The words “wildflower meadow” summon a mental picture of colorful blooms waving in the wind, fluttering butterflies, and busy honeybees buzzing from bloom to bloom. This lovely picture invites you to wade through a fragrant sea of waist-high blooms, a magnet for wildlife with color from early spring through frost.
Many years ago we made the decision to manage our farm as a wildlife preserve. When we became their stewards (25 years ago), our acres of fields hadn’t produced agricultural crops for decades, except for low-quality hay. In exchange for keeping the fields mowed, our neighbor cut and baled the grass and weeds in late July each year. We foolishly put a stop to this, thinking that the exhausted soil needed a rest. This put us under pressure to “bush-hog” every year or two, chewing away at the overgrowth to prevent it from become scrub woods.
Of course trees did try to take over, particularly low-grade green ash, and due to time pressures we neglected our mowing, so before long we had a real problem. It didn’t take long for the trees to become too large to mow over. Invasives like Autumn Olive, multiflora rose and Japanese honeysuckle got a foothold. What a mess! We’re still paying the price for this neglect. Still, there were volunteer trees we purposely spared, pruned and trained into shapely shade trees scattered across our meadowlands. They’re gorgeous now.
Reading the book “The Biophilia Effect” by Clemens G. Arvay, we learned that humans are instinctively attracted to meadows scattered with trees and bushes. These surroundings, called “savannah”, naturally recharge us. Landscape designers integrate these features into parks and other landscapes. By selectively managing our fields and their volunteer trees, we can assist nature in providing us with ever-changing, colorful, interesting and beautiful surroundings.
Mowing during the growing season prevents wildflowers from self-seeding. It also destroys bird, butterfly and beneficial insect habitat, for no real gain. Instead, years ago we began mowing in the dead of winter, after all the perennial wildflowers have a chance to drop their seeds. Mowing dormant meadows is vastly easier, faster, and more comfortable (no bugs). This practice has really increased our bird population, because so many of them depend on pastureland insects and seeds for food. Butterflies flutter everywhere.
It took some time for our fields to recover, but after years of this benign neglect we’re seeing an explosion of wildflowers. From late winter until hard frost, every week brings a new color balance as the seasonal plants bloom and fade, only to be replaced by others. Each year the wildflower show gets more intense. It’s a kaleidoscope of color! We’ve laced our fields with grassy trails, where weekly mowing encourages a dense carpet of turfgrass and clover. Every day we walk these trails and marvel at the constantly changing colorscape.
No doubt our farmer neighbors think we’re crazy, for “ruining” acres of open fields by creating an obstacle course that makes mechanized farming impossible. We’re not farmers and never will be. Our fields and woods serve us as a refuge; a relief from crowded suburbs, noise, and 24-hour lighting. As a designer I love shaping the natural landscape; I treat it like a painting that’s never finished.
Like so many things in nature, the answer lies in changing your ideal of beauty. You may find the solution to your wildflower dreams was there all along.
Steve Boehme is a landscape designer/installer specializing in landscape “makeovers”. “Let’s Grow” is published weekly; column archives are on the “Garden Advice” page at www.goodseedfarm.com. For more information is available at www.goodseedfarm.com or call GoodSeed Farm Landscapes at (937) 587-7021.