Converting Crispy Lawns to a Wildflower Meadow

Katie Hafner, Soil Conservationist

If there is one good thing that has come from 2020, it is the extra time I have been able to spend cleaning up, adding to, and expanding my flower and vegetable gardens. I have traded in and swapped out many ornamental plants for native perennials bringing diversity and color to my flower beds. Another thing I have spent many hours on this year is mowing my lawn, so while on the lawn mower I thought “What if this was all flowers too?”

Converting turf grass into a native prairie or a wildflower meadow is no easy feat. There are many things and many years of work needed to establish the perfect plot. The rewards can be endless! Native flowers bring in a greater variety of pollinators that will help overall native pollinator populations as well as pollinate both your flower and vegetable gardens. Choosing a mix that will keep flowers blooming all season long will bring color to a normally boring green lawn. Small mammals, insects, deer, turkeys, and other wildlife will thank you endlessly. While most country lawns dry up in the month of July and turn crispy, native grasses and wildflowers will penetrate deep into the soil profile and be able to scavenge nutrients and water even during dry times. It will look much nicer than dead turf and crabgrass. 

Thinking about something like this for next year? The first step would begin this fall with site and seat prep. 

Step 1- Site Selection (August-September)

Choose an area of lawn you would like to convert. The area should be mostly sun, away from any major herbicide or pesticide spraying, and a place you will be able to see and enjoy it. Steer clear of any shady, mucky or really wet soil areas. It is not impossible to do an area here, but a special wetland mix will probably be needed, and establishment will be tricky.

Another consideration for location is the availability to burn. If you are not in the city limits, a yearly burn beginning and year three may be a great way to maintain the desired diversity of your plot. Make sure you are able to mow around your plot to create a burn break. Steer clear of planting close to any buildings, houses, or other tall grass that will leave dead and dry residue that may also catch fire. Once you pick a location, measure on a satellite map (like Google maps) to see how many tenths or full acres you have. This will help you calculate seed.

Step 2- Buying Seed (August-October)

Next, choose your seed. There are many great pre-mixed seed mixes that are available that will create the best flower arrangement for your space. The CRP SAFE program has provides options for mixes with all three bloom periods as well as native grasses- CP-42 (this is my favorite).  There are many other mixes that will work, and with a little Googling, you can figure out which flowers will be right for your light and soil requirements. Many local conservation districts sell pre-mixed native grass and wildflower seed. Pheasants Forever also sells native mix. Here in Clinton County we are lucky to be close to the Michigan Wildflower Farm. They also sell seed that is all Michigan genotype and a great option. For help purchasing seed, reach out to the Clinton Conservation District for our full list.

Step 3- Site Preparation (August-October)

Now comes some manual labor… Site prep. It is not too early to start site prep for a spring 2021 planting. The goal is to get the cleanest and deadest surface possible. Staking out the area will help keep edges clean. The grass in the area will first need to be terminated. A broad-spectrum herbicide can be used to kill all vegetation. Looking for a non-herbicide option? Smothering the grass with a tarp or some other dark canvas may work best. Most of the remaining summer and fall will be spent cleaning up this surface. 

Tilling is optional. Most native grass and wildflower seed is so small that if it is buried underneath the ground surface too far it will germinate but never reach light. In a natural setting, wildflower seeds fall from the standing plant onto the ground. Mother nature does not till the soil; it is worked in with frost and is able to sprout the next year. 

Step 4- Planting

First is a dormant planting in the fall (November-February). In my opinion, this works best because most grass and wildflower seed needs cold stratification to germinate. Cold stratification is a time where the seed lays dormant, cold, and wet. Once soil temperatures reach below 50 degrees Fahrenheit (Google the soil temp in your area), premixed seed can be broadcast onto the terminated grass. Split the seed into two and cover the area twice to ensure an even spread. The frost will work the seeds in, nothing is needed afterwards.

Many have been just as successful with planting the same way in the springtime (March-May). If the converted area is large and a tractor is available, renting a no till drill maybe a good option. Many conservation districts have a no-till drill for rent, in most cases someone will come out and calibrate the drill based on your seed. This could save time on a big plot and ensure an even planting.

Now we wait!

Step 5- Maintenance (One to Three Years)

The work is not done. Normally, it takes 3 years for a native grass and wildflower planting to fully establish. There is required maintenance every year to ensure weeds and woody vegetation do not take over and crowd out the young seedlings. Progress in germination may not even be evident until a few months after planting. A rule of thumb with wildflower plantings is “the first year the seed sleeps, the next year it creeps, in the 3rd year it leaps!” Don’t get too discouraged if the meadow comes up ugly. Totally normal!

As the area starts to green up, it will be time to control weeds. Knowing the difference between a weed and a wildflower seedling can be hard but it is important to learn some identification to help weed the bad stuff out. If the plot is small, hand pulling may be the best way to control weeds. If the plot is large, wait until the weeds have almost overtaken any young seedlings and are about to go to seed. For medium plots, using a weed whacker is also a good option. Mow at 4-6 inches to make sure seed heads are removed. It is important that the weeds do not go to seed; it is hard to win the battle after that. Continual hand pulling or mowing four to six times in the first year is normal. The main goal is to keep the weeds from going to seed.

Mowing, weed whacking, hand pulling will continue for the next two years. In year two, flowers (mostly black-eyed Susan) with start to flourish. Some increase the black-eyed Susan content in their seed mix to get a big pop of yellow color during the second year. It can be a great way to show others your success (if they are like my husband and still thinks I am growing solely weeds at the end of year one).

After each mowing, more and more diversity will emerge. Mowing helps knock the weeds back and give more space and nutrients to young desired plants. In a wood setting like mine, battling emerging woody vegetation is normal. The best way to combat this is cutting and treating the stumps of sprouting trees. Trees like cottonwoods, and sassafras will reemerge after cut if the stump is not treated.

Step 6- Deciding to Burn (Year 4)

At year four, it’s time to burn. Burning happens naturally in the ecosystem and is a way to control woody vegetation as well as overtaking grass. It will rebalance species mix as well as help flowers bloom. In many cases, the best blooming years for meadows is the year of burning. Contact the local fire department for any permits needed. In some cases, they will come out and watch or even help as a training. The local conservation district office may be able to point you towards helpful resources and contacts for this activity.

Step 7- Enjoy!

Things to remember:

–           Check and apply herbicides according to the label. It is unlawful to use herbicides not according to the recommended dosage and timing. See how long of a residual the herbicide has. Glyphosate has a relatively short one. 2-4D however has a long residual and you will not want to plant during that time.

–           Help can always be found! The local farm bill biologist or conservation district can assist you with establishment, maintenance, and emotional support with the plot. They’re available by phone, email, and possibly site visits to come out and look to see the progress/problems.

–           A good way to get free seed is to find it yourself. Dried wildflower seed heads can be collected and sprinkled into the converted area. Adding more seeds is never a bad thing, as not all seeds will be successful and survive. 

Here’s a quick look at my experience establishing a half acre pollinator plot.

My goal was to bring different pollinators to my yard as well as establish native flowering plants for my honeybees. The area I was looking to convert was already tall grass yet on desirable. Reed canary, cottonwood, and goldenrod overtook the area that has been neglected for years. I started by spraying the entire area with glyphosate. I tried to remove any small trees. My husband brought the tractor home and disked the area. In hindsight I should not have disc. I believe it opened the ground and released a seed bank that came strong. I spread my seeds in November after the ground temperature was below 50°. The next spring mostly weeds emerged. Convincing myself it was normal I tried hand pulling a lot of the area. Learning that would take an eternity, I turned to the weed whacker and mowed it with that instead. After volunteering at a nature center for the morning I scored a trunk full of well-established wildflower plugs that were extra from an area they had planted. I planted them scattered around in my plot.

Don’t be afraid to try weird stuff! Putting the establishment flowers in my plot will add more seeds in the fall as well as increase the immediate aesthetics.

After four weed whack jobs this is what my plot looks like. The main weeds I am fighting is ragweed and foxtail. The cottonwoods are still emerging and probably always will, but I am carefully cutting and treating the stumps.

Additional resources:

–           This video gives a good how-to and a look at what a successful established planting looks like in a subdivision. It is not impossible to establish something like this in an urban setting. (attach video from FB)

–           Did you know there may be cost share for something like this? The USDA farm Bill program EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program) has special funding for native grass and wildflower plantings. This may cover the cost of establishment and seed. Contact your local Conservation District for more information.

–           A quick Google search can lead to other funding sources as well. The bee and butterfly may fund provides seed to landowners who have site prep completed.

So, don’t be afraid to try something new this year!  The risk is small in the rewards may be great!