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Grow a wildflower meadow

Wildflower meadows have become increasingly popular in recent years, as gardeners combine low-maintenance design with eco considerations. Creating one involves a lot more than sprinkling a wildflower seed mix on your lawn, though.

Vast tracts of South Africa form part of the Grassland Biome. The Grassland Biome is found chiefly on the high central plateau of South Africa, and the inland areas of KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape. The topography is mainly flat and rolling, but includes the escarpment itself. Altitude varies from near sea level to 2 850 m above sea level. Temperate grasslands are characterized as having grasses as the dominant vegetation. Trees and large shrubs are absent.

The importance of biomes cannot be overestimated. Biomes have changed and moved many times during the history of life on Earth. More recently, human activities have drastically altered these communities. Thus, conservation and preservation of biomes should be a major concern to all.

If this natural-looking sweep of grass (wildscape) is something you’d like to incorporate into your landscape, consider planting a section to indigenous meadow grasses and flowers. More like gardens than lawns, these meadows or mini-savannahs are usually restorations of the grasses and flowers that grow naturally in the area (or close approximations of that ideal), made for viewing, walking through and enjoying. These plantings are quite dynamic, especially in the first few years. And they require far less weekly attention than the traditional manicured lawn.

Meadow gardens needn’t be either large or out of control. Preparation, planning, and patience are required. Depending upon where you live, several years may have to pass before your wild garden is really established. Even then, it will likely need some regular tending, if only to remove seedlings of unwanted plants.

Some gardeners have had to battle invading woody plants, but overall the amount of planning and effort is comparable to any type of low maintenance garden.

Autumn is the best time to plant a grassland meadow garden. It’s a good time to sow most grasses, and plant perennials and bulbs. Early-spring planting works almost as well, but leaves the new seedlings vulnerable to aggressive weeds. Gradually you will work yourself out of doing much weeding. Then there is really nothing left to do but to enjoy the flowers.

When you make a meadow, you enter into a joint venture with the natural world. You’re building a plant community that is diverse, strong, dynamic, and at times stunningly beautiful. A wild or meadow garden consumes less energy than turf and so is more ecologically sustainable. Meadows also attract an abundance of bees, birds, butterflies, and other wildlife that feast on the nectar, seeds, and pollen of the native plants used in this type of landscape. You truly will have a “window on nature” on your property.

Meadow grasses and wildflowers need full sun for at least 6 to 8 hours a day, adequate moisture early in the year, and a well-drained soil. Soils are generally less fertile and lower in organic matter than woodland gardens.

Weeds can be a major concern. Select a site that has been cultivated as a lawn or garden. If a site has not been in cultivation, delay planting until weed problems have been eliminated for a year. Constant mowing and the use of a non-selective herbicide should eliminate many problem weeds. Ideally, a site would be prepared in mid-summer for a autumn planting. Spray with a non-selective, non-residual herbicide, such as Roundup in January and allow the weeds to die before cultivating.

You may want to design the whole site at once, even if you plan to convert piece by piece over time. If you plan to include paths and seating areas (so that you can experience your meadow from the inside!), establish those before planting the meadow plants.

Possible path materials include:

·       stone, brick, paver, or wood rounds in gravel, sand, grass, or mortar for a stepping stone or crazy paving path (will keep feet dry but may require sweeping or mowing and weeding)

·       gravel or pebbles over landscaping fabric (less expensive but will encourage seedlings)

·       wood chips (far fewer seedlings and economical too)

·       boardwalk or cement (expensive)

·       straw (may contain weed seeds)

PLANT YOUR MEADOW

First, find out what constitutes a stable meadow in your type of site. Which plants are indigenous to your region’s open areas? There are now a number of nurseries specializing in indigenous plants. A visit to www.PlantZAfrica.com will help you figure out what type of grassland ecosystem — and which grasses and wildflowers — your site will support.

Unless you are a purist, indigenous plants aren’t your only options. You can also plant non-natives that aren’t invasive and that fit your land’s naturally occurring soil type and moisture levels.

You also have choices about how to plant your meadow. Depending on your budget and your available time and energy, you can start slow or fast. Even if you plant full-size plants, though, chances are they’ll need several years to settle in and weave their roots together, so you’ll need to patrol for unwanted seedlings every so often.

Plant bulbs, perennials and succulents

You may choose to include a few rocky outcrops near the edge of your meadow so that you can incorporate some of the rocky grassland plants such as aloes, gazanias, pelargoniums and the vast number of low growing succulents that occur naturally in rocky patches in grasslands.  If you include a small wetland area you will be able to incorporate Wild Iris, Red Hot Pokers, Dwarf Papyrus and River Lily. Alternatively you may want to create clumps of perennial flowering plants such as Watsonias, Scented Grass Bulbine, Star Flower, Wild Dagga, the spectacular Pineapple Flower or have a particularly textured and coloured area by planting a patch of a specific grass type such as Elegia filacea. Plant these highlight patches and features soon after you have installed your paths and benches.

You may want to mulch around and in between the plants in these patches to discourage other grasses that you will sow from overpowering them.

Sow seeds

Once your ground is bare and loose, and you have planted your feature areas you are ready to sow. Following are a couple of tips that will make the whole process simple and successful. First, choose a nearly windless day and, second, separate the seed you’re planting, no matter the amount, in roughly two equal parts. Put the first half in a clean bucket or coffee can and add in roughly 10 parts of light sand or vermiculite. There are two reasons for the sand. It will “dilute” the seed and help you spread it more evenly. More important, since it is lighter-coloured than the freshly-tilled soil, you’ll be able to see where you’ve been as you sow. You can simply hand-sow, keeping the seeding as even as possible. The amount of seed you sow depends on the sort of flower display you want. Many people sow up to two or even three times the minimum seeding rates on seed packages to assure heavy bloom. Avoid planting higher densities since this will inhibit good growth. Sow the first half of your seed/sand mix over the entire area to be seeded. Then go back, mix the second half of your seed with sand and spread that seed over the whole area. This way, you’ll avoid bare spots. Once the seed is evenly sown, you can rake to barely cover the seed with soil. Or, simply compress the seed into the freshly-tilled ground.

Most seed mixtures contain annual and perennial wildflowers. It’s important to understand these different groups, so you’ll have a clear idea of how your meadow should grow and bloom. Annuals are the flowers that usually sprout quickly, grow fast, and are the first to bloom. They normally bloom heavily, set seed, and then are killed by frost. Annuals are the plants that live for only one growing season. They may reseed themselves somewhat, but if you want a yearly show of these flowers, you’ll need to reseed every two years or so. Perennials are the flowers that “come back every year” from the same roots. They are slower to sprout and grow, often not showing shoot growth for months. They normally flower their second year – and then with increasing size and vigour in successive years as they form clumps. Biennials form leaves in the first year, bloom the second year and are killed by frost at the end of their bloom year. Biennials are such heavy

Imagine a garden filled with rich textured layers of wild flowers and grasses.

Imagine a garden filled with rich textured layers of wild flowers and grasses.

seed-producers that most of them are as permanent in a meadow as perennials.

Finally, don’t get discouraged! If you’re worried that establishing or maintaining a meadow might require too much effort, why not try out the idea on a small section of your property? This will give you a chance to play with grassland plants, a feel for the effort required, and a taste of what a larger meadow might look like. That small meadow garden might be enough for you, or it might motivate you to convert a larger piece next year. Do not expect instant beauty with no work or maintenance. Remember, it has taken Mother Nature thousands of years and billions of seeds to produce her seasonal displays.

Good luck transforming your meadow into a lovely landscape!