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Wildflower Meadow Seeding & Management Procedures

Once the area to be planted has been properly prepared, seeding can commence. On small areas, less than an acre or two, seed can be planted by hand broadcasting. Broadcast seeding a wildflower meadow is very similar to planting a lawn. Instead of using a seeder, the seed can be mixed in a larger volume of a lightweight, inert material such as sawdust, peat moss, or vermiculite, that has been slightly dampened so that the seed will stick to it. For a 1000 square foot planting, one bushel basket of inert material is plenty. For a tenth acre planting (4400 square feet), four bushel baskets is sufficient. Mix the seed evenly into the inert material. Take one-half of the total mix and spread it across the area. In the event that you run out before covering the entire area, you still have the other half. Once you have covered the area with the first half of the seed mix, take the second half and spread it evenly across the same area, walking perpendicular to your first pass. Now rake or drag the seed in so that it is lightly covered with soil, one eighth to one quarter inch deep. Roll the site with a roller, or drive across it with truck or tractor tires to firm the seed into the soil. Do not roll the site if the soil is wet. Wait until the soil is dry to avoid soil compaction.

For larger areas, mechanical planters can be used. Specific models that can successfully plant native grasses and flowers include the Tye drill, Truax drill, John Deere Rangeland drill, and properly outfitted Brillion seeders. It is important to know the capabilities and limitations of each seeder in order to select the one that will best suit your needs. The Tye, Truax, and John Deere seeders plant the seed in rows by opening slits in the soil into which the seed falls. Seed drills can open up the surface soil to seat the seed properly without working the soil just prior to planting. The Brillion seeder broadcasts seed rather than drilling it, creating a more natural effect (no rows). The Brillion seeder requires a well-prepared seedbed with a loose surface soil in order to plant the seed properly.

Most wildflower and native grass seeds require firm seed-to-soil contact to promote good germination and survival. Rolling the seeded area after planting is very important to success, especially on light, sandy soils. This procedure firms the soil around the seed and reduces moisture loss during the germination period.

Hydro-seeding does not ensure firm seed-to-soil contact. For this reason, hydro-seeding is not recommended for wildflower and native grass seedings.

Most wildflower seed germinates better after exposure to a period of cold temperature, called stratification. This is a natural protective mechanism that prevents the seed from germinating at the wrong time of year.

Mulching A light covering of clean, weed-free straw or marsh hay after seeding helps to hold in moisture and increase germination. This is particularly helpful on dry sandy soils and heavy clay soils. Straw should just cover the soil surface, but not bury it. Some soil should be visible through the straw. Chopping and blowing the straw onto the area is the best method, as chopped straw is less susceptible to being blown away by the wind. On steep slopes, hold the straw in place by staking down a jute or plastic mesh over it. Never use field hay, as it invariably contains innumerable weed seeds.

Watering Spring and summer seedings will benefit greatly from regular watering during the first four to six weeks after planting. This encourages higher germination and seedling survival. Water after six weeks only if prolonged dry periods occur. Always water in the early morning. Watering during the day is often ineffective and wasteful. Watering in the afternoon and evening encourages high moisture levels at the soil surface and can lead to seedling loss due to fungal attack. Water every other day for 15 minutes to half an hour, or just enough to keep the soil moist. Overwatering can be harmful, especially on heavy clay soils that retain moisture.

Nurse Crops such as annual rye, annual flax, oats, etc, can help suppress weed growth without harming desirable seedlings. When planted at the recommended rates, these annual "nurse plants" grow rapidly without competing with the wildflowers and grasses. Nurse crops occupy the "ecological niche" that would otherwise be taken by annual weeds, thus reducing weed growth. Nurse crops generally do not re-seed themselves.

Selected Nurse Crops Seeding Rates

Spring Plantings

Fall Plantings

Oats: 64 lbs./acre (2 bushels/acre) 128 lbs./acre
Annual Rye: 5 lbs./acre 15 lbs./acre
Annual Flax: 10 lbs./acre N/A

Warning! Never use agricultural grain or perennial rye as a nurse crop. Studies have shown that grain rye produces chemicals in its roots that suppress the germination of other plants. For this reason, grain rye should not be used as a nurse crop, nor as a soil organic matter builder prior to planting, as the chemicals are believed to remain in the soil well after the plants have been plowed under.

Weed Control -Very Important!

First Year: Perennial wildflowers and grasses grow slowly, and weeds will likely grow much faster in the first two years. Weeds can be controlled by keeping them mowed back to a height of 4 - 6 inches the first year. Most native wildflowers and grasses will not grow taller than 6 inches in their first year when seeded and will not be damaged by mowing. Keeping weeds cut back in the first year also prevents production of more weed seeds that could cause problems in the second year. Mowing back weeds on a regular basis in the first year of establishment is one of the most critical steps in the success of your wildflower planting. Do not fail to keep weeds in check! A flail-type mower works best, as it chops up the weeds so they can dry out rapidly. Rotary mowers and sickle bar mowers are not recommended: they do not chop up the weeds and can smother your seedlings. String trimmers or "Weed-Eaters" are excellent for cutting back weeds on smaller plantings of an acre or less. These devices gently lay the cut material down on top of the cut stems where it will dry out rapidly and not smother your seedlings. Weeds should be cut back in the first year when they have reached a height of 8-12 inches. Do not allow the weeds to get taller than this before cutting. Tall weeds will shade out your seedlings, and the large quantities of weedy material that will eventually have to be cut back can smother the small seedlings. Expect to mow weeds about once a month in the first year. The actual mowing frequency will depend upon rainfall in any given year, and the actual weed density and height. Nurse crops can often reduce or eliminate the need for cutting back weeds in the first year.

However, if weeds become thick by mid-summer they should be cut back, along with the nurse crop. If weeds are thin, cut when in bloom, before they set seed.

At the end of the first season, do not mow down the year's growth. Leave it to help protect the young plants over the winter. The plant litter and the snow that it catches insulates the soil from rapid changes in soil temperatures, which can cause plant losses due to frost heaving.

Pulling Weeds: Despite the temptation, pulling weeds in a first year wildflower meadow seeding is not generally recommended. Wildflower seedlings remain very small the first year, and can be easily pulled up right along with the weeds! If you can identify weeds when they are still young and small, it is safe to carefully pull them, making sure you do not disturb adjacent wildflower or native grass seedlings. If you must pull a large weed, hold your feet closely together on either side of the stem at ground level, and pull straight up. This will hold the surrounding soil and any nearby wildflower seedlings in place as you extract the weed. Firm any disturbed soil and seedlings by tamping with your feet. If the soil is dry, watering after pulling weeds is beneficial for seedlings that may have been dislodged during the process. Beware that pulling weeds creates soil disturbance, which exposes new weed seeds and encourages their germination. If you wish to avoid this, or have large well established weeds that cannot be easily pulled, you can cut weeds off at the base using pruning shears. Remove any seed bearing weeds from the site immediately after cutting.

Second Year: In spring of the second year, the planting should be mowed right to the ground, and the cuttings raked off, if possible. At this stage, the plants are still small and have not yet gained full control of the soil environment. Burning in spring of the second year often encourages germination of dormant wildflower seed, but also exposes the surface soil, which can cause increased weed growth. Mowing tends to facilitate germination of dormant seed and enhance the growth of wildflowers, without potentially increasing weeds.

If weeds remain a problem in the second year, they may have to be mowed in late spring or early summer. Biennial weeds can be very competitive in the second year. Mowing them back to about one foot when they are in full bloom will kill them or set them back severely, with minimal damage to your plants.

A biennial weed of particular concern is Sweet Clover (Melilotus spp.). This must be controlled because the seeds of Sweet Clover are stimulated to germinate by fire and can become a long-term management problem if not handled at the outset. Mowing in mid-summer of the second year when in full bloom will usually kill sweet clover plants and prevent them from making seed to re-infest your planting. If it reappears in the third year, it will likely be on a limited basis and can be hand-pulled. Do not let sweet clover make seeds, as it can be a most pernicious weed.

Long Term Management:

Burning or Mowing your wildflower meadow on a regular basis helps ensure continued success. Burning or mowing is usually, but not always, conducted in mid-spring. The best time to burn is generally when the buds of the Sugar Maple tree are just opening. Burning removes the accumulated plant litter from the previous year's growth and exposes the soil surface to the warming rays of the sun. Most wildflowers are "warm season" plants and respond favorably to warm soil temperatures. Burning encourages earlier soil warming and typically increases growth, flowering, and seed production of the native flowers and grasses. A mid-spring fire also sets back undesirable "cool-season" weeds such as quackgrass, bluegrass, brome grass, clover, etc., which come up earlier and get a head-start on the wildflowers. By waiting until these undesirable plants have initiated spring growth before burning, the fire will destroy their new growth and set them back, favoring the warm season wildflowers, most of which remain dormant under the soil and thus unharmed by the fire.

Timing is critical to success with burning. It is generally recommended to burn in mid-spring rather than early spring. However, this does not apply to dry meadows with an abundance of early-blooming flowers that would be harmed by a mid-or late-spring fire. Dry meadows should be burned in late fall after most of the native plants have gone dormant, but the non-native cool season grasses are still active. Burning in very early spring can also be done successfully on dry meadows.

In the event that burning your wildflower meadow is not an option, mowing can be substituted. Although not quite as effective as burning, mowing and raking off the mowed material is a good substitute. Mowing simulates the effect of fire by removing the previous year's vegetation, and cuts back cool season weeds if mowed in mid-spring. It is important to remove the mowed material to expose the soil surface and encourage soil warming. Do not mow or burn after new plant growth has reached 1 foot or taller, as this could damage some of your desirable plants. Many ground-nesting birds also build their nests in late spring and mowing or burning at this time could destroy some nests. Mid-spring burning or mowing maintenance leaves sufficient time for birds to re-nest and successfully raise its young.

Burning can usually be instituted at the beginning of the third growing season. At this point, sufficient combustible plant matter is often available from the previous year's growth to support a fire. If there is insufficient fuel to carry a fire, mowing and raking off the material should be substituted.

Frequency of Mowing or Burning: Most wildflower meadows will respond positively to periodic burning or mowing. Research indicates that annual spring burning tends to favour the native grasses and legumes over most of the other flowers. Studies have shown that when one-half of the same planting was burned in mid-spring and the other was left unburned, the appearance of the plantings were markedly different. In fall, the burned half was dominated by native grasses, while the unburned half exhibited fewer grasses, but more asters and goldenrods. The structure of the plantings, in terms of the actual numbers of individual flowers and grasses, was very similar between the plantings: however, the burning had favored the development of the grasses in that year, while the lack of burning had favoured the late-blooming wildflowers.

Rotational burning of one-half or one-third of your meadow on an annual basis is generally recommended, for a variety of reasons. First, the same planting, with different management regimes, can present very different aspects in the same year, increasing the landscape interest and diversity of habitat for wildlife. Second, leaving unburned sections preserves overwintering butterfly, moth, and other invertebrate pupae and eggs, that would otherwise be destroyed by burning. Third, variation in management prevents any given species from gaining overall dominance in the planting, thus maximizing species diversity. If mowing management is to be used instead of burning, rotational mowing is recommended for the same reasons.

Once your wildflower meadow has become well-established, it will return year after year with just a minimum of maintenance. Following these guidelines will ensure that your planting will have the very best chance of success, while providing you with a maximum of landscape interest throughout the year!

How Meadow Planting Credits Are Used

When you purchase a Meadow Planting Credit, you are investing into your and your children's future. The money is used to assist farmers and landowners to plan, restore and impliment a Meadow Planting project. The benefits are numerous and the return on investment is priceless.

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The Registry of Nature Habitats
PO Box 321
Meridale, NY 13806
Copyright 1999 - All Rights Reserved

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