goldenrod with some lancet-leaved goldenrod as well. In and among the gold we will soon have much purple; purple-stemmed aster have appeared in good numbers. The asters may have sprouted from a wildflower seed mix that my wife scattered last year. We bought the mix in Texas four years ago, so the germination rate wasn’t very impressive when we finally got around to sowing the seed. But the asters and a few other species seem to have remained viable. Perennials generally take a year or two to get established and start flowering, so we will really know next year.
Unfortunately some Maine lupine seeds that we have had for even longer, don’t seem to have come up at all.
My wife rather boldly dug up some ragged robin from the roadside last year and we weren’t sure it had made it. Last month it surprised us by beginning to flower. Three plants (out of five) survived and seem quite happy.
We have not limited the plantings to wildflowers. We put several hundred daffodil bulbs in last fall (and winter) and they came up nicely this year. We also planted cosmos, which didn’t do as well, because the deer kept nipping them back. In fact the deer will probably be the biggest challenge in the future. Transforming the area into something more resembling their natural habitat seems to be attracting more of them.