So ... you want to create a meadow (small or large) but the idea of plowing up the entire area, seeding it with a premixed 'meadow mix', and keeping it watered all season seems daunting. There is an alternative which is quite easy, and can yield quite good results without using up all the energy to till the field and all the risks involved in such an approach.
First of all, let me say a few words about tilling soil. I have nothing against tilling your soil, per se. We certainly till our vegetable garden each year. However, one of the things that you accomplish when you till soil is that in addition to killing the plants that are already growing there and loosening up the soil (which is what you are usually trying to do), you also bring a lot of seeds to the surface (including weed seeds) and you greatly increase the risk of soil erosion. Particularly for large tilled areas, soil erosion can be a real problem. An additional problem that folks run into when they till a large area and seed it to meadow plants is how in heavens name do you keep all those little seedlings watered as the heat of summer comes on.
Here at Toadshade, we have about a 1.5 acre meadow that had been mowed and treated like a somewhat neglected lawn for many years before we got a hold of it. We took a long term and ecologically based approach to starting our meadow. First, we allowed everything to grow to see what we had. In some cases, if you do this, you find nothing but invasive weedy species. We did not. We found that we had Foxglove Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis), Broomsedge (Andropogon virginicus), Slender Mountain Mint (Pynanthemum tenuifolium), Lance-leaved Goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia), Northern Blue-Eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium), Deertongue Grass (Dichanthelium clandestinum), Switch Grass (Panicum virgatum) and a variety of other plants present that made a good basis for a meadow.
If we had allowed nature to entirely take its course, we would have been relying on what ecologists refer to as 'Primary Spread' to introduce new plants into our meadow. Primary spread occurs when a plant (or anything else for that matter) is first introduced into an area where it did not occur before. In the wild, plants may arrive having their seeds carried on the wind, deposited in animal droppings (bird, mammal, reptiles, insect), or even deposited by animals while grooming themselves. 'Secondary Spread', on the other hand, refers to new plants that spring up within the field that are offspring of the 'Primary Spread' individuals. So look at it this way - quite a few years ago we had a single plant of Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) show up in our lower meadow (Primary Spread). That year we allowed it to go to seed and let nature have her way. In subsequent years, the number of plants has increased until we have Common Milkweed scattered over about a 200 square foot area (Secondary Spread). (The Monarch Butterflies and caterpillars enjoy this patch very much, by the way!)
So how do we use these principals to our advantage? To improve our meadow, we took an approach that mimicked nature and gave us a manageable way to increase the diversity of plants in our meadow. We use what I like to call the Pocket Approach (or, perhaps, managed Primary Spread).
This procedure is not very time consuming and can produce very good results! You can put as many or as few Pockets in your meadow as you think you can manage. Pockets can be planted to all one species, or each Pocket can contain a small mix of species that you are trying to introduce.
Of course, even a meadow needs some care. We usually mow our meadow once a year (sometime between late fall and early spring) which helps to keep out the woody species that want to come in and continue the process of old field succession (meadow turns to shrubby meadow which then turns to young forest and finally turns to old forest, see the Rutgers site at http://bio.rutgers.edu/~gb102/lab_13/13i3l.html ). Once your meadow is established, mowing too late in the season can discourage or disturb some wonderful ground nesting birds (for example, the beautiful Blue Winged Warbler (Vermivora cyanoptera) which we have been fortunate enough to have nest in our meadow!). We also establish paths through our meadow early in the season - we keep these mowed and they give us a way to walk the meadow and enjoy it! They also make it easier to get water to our 'pockets' and allow us to keep an eye out for alien invasive species so we can try to rogue them out.
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