Providing habitat for wildlife in your own backyard can be a rewarding experience for the entire family. My kids love to help prep the soil and broadcast seeds, while my wife loves cutting a few flowers to brighten the indoors.
Creating beneficial habitat can be as simple as choosing to plant native instead of nonnative species. But if you want to go all out, consider replacing part of your lawn with a wildflower meadow. Colorful wildflowers add beauty to the yard while providing food for pollinators and songbirds.
Over the past eight years or so I’ve converted parts of my lawn into meadows. Spending money and using finite resources to maintain a large lawn didn’t make sense. To help reduce the amount of grass that I needed to mow weekly, I stopped mowing altogether to let warm season grasses get established, and then planted wildflowers.
I prefer to plant all annuals when seeding wildflower beds for several reasons. They bloom the year they are planted, unlike some perennials that take a year or two to bloom. Some mixes that are a blend of annuals and perennials try to get around this, but over time, grass and weeds can take over and sometimes out-compete the beneficial flowering plants.
Most seed mixes provide a good variety of annuals where at least one species is in bloom during the entire growing season. And with annuals, you can choose to grow a different species each year.
Here are eight easy steps to creating a wildflower meadow to attract butterflies, birds and bees. Save them and get an early jump next spring on making your own backyard wildlife habitat.
8-step Wildflower Meadow
Step 1: Plan. Choose a sunny location in an area away from the house. Generally, the more sun the better for most wildflowers. An adequate location will face south-southwest and get full sun for most of the day during the growing season.
Step 2: Choose a seed mix (or single species) that is native to where you live. We are considered to be part of the Northeast. I use all-annual mixes and blend them with other single-species mixes, like zinnias and sunflowers. American Meadows offers some great seed mixes.
Step 3: Measure and mark the outline, or perimeter, of the wildflower meadow. A former border is optional; I just till around the edges of mine first to define the border. One meadow in my yard is about 15 feet long by 20 feet wide.
Step 4: The hardest part — ground preparation. Once you get a bed established, less work is needed to keep it going from year to year. I till in the spring, usually in early April. There are several different ways to remove sod or cool-season grasses:
Option 1 – Manually remove grass by using a pointed shovel to dig it out. You can save some of the soil by pounding the clumps of sod onto the edge of the shovel blade. This is best for small areas.
Option 2 – Till the area with a gas or electric tiller. I advise tilling three or four times over a short period. Allow the soil to dry between tillings. Try to rake out roots to totally remove grass. This method is most suitable for medium sized areas.
Option 3 – Rent a sod cutter. A sod cutter cuts off the sod for easy removal. After removing the sod, till the area and mix in some compost to add nutrients. This method may be the easiest for large areas, but may cost more because you have to rent a sod cutter.
Option 4 – Smother the grass. Blanket the area with newspaper or cardboard to kill the grass. This is the easiest way, but it must be done early in the process.
Step 5: Amend the soil with organic compost. Compost adds essential nutrients that may have been lost during the sod removal process. A lot depends on soil type. My soil was very sandy and lacking organic material, which helps hold water. I usually add a bag or two every year in my beds when doing all annuals.
Step 6: Disperse the seeds. I usually disperse the seeds by hand. Don’t overseed! Make sure the seeds get evenly distributed to cover the entire site. Follow the planting directions on the packaging for best results. I tend to wait until we are safe from any late-season frost. You can safely store seeds in an airtight container to use the following year.
Step 7: Water regularly until the plants put on their second set of leaves. Then water once a week until established. After that, water is not needed unless droughty conditions occur.
Step 8: Watch the wildlife that is attracted to your wildflower garden. During the summer you will get plenty of nectaring bees and butterflies, and in fall and winter you will get sparrows and goldfinches that will come and eat the seeds.
After the growing season leave the plants throughout the whole winter. It might look ugly, but there is still beneficial habitat for wildlife. Migratory birds will eat the seeds. As the plant decays, it will get mashed down by rain, wind and snow and create habitat for small mammals. Remove what is left in the spring when you start ground prep.
In previous years I’ve done mixes with lots of zinnias, cosmos and other wildflowers. This year I decided to plant more sunflowers (both mammoth and autumn beauty), which bloom for a long period and then provide a great amount of seed for migratory songbirds. Besides being beautiful, my sunflowers have been magnets for many species of butterflies and bees, including monarch and swallowtail butterflies, Eastern bumblebees, elfins, common buckeyes, and more.
To learn more about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, see the Conserve Wildlife Foundation website at conservewildlifenj.org.