Too Much Turf?  Think About A Meadow Garden

Turfgrass is the largest or one of the largest crops in America, and you can’t eat it or wear it.  In addition, it requires water, fertilizer, and a tremendous amount of energy to maintain.  Given that many of our lawns are high maintenance, some folks might consider reducing the size of their lawn by using native grasses and flowering perennials in borders instead. Here are a few ideas for layout and planning a border meadow.  Generally, the plants are not over 3 feet tall, and ornamental grasses are the dominant group.  However, upon closer inspection, you will also see groups of plants from other families interesting to people, pollinators, and birds.  They support wildlife and may reduce the homeowner’s use of irrigation, fertilizer, and pesticides.

A honey bee pollinating a Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea).

A honey bee pollinating a Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea).
Millie Davenport, ©2015 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Getting started is often the hardest part of a landscape design plan.  First, measure the dimensions of the border (length and width).  This will give its area or square footage.  Plants need space to grow, and knowing how much area or space you have will help determine the number of plants, amount of mulch, or linear feet of edging needed. Next, call 811 to locate and mark any underground utilities.  You also need to indicate on the plan where the sun comes up and sets and any trees, fences, or buildings that would create shade.  Meadow borders can be installed in wet, dry, sunny, or shady conditions. Just remember the plant selection should match the site conditions.  Consult catalogs, websites, and local nurseries for grasses, sedges, and flowering perennials, choosing those selections or straight native species which satisfy the tastes of critters you intend to attract.  A few considerations would be seasonal interest, color, fruit, seeds, nectar, and movement.

Goldstrum rudbeckia (Rudbeckia fuldiga ‘Goldstrum’) is perennial in zones 4 – 9.

Goldstrum rudbeckia (Rudbeckia fuldiga ‘Goldstrum’) is perennial in zones 4 – 9.
Barbara H. Smith, ©2016 HGIC, Clemson Extension

The plan doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact, choosing a few dominant species gives simplicity to the design.  A meadow will be green most of the year, and the different shades of green can add depth and interest.  Silver green is evocative of coastal plants.  These plants often have a waxy or hairy epidermal covering which helps conserve water.  There are the yellow spring greens and bright greens of freshwater swamps and wetlands.  Blue and purple greens are found in summer’s bright light; the forest canopy and understory instill a dark shade.  Because of, or, despite the fact, that green is in the middle of the spectrum of colors, it is a foil for the other colors.

The lines of the border don’t need to be straight.  A natural or curved line, at least on the front, gives a pleasing movement to the design.  Hardscape: pavers, bricks, wood, or metal edging can be used to define the perimeter of the lawn and keep it out of the beds.  Another technique is to use low-growing plants at the edge or clip the outer border at 6”- 12”.

Since grasses are the primary plants of the meadow, consider a few selections that can be used to stabilize soil, form clumps, and provide excellent habitat. Most can be planted from seed, plugs, or 1- gallon pots.

  • Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) has blue-green foliage and dainty white flowers.  It blooms in the fall and is attractive in the winter.
  • Purple love grass (Eragrostis spectabilis) is low growing, can grow in moist or well-drained soils, and has lovely purple seed heads.
  • Splitbeard bluestem (Andropogon ternarius) is an attractive bunchgrass that grows from 1.5’-4’. The white seed head catches the light and seems to glow, especially when backlit.
  • Sweetgrass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) forms large clumps and has gorgeous pink-purplish panicles in the fall.
  • Dropseed (Sporobolus virginicus) is found in the coastal plain, sometimes in brackish locations, blooms in September and October, and forms lustrous, reddish oblong grains.
Hairgrass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) has beautiful white or pink blooms in October.

Hairgrass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) has beautiful white or pink blooms in October.
Barbara H. Smith, ©2017 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Wildflowers are the punctuation marks in the meadow offering food and habitat for songbirds and insects.  Color may be important but remember that many of the hybrids and fancy selections of plants may not provide as much nectar and pollen as the straight native species offer.  Another advantage of native species is that their leaves and fruits have evolved with the resident insects and migratory birds acting as host plants.  Additionally, many grow on poor soils, asking for little more than the space to grow.  Wildflowers can also be grown from seed, plugs, or 1-gallon containers.   There is a wide variety of annuals, short and long-lived perennials found in southern meadows, and some are well behaved while others are aggressive spreaders.  Asters, goldenrod, and other great meadow lovers are commonly available.  With the 3’ rule in mind, some of them will need to be cut back at midseason to keep their height in check or buy shorter selections.  For species that reseed prolifically, regular deadheading and seed collection will keep them from overstepping the boundaries of the border.

  • Brown-eyed, black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia spp.) may be annuals or perennials.
  • Beardtongue (Penstemon spp.) is a good nectar plant that grows in many soil types.
  • Tickseed (Coreopsis spp.) has bright yellow flowers with yellow or brown centers; the tall variety would need to be cut back.
  • Purple coneflower (Echinacea spp.) grows best in well-drained soil, full sun, and it offers nectar, pollen, and seeds to birds and beneficial insects.
  • Liatris (Liatris spp.) is available in many forms. This fall-blooming wildflower grows best in full sun, well-drained soil, and is a bee magnet!
  • Phlox (Phlox spp.) has many forms and can be found growing in habitats from shade to sun with mostly dry soils.  The creeping forms make good ground covers.
  • Violet (Viola spp.) makes a great ground cover with edible flowers
  • Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is an easy plant to grow.  The foliage is ferny and makes a nice contrasting element to many of the other broadleaf perennials.

For more information, see Native Plants for Wildlife: Resources for Home Gardeners; HGIC 2900, Backyard Wildlife Enhancement; HGIC 1157, Wildflowers; and Audubon Plants for Birds.

If this document didn’t answer your questions, please contact HGIC at or 1-888-656-9988.

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