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Renovation & Design

Gardening with nature

Make a meadow garden with native Manitoba wildflowers and grasses

The demand for native plants has steadily increased in the past few years across North America. Planting a few native plants to benefit pollinators has grown into wanting to incorporate a meadow garden to reduce the amount of lawn in the home landscape or as an alternative to an ornamental perennial bed.

Aimee McDonald specializes in growing native Manitoba native prairie wildflowers and grasses. She and her husband, Wes, own Prairie Flora Greenhouse in Teulon which offers native prairie garden consultation, design, and installation services as well as pre-designed garden kits.

“What I am hearing from my customers,” says McDonald, “is that they don’t want to plant just anything. They have a more mindful approach. There is a real desire to plant something that will benefit the environment and that will make a difference. It’s an offshoot of the pandemic, I think, which has been a big reminder of how fragile our world is. We are more purposeful.”

There are other practical reasons, too. Native plants have naturally deep root systems which help to control problems in the landscape such as erosion or drainage issues. They also require less maintenance.

How could you make a successful meadow garden with a mix of prairie wildflowers and grasses that also incorporates good design? It starts by taking your cue from nature. “If we look at a natural wildflower meadow,” says McDonald, “there is a high diversity of grasses as well as wildflowers. Every space is filled.” When McDonald is making a meadow garden, she selects native plants that are suitable as groundcovers and includes a mix of native flowering perennials that provide drifts of colour. Specific plants are selected for structural interest as well as spontaneous self-seeders.

Suppose you want to create a meadow garden to replace a turfed area that is approximately 250 square feet. McDonald offers several plant suggestions here, but the first task is to prepare a turfed area for your native garden project.

There are a few different ways, says McDonald. Her preference is to use the smothering method. “It may not look pretty at first,” she cautions. Lay something heavy such as black plastic or a tarp over the designated area. It’s essential to weigh the covering down as much as possible rather than just securing the four corners. If any sunlight or air can get through to the turf grass, weeds such as quackgrass or thistles, and other types will continue to grow underneath the tarp.

The smothering technique takes time and patience, says McDonald, but is less effort and expense than hiring someone to dig up sod by hand and turn it over. A plastic tarp is an easier solution, however, it takes time before the area is ready to be planted. If the area is populated by quackgrass or other deep-rooted perennial weeds, it could take a full year, says McDonald. But if the area is primarily Kentucky bluegrass, you might be able to start planting next spring if you begin your project now in early August by covering the area you have selected for your meadow garden. If temperatures are warm for the remainder of the summer, that will help to speed up the process.

Check underneath the tarp periodically during the summer and fall, recommends McDonald, to see if the grass is still green. “Check it again in spring and if the grass is dead, remove the tarp and you can begin planting directly into the dead sod once temperatures are warm enough.” It can be difficult to plant directly into dead sod so another option is to till and then plant.

You could till in a bit of compost which helps to loosen heavy clay. “I find that prairie plants grow just fine and look healthy even without added compost,” says McDonald. “The plants will grow faster if compost is added but the added nutrients can cause them to get leggy. In certain situations, though, compost definitely helps. If you are putting plant plugs into hard clay, scuff up the sides of the planting hole and add a small amount of peat moss or compost around the plant root to encourage the roots to grow outwards into their new medium.” If your soil is loose and friable, your plants won’t need the extra nutrients from compost.

Prairie Flora’s native plant plugs are five-inch (12.7 cm) deep plugs known as Ray Leach Cone Tainers. They are 1.5 inches wide (3.8 cm). It’s a different look compared to the more commonly seen 3.5 inch (8.8 cm) containers at most garden centres, however, the amount of soil is the same and once planted, they begin growing and some even flower the first year, says McDonald. There is no need to add a slow-release fertilizer. Again, the extra nitrogen can result in the plants becoming leggy. “The focus in the first year of planting should be on establishing the below-ground growth of your plants so that they can survive the winter,” says McDonald. For the first few weeks until plant growth is visible, check each day to ensure the soil is moist and water if the top inch of the soil is dry. Monitor for weed growth.

Plant list for a 250 square foot garden

Groundcovers are important, says McDonald. By shading the soil from sunlight, groundcovers help to conserve soil moisture and they also discourage weed growth. Grasses such as Prairie Dropseed and Sheep Fescue are low-growing native grasses that can also be used to make a nice low border. Early Blue Violet is an early flowering groundcover that hugs the ground, re-seeds readily, and is a host plant for butterfly caterpillars. For a 250 square foot area, McDonald recommends planting 16 Prairie Dropseed, 35 Sheep Fescue, and 26 Early Blue Violet.

Showy drifts can be created by planting native plants that grow naturally in swaths or communities. There are patterns in nature, says McDonald, that you can take inspiration from. “In areas such as Birds Hill, I often see drifts of Wild Bergamot.” For a 250 square foot garden, she recommends the following native plants and quantities: Three Flowered Avens (33), Cutleaf Anemone (41), Purple Prairie Clover (18), Meadow Blazingstar (18), Showy Goldenrod (12), and Wild Bergamot (3).

Structural interest can be provided by a single tall specimen such as Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium maculatum).

Self-seeders have a way of popping up here and there and provide a spontaneous element to a meadow design. Suggestions include Wild Flax (7), Gaillardia aristata (7), Giant Hyssop (2), and Smooth Aster (2).

The plants listed here are for a sunny area and you can always add more diversity later on, says McDonald. Prairie Flora offers pre-designed gardens for partial sun or shade and different soil moisture levels. McDonald plants about one plant per square foot depending on a plant’s mature size and growth habit. More details are available at prairieflora.com.

colleenizacharias@gmail.com

Colleen Zacharias is writing a monthly newsletter for the Free Press that is loaded with advice, ideas and tips to keep your outdoor and indoor plants growing. Sign up to have Winnipeg Gardener delivered conveniently to your own inbox at wfp.to/wpggardener

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