September 10th, 2006
4. Wild for Wildflowers

photo: meadow wildflowers
2005-04-17. The one year the meadow came together: white from cilantro, purples (and height) from larkspur, dark blue from bluebonnets, pink from pink evening primrose, and yellow from Engelmann’s daisy.

That first year, after a 40 foot cedar elm split in half during a summer thunderstorm, we saw something in our yard that we’d never seen before. Sunlight. The entire north third of our backyard (about 30×60 feet) received glaring afternoon sun. I transplanted some canna near the house. They baked to a crisp in the reflected heat off the wall. The St. Augustine lawn died.

I decided to fill the space with annuals until I could think of what to do. Bluebonnets, the state flower of Texas, were a natural first choice. Drive the highways of Central Texas in March or April and you can’t help but be amazed by the carpets of blue planted by the road crews after construction and then left to reseed on their own. (Thank you, Lady Bird Johnson). Bluebonnets belong to the lupine family which means they have nitrogen-fixing nodules on their roots–they enrich the soil.

Yes, I thought. If those roadsides can grow beautifully on their own, then I need to do something similar; provide the correct conditons to get a meadow established and then sit back and watch it grow. So grows the theoretical landscape. Are you laughing yet?

At least I wasn’t silly enough to buy one of the “meadows in a can”. Wildseed Farms is only 90 miles west of Austin in Fredericksburg and they supply all the local nurseries with wildflowers seeds. I’ve had the best success with bluebonnets, larkspur which come back every year. I planted short flowering bulbs, rainlilies, fall crocus, and species tulips. For a meadow to be meadow it has to have grass–so I planted the buffalograss ‘Top Gun’ which greens up early and stays green long into fall.

From the beginning the meadow suffered from two big problems. First, I considered it a garden and other people considered it a lawn. Other people were always stepping on seedlings and bulbs that they did not recognize as flowers about to make their entrance. I made paths based on where we walked, first with hay and then with mulch. I didn’t want it to look too defined, too artificial. When mulched paths didn’t work I began defining the beds with wood from a demolished privacy fence and rocks.

The second problem was that the meadow looks fantastic in April and May. In June it looks weedy as the seeds for next year mature. The other nine months of the year it looks like a vacant lot. I wouldn’t mind the lack of flowers but the buffalograss has been shaded out.

photo: meadow wildflowers
2003-09-16. Fall rains bring out the flowers on rainlilies and garlic chives but otherwise the meadow looks like a vacant lot. In the photo, I’m trying to decide whether to plant out the potted sago. I did.

photo: meadow wildflowers
2006-04-16. Notice how the original back half of the meadow is plunged into deep shade when the cedar elms leaf out in March.

To deal with the death of the buffalograss I turned the far end of the meadow into flower beds lined with irises. Again, borders of the beds and the paths through them change as the light changes over the years. It’s amazing to watch plants jump a path and establish themselves where they’re happiest. I try not to fight them.

photo: meadow wildflowers
2006-04-24. By 2006, what had been the upper meadow was coming into its own as a perennial bed. Unfortunately, it gets too much shade most of the year except July when it’s in full sun all afternoon.

In the midst of my meadow adventures I began receiving print catalogs from Marilyn Barlow’s Select Seeds. About the same time I was reading about Celia Thaxter’s Island Garden and I met Felder Rushing and bought his book (cowritten with Steve Bender) Passalong Plants. I could not resist the charms of those cottage garden plants which Marilyn Barlow referred to as the flowers grandmother grew.

I became enamoured of sweetpeas, poppies (corn, Shirley, California, and Icelandic), hyacinth bean vine, moonvine, morning glory, selected daturas, apple of peru, black-eyed Susan vine, feverfew, heliotrope, four o’clocks, clammy weed, clove pinks, viola, love-in-a-mist, amaranth, cosmos, and sunflowers.

The ones that succeeded best over the years were the overwintering annuals…in the south flowers planted in the fall that grow through the winter and bloom in the spring.

My one complete failure has been ornamental grasses. I love the look but I can’t keep them alive for more than a year or two. I even killed Mexican feather grass which seeds like a weed for everyone else.

Lessons Learned

I am already in the process of changing the meadow. Because the garden elsewhere has grown and grown, I’ve spent less and less time experimenting with plants I have to grow from seed. However, I’d like to go back to that approach. I miss the sweetpeas, especially and there are many flowers still to try. In fact, two weeks ago I sprouted some hyacinth beans and they are already two feet tall. I’ve seeded some cosmos in hopes of having some flowers in the meadow this fall.

photo: meadow wildflowers
1998. Over the years I’ve documented the meadow by making overlay drawings on tracing paper. These are not plans for a garden but maps of the existing garden.

photo: meadow wildflowers
2001. Notice how the paths and beds shift shape because the trees have grown and cast their shade differently. The green shows the buffalograss just 5 years ago. In 2006, all that’s left is a 5-foot swathe along the bottom of the meadow.

by M Sinclair Stevens

6 Responses to post “4. Wild for Wildflowers”

  1. From Annie in Austin:

    I’ve read about meadows in theory, but the closest thing to a meadow in my yard is the tufts of long grass that occasionally appear when I steer the mower around the Cooper’s rainliles at bloomtime.

    You actually had a real meadow to document for a dozen years as it transitioned from clearing in sun to overshadowed glade. Would selective thinning of branches to make a more open crown on your cedar elms help you to regain some of that open quality so you could get your meadow back again.

    The sentence that jumped out at me was this one, “I met Felder Rushing and bought his book (cowritten with Steve Bender) Passalong Plants.”

    You met Felder Rushing!! I’m green with jealousy.

    You caught me name-dropping. I’d actually read “Passalong Plants” from the library first and later Felder Rushing came to speak at Zilker. I bought three books, one for me and the other two as presents for two women I worked with. The next morning I gave them the books. At lunch one of them called me up from Barton Springs Nursery (she’s friends with the owners) and said they were all going to lunch at ZuZu’s and did I want to come along. I was there in a flash. Great fun! — mss

  2. From Annie in Austin:

    I’ll bet that lunch was great fun. What’s greener than green? I am “chartreuse” with jealousy? I’ve seen Felder Rushing’s photos on his webpage, and he looks like a real character.

    Your meadow is quite large for an urban lot, I think. It’s only 35 feet from my breakfast room window to the back fence, and the lot width varies from 90 feet to 65 feet; something the size of your meadow would take up most of my garden. Not that meadow flowers will like pecan shade any better than they do the shade of cedar elms.


  3. From Jan Goldfield (Louisianna):

    Incredible gardens. Thanks so very much for sharing your knowledge and photos with us.

    My pleasure. Thanks for stopping by. I’ve been toying with the idea of a small pond, so I look forward to looking through your blog. — mss

  4. From r sorrell (Austin):

    How ironic… I drove by Wildseed Farms yesterday. I attempted to grow some wildflowers from seed last year, but didn’t have much luck. I got a couple of maroon bluebonnet seedlings that never bloomed, and a few others. Some poppies came up, but burned in the sun and had to be pulled up. I thought about trying a meadow, but my husband won’t have it. He likes nice, neat, organized plantings. The only re-seeding annuals that I’ve been successful with are Zinnia and Cosmos, and I’m already tired of the Cosmos.

  5. From becky:

    Very nice blog . . . I love your photos. The meadow is awesome.

  6. From Ethanpaul:

    The photos are excellent. The yellow flowers are amazing.
    Thanks for sharing with us.