This spring I had an opportunity to create a wildflower meadow on my property. It is rare to have a blank slate to be able to start a wildflower meadow: an area with good soil and no plants, including no weeds. I was inspired by Mike Lizotte who showed photos and gave step by step instructions on Instagram. Owner of American Meadows, an online seed company, Mike wrote a book called Mini Meadows: Grow a Little Patch of Colorful Flowers Anywhere Around Your Yard. He shows how easy it is to sow wildflower seeds and grow a patch of beautiful flowers for the summer.
Over the years, I have collected packets of wildflower seeds from trade shows and gardening events. Of course, they were old; I had no idea if the seeds were viable. However, during this pandemic, I had more time on my hands, I wanted to use up the seed, plus I had the patch of land.
I had the patch of land because last year we had an issue with the left side of our property. Every time it rained, the water gushed down the left side of the house, moving quite a bit of soil and pebbles into the driveway. I had already created a 3-foot-wide garden strip in that area in the previous year, in 2019. Although the shrubs and perennials were surviving, each rain encroached on their area, moving the soil and exposing the roots.
My husband asked a contractor to construct a low “wall” to divert the water, thus creating a new garden bed for me. Or, in other words, I asked the contractor to create a garden bed for me, defined by a low “wall,” thus solving the water issue.
In the summer of 2020, the contractor put down several wooden beams, 5 ½ inches across and high, and several feet long. They secured them with rods that go through the beams and into the soil. It makes for a long rectangular bed, about 32 feet long, running parallel to the original 3-foot-wide bed I had created. The beams ran from the front of the property where the sidewalk was to a large maple tree, creating a garden bed that was more than 32 feet long and about 3 to 4 foot wide from the original line of shrubs.
In the fall of 2020, I contacted Veterans Compost to deliver compost in bulk. I have never had compost delivered in bulk because usually it is dumped on the driveway which is where my husband parks his car. But Veterans Compost could deliver the compost in large plastic bins, the type that are used for trash pickup. The cost was not expensive. The owner himself delivered the compost and I highly recommend this company. After he dumped the bins, I spread the black compost with my gloved hands for an even distribution. The compost was beautiful, like a dry brownie mix, and completely seed free (for months!).
The day he was supposed to arrive, I got up early in the morning and laid down cardboard on the turf. Since the pandemic, I have been saving all the cardboard that enters my house. In 2020, we were receiving a lot of Amazon boxes and I was saving all the cardboard that came from the groceries. Because my children were home and we ate our meals at home, we had quite a bit more groceries. I saved all cardboard — from boxes of pizza, cereal, pasta, crackers, TV dinners, and cookies. Everyone in the house knew to save the cardboard.
After Veterans Compost delivered the compost, I leveled the compost across the garden bed, making sure the cardboard was covered. Throughout the winter, the garden was barren. There were no plants, save the bushes I had already planted in that 3-foot strip. Amazingly, there were no weeds. Excited by the prospect of a new, large garden bed, I thought about different plants, different ways I could design the bed. I entertained the idea of a winter interest garden (evergreens and red berries), to a native plants only garden, to having a variety of edible shrubs.
I also watched the patch to determine the environmental parameters. There were three deciduous trees nearby. I knew that the bed would be in shade at some part of the day. It turns out the bed receives morning sun and afternoon shade. The water was diverted so the bed would not be wet but the hose did not reach the full length of the bed. It stopped just a few feet short, near the sidewalk. I was concerned that the compost would slip down on to the sidewalk, so I left a foot wide swatch of grass between the sidewalk and the new bed.
I never really settled on a particular theme although most of the plants are native. In February, I ordered native tree and shrub saplings from the Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District. Every spring, one can order saplings for a nominal fee. Usually there are two collections. I ordered the “space savers and bountiful berries” collection of 8 saplings (two each of 6 species) for $17. One has to pick up the order in April on a specific day and place in Fairfax County. It looks like a bundle of twigs in a plastic bag. The trick of course is to immediately plant the saplings in small containers of potting mix, water, and place in the shade. Then gradually place in the sun (depending on the species of course). Until they leaf out, you must coddle them and make sure they do not dry out. This collection consisted of New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus), Northern spicebush (Lindera benzoin), aromatic sumac (Rhus aromatic), and American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana).
In the spring, (always eager to visit nurseries as early as possible), I looked for drought tolerant groundcovers to cover and “hold” the soil. They had to be drought tolerant because I was not able to stretch the hose toward the sidewalk. I also knew the cicadas were coming. For weeks I debated about planting in the new bed in the spring or wait until the fall. I knew they could damage or kill the saplings. But I am an impatient gardener and wanted to start my new bed. Plus, the saplings cost me an average of two dollars apiece so if they were damaged, they were not a significant financial loss.
On May 16, I planted six saplings in the new bed: sumac, New Jersey tea, and American beautyberry. At the time, the two Northern spicebush saplings had not leafed out and I thought they had not made it. Later one did leaf out so for now it is serving as a backup in case a plant does not survive in the new bed.
I also planted a small division of an oakleaf hydrangea shrub I found in my garden plus two small ‘Viking’ black chokeberry shrubs (Aronia melanocarpa) that I purchased at a local nursery.
For drought resistant groundcovers to plant toward the sidewalk, out of reach of the hose, I planted three sedge plants (Carex ‘Evergold’), three thyme plants (lime, Pennsylvania Dutch, and lemon), and two native strawberry plants (Fragaria virginica) – not the same as the grocery store type.
I thought I would have a hard time digging holes through the cardboard so I used a drill, a garden auger. The drill did make the work quick and easy but in fact the cardboard had pretty much disintegrated enough that I could have dug with my trowel.
The neighbors were probably wondering why I planted a few thin sticks, but I knew they would grow and take up quite a bit of space in a year or two. I watered often to get them established. As I watered, I realized I could be watering wildflower seeds at the same time.
On May 21, I emptied all my wildflower seed packets into a bowl. As Mike instructed, I added horticultural grade sand (which I had on hand for another reason) to give the seed weight and to be able to evenly distribute. That day, there was no wind. I broadcasted the seed across the bed and then stepped all over them in tennis shoes so they would have contact with the soil. I watered every day, which the saplings and new plants needed as well.
To my surprise, the wildflower seeds germinated in a week. I cannot say all of them but enough to cover the bed. I gradually reduced the watering.
Now in July, the wildflowers are blooming. It is easy to see that zinnias and tickseed dominate now but there are other flowers that will bloom later. I even see a sunflower. I don’t water with a hose, I just let the rain take care of them. I have not nor will I fertilize the wildflowers. The saplings and other plants are doing well post cicada season. Only one seems to have died in June, a sumac. But the spicebush is waiting in the wings.
Next year, the saplings, oakleaf hydrangea, and chokeberries will grow and cover the space. A few flowers may come back but gradually the flowers will diminish as the shrubs hog the light and water. The Covid garden bed is still a work in progress. I have some space toward the sidewalk to fill. Right now, I have Thai basil there for my Thai basil syrup. But at least now the neighbors are not wondering anymore. Hopefully, they are enjoying the wildflowers as they stroll by on their evening walks. I know I am getting a kick out of this!