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    Grow a Wildflower Meadow

    By Amber Stephens

    Native wildflowers along country lanes are nature's roadside rests, offering habitat for rabbits and red-winged blackbirds alike.

    Homeowners can preserve native wildflowers, which not only prove beautiful additions to the landscape but also valuable natural resources for bees, butterflies, and even mammals. With a little labor, patience, and money you can soon turn an ordinary patch of lawn into an environmental Eden.

    But just because the wildflower meadow looks natural, it may not be naturally occurring in all areas, says Laura C. Martin, author of two dozen gardening books including The Wildflower Meadow Book. "You're planting and maintaining an ecosystem rather than a controlled environment."

    Much like other gardens, the wildflower meadow needs a gardener's touch to keep mother nature at trowel's length. Without maintenance, it can quickly revert to its native state or become overrun with other vegetation.

    The first-time meadow gardener should start small, selecting a sunny area that is manageable in size. Prepare the meadow garden by removing any existing plants. An effective way to accomplish this is to cover the ground with black plastic, which smothers out grass and invasive species, or apply herbicides.

    "As best as you can, you need a blank canvas to start," Martin says. Once existing greenery is removed, till the soil and select a variety of native species. Avoid Eurasian plants such as Queen Anne's lace, yarrow, and various non-native daisies.

    Wildflowers, such as butterfly weed, goldenrod, ox-eye daisy, aster, coreopsis, evening primrose, gaillardia, and purple coneflower thrive in meadow gardens. Native grasses, such as native big bluestem and buffalo grass, make natural complements.

    When selecting wildflower seed mixtures, make sure only native plants are included in the mix, Martin advises. Consumers should also note the percentage of each plant in the mixture. It may be more economical to buy bulk seed of a particular wildflower than to buy a prepackaged mix.

    For a natural meadow look, broadcast, or sow, the seed and cover lightly with topsoil or a topsoil and sand mixture. Or, plant specific seed varieties in pockets, allowing each plant zone to eventually grow together for ease of maintenance.

    Water the wildflower meadow until the seedlings are established and again during summer dry spells. Maintain the area by pulling any weeds or invasive plants. After the wildflowers have bloomed, allow the seed heads to dry and reseed naturally. Mow at the end of the season to prevent overcrowding and shading of next spring's seedlings.

    To prevent the meadow from naturally reseeding, mow wild-flowers immediately after bloom or burn the area. Gardeners can also

    selectively cut any wildflowers that are too aggressive and introduce new varieties to the meadow.

    The meadow garden will soon give back with an endless supply of cut flowers; a relatively low-cost, drought tolerant landscape with wildlife viewing area; an alternative to pricey lawn care; and a vital preservation link to America's floral heritage.