Grow a Back Yard Meadow

My meadow year starts in March, with snow still deep under the hedge - a sprinkling of brilliant yellow crocus. By the end of May, with the first iris, there is yellow all over, from oxalis, buttercups and yellow clovers. Two weeks later, the white of bladder campion and wood anemone predominates. Then, sprays of white melilot rise to hang over a carpet of yellow trefoil. Exploring with a magnifying glass, the sculptured elegance of bugleweed and the precise world of grass flowers come to light. To end the year, there are waves of glorious yellow goldenrods, then mounds of white and blue asters.

With understanding far beyond that of ourselves, nature abhors simplicity. My yard is small, and I only have 10 square metres for a meadow. Even so, I have been able to identify 160 different plants living there. Some flowers are only a millimetre across. Some hug the ground, others spread a metre up. Some, with fat yellow anthers, delight in the wind. Some live in partnership with tiny hoverflies, some with ants, others with bumblebees. All accept the adversity of nature as well as its bounty, some with stout perennial roots, others with seed that can live for years before germinating.

If you would join me, here are a few guidelines.

Plants are living things. They have neighbours, form communities. No one who cares for them will destroy them by overcollection, or move them to a location where they cannot survive. So, to start my meadow off I collected only seeds of plants that were growing wild, close to my home, in abundance, in environments where soil moisture, light level and plant community were similar to my back yard patch. Then, I turned over a clod of earth with a shovel, scattered the seeds on the exposed earth, and stomped it flat. If plants belong in my meadow, they grow. The genetic diversity provided by seeds helps to establish a healthy population in a meadow. Collecting only a few seeds ensures that plants continue to survive in the wild. Once a biodiverse meadow is established, you need collect seeds no longer - the successful plants will maintain themselves in variety. After ten years, I still see about a hundred species flower each year. It is only in unnatural, botanically impoverished, environments that one species 'takes over'.

It is worth correcting a common misconception here - that a biodiverse habitat such as my meadow automatically prevents alien species from joining them. That is only partially true - some alien species will indeed be able to survive there. But, they will only survive as part of the community. My daffodils, and several similar spring bulbs, are still blooming happily after ten years there. But, I never see a dandelion!

I recommend that you avoid collecting plants that are rare in your area. If a plant is rare, it's usually because it doesn't belong there, for climate, soil or other reasons. It's much better to celebrate the success of the many plants that do belong in your environment - they are the species that truly maintain biodiversity around you. (Basing habitat preservation policies on rare species counts is a common error made by both specialists and bureaucrats. Specialists make it because of life's instinctual attention for the unusual and filtering out of the ordinary; bureaucrats from their fetish of putting one number on things in the erroneous belief that this results in 'rational' decision making. To nature there is no such thing as an 'endangered' or 'common' species - if it lives, it's OK, if it doesn't, it isn't.)

At one end of my meadow, I have a small pond. A water lily, a small goldfish, and a few jars of water collected from healthy cattail-filled ditches to start it off, have combined to make a fascinatingly rich community of water creatures. But, no mosquitoes - the goldfish eats the larvae. The overflow from rainfall keeps the adjacent patch of meadow moist most of the summer. The pond is shallow (less than 0.5 m, otherwise it would legally be a swimming pool here) and the water freezes to the bottom during the winter. So, the water lily pot is wrapped in a garbage bag just before freezeup, and kept, dark, wet and frost-free, in the basement. The goldfish gets an aquarium and artificial food for a few months. But, everything else looks after itself. Despite its small size, the pond has supplied the surrounding neighbourhood with toads for years, and always seems to have a dragonfly in residence.

In nature, meadows are preserved by fire, low rainfall, low soil fertility or overwhelming predation such as bison or Rocky Mountain locust. I simulate fire with my lawn mower, once each year after frost has killed the last growth. This spreads the seeds around, and buries them in a mulch to survive the winter. (This method favours perennials like asters and goldenrod. If you have a larger area than I do, you can lightly till or disc part of it every few years to favour annual plants there.) But that's it for maintenance - no watering, no fertilisers.

I should note that, in Ontario, the odd municipal inspector has been known to wave his arm in the general direction of any unmowed area and to announce grandly that he has the power to cut it all down at your expense if you don't do it for him. He doesn't! Only a few specific plants are proscribed by the Ontario Weed Control Act. As long as these species are removed once identified, you have a right to your meadow. However, your life may be easier if you keep it in your back yard, where it won't upset neighbours who prefer artificial lawns.

You too can live the richness and diversity of the natural world, if you cooperate with it around your home. The greater the number of species that find your yard a healthy place to live, the healthier and happier it can be for you too. That's what loving this planet, and ourselves as part of it, is all about.

John Sankey
other notes on nature studies


wild strawberry being fertilized by an ant


the soft brown seed heads of hawkweeds


the brilliant colours of red sorrel


neat bugs


            Week of Bloom
  Apr  May  June July Aug  Sept Oct
4 1234 1234 1234 1234 1234 1234 1234 1  Plant
---------------------------------------------------------
*|**  |    |    |    |    |    |    |  Crocus spp
 | ** |    |    |    |    |    |    |  Narcissus
 |   *|    |    |    |    |    |    |  Prunus sp
 |    |*   |    |    |    |    |    |  Malus sp
 |    | ***|**  |*  *| ** |* * | *  |  Taraxacum officinale
 |    |  **|    |    |    |    |    |  Fragraria vesca
 |    |  **|**  |    |    |    |    |  Glechoma hederacea
 |    |  **|    |    |    |    |    |  Myosotis scorpioides
 |    |  **|**  |    |    |    |    |  Veronica filiformis
 |    |  **|*** |    |****|**  |    |  Viola kitaibeliana
 |    |   *|  **| ***|* **|**  |    |  Cerastium fontanum
 |    |   *|****|*   |    |    |    |  Erigeron philadelphicus
 |    |   *|**  |    |    |    |    |  Iris
 |    |   *|* **|*   | *  |  * |    |  Lonicera tatarica
 |    |   *|****|****|****|*** |    |  Medicago lupulina
 |    |   *|****|****|****|****|    |  Oxalis stricta
 |    |   *|*** |** *|    | ***|    |  Poa pratensis
 |    |   *| ***|****| ** |****|    |  Potentilla argentea
 |    |   *|****|*  *|*** |**  |    |  Ranunculus acris
 |    |   *|**  |    |    |    |    |  Sisyrinchium angustifolium
 |    |   *|****|****|****|****|*   |  Trifolium repens
 |    |    |****|*   |    |    |    |  Allium schoenoprasum
 |    |    |****|    |    |    |    |  Anemone canadensis
 |    |    |****|    |    |    |    |  Capsella bursa-pastoris
 |    |    |**  |    |    |    |    |  Hemerocallis flava
 |    |    |** *|*   |    |    |    |  Hieracium florentinum
 |    |    |**  |*   | ***|**  |    |  Rumex acetosella
 |    |    |****|****|****|****|****|* Silene vulgaris
 |    |    |*   |    |    |    |    |  Veronica officinalis
 |    |    |****| ***|*   |    |    |  Stellaria graminea
 |    |    | ***|    |    |    |    |  Brassica nigra
 |    |    | ***|*** |    |**  |    |  Festuca rubra
 |    |    | ***|*   |    |    |    |  Galium palustre
 |    |    | ***|    |    |    |    |  Hieracium aurantiacum
 |    |    | ***|** *|    |    |    |  Oenothera fruticosa
 |    |    | ***|****|****|****|****|* Potentilla fruticosa
 |    |    | ***|**  |    |    |    |  Sedum acre
 |    |    |  **|****|****|*** |    |  Achillea millefolium
 |    |    |  **|****|*** |  * |    |  Chrysanthemum leucanthemum
 |    |    |  **|****|****|*   |    |  Prunella vulgaris
 |    |    |  **|*   |    |    |    |  Ranunculus pensylvanicus
 |    |    |  **|*   |    |    |    |  Rorippa islandica
 |    |    |  **|****|****|****|****|* Trifolium pratense
 |    |    |  **|* * |    |    |    |  Vicia cracca
 |    |    |   *|    |    |    |    |  Agropyron repens
 |    |    |   *|****|****|*   |    |  Erigeron annuus
 |    |    |   *|**  |    |    |    |  Geum aleppicum
 |    |    |   *|**  |    |    |    |  Hemerocallis fulva
 |    |    |   *|****|****|*** |    |  Hypericum perforatum
 |    |    |   *|****|****|*   |    |  Lolium perenne
 |    |    |   *|****|****|*** |    |  Lotus corniculatus
 |    |    |   *|****|****|****|*   |  Melilotus alba
 |    |    |   *|****|****|*** |    |  M. officinalis
 |    |    |   *|****|    | *  |    |  Phleum pratense
 |    |    |   *|*   |****|****|    |  Plantago lanceolata
 |    |    |   *|*   |    |    |    |  P. major
 |    |    |   *|****|    |    |    |  Potentilla recta
 |    |    |    |****|****|*** |    |  Berteroa incana
 |    |    |    |* **|** *|****|**  |  Echium vulgare
 |    |    |    |****|****|****|    |  Erigeron strigosus
 |    |    |    |**  |  **|*   |    |  Erysimum hieraciifolium
 |    |    |    |*** |    |    |    |  Hordeum jubatum
 |    |    |    |****|*** |*   |    |  Lycopus americanus
 |    |    |    |****|****|****|    |  Polygonum pensylvanicum
 |    |    |    |** *|*** |    |    |  Solanum dulcamara
 |    |    |    | ***|****|****|*   |  Bromus inermis
 |    |    |    | *  |    |    |    |  Cichorium intybus
 |    |    |    | *  |    |    |    |  Daucus carota
 |    |    |    | ***|****|**  |    |  Epilobium adenocaulon
 |    |    |    | ***|****|****|*** |  Linaria vulgaris
 |    |    |    | ***|*   |    |    |  Lolium multiflorum
 |    |    |    | ***|****|**  |    |  Lythrum salicaria
 |    |    |    | ***|****|****|*   |  Myosotis laxa
 |    |    |    | ***|****|****|*   |  Oenothera biennis
 |    |    |    | ***|*** |**  |    |  Solidago graminifolia
 |    |    |    | ***|    |    |    |  Stokesia laevis
 |    |    |    | ** |    |    |    |  Verbascum thapsus
 |    |    |    |  **| *  |* * |    |  Dianthus armeria
 |    |    |    |  **|**  |    |    |  Epipactis helleborine
 |    |    |    |  **|**  |    |    |  Mentha arvensis
 |    |    |    |  **|    |    |    |  Pastinaca sativa
 |    |    |    |  **|****|****|*   |  Physalis heterophylla
 |    |    |    |  **|****|****|*** |  Rudbeckia hirta
 |    |    |    |  **|**  | ** |    |  Saponaria officinalis
 |    |    |    |  **|*   |    |    |  Solidago juncea
 |    |    |    |  **|**  |    |    |  Tanacetum vulgare
 |    |    |    |  **|    |    |    |  Trifolium campestre
 |    |    |    |   *|****|*** |    |  Anaphalis margaritacea
 |    |    |    |   *|*   | ***|**  |  Artemesia vulgaris
 |    |    |    |   *|****|****|    |  Conyza canadensis
 |    |    |    |   *|*   |    |    |  Cosmos bipinnatus
 |    |    |    |   *|****|****|    |  Digitaria sanguinalis
 |    |    |    |   *|****|    |    |  Echinocloa crusgalli
 |    |    |    |   *|****|*** |    |  Galinsoga ciliata
 |    |    |    |   *|*   |    |    |  Lepidium densiflorum
 |    |    |    |   *|****|****|    |  Panicum capillare
 |    |    |    |   *|****|*   |    |  Setaria glauca
 |    |    |    |   *|****|*   |    |  S. viridis
 |    |    |    |   *|****|****|****|* Sinapis arvensis
 |    |    |    |   *|* **|*   |    |  Trifolium aureum
 |    |    |    |   *|    |****|*   |  T. hybridum
 |    |    |    |    |****|**  |    |  Aster umbellatus
 |    |    |    |    |****|*   |    |  Lactuca scariola
 |    |    |    |    |*** |    |    |  Lobelia inflata
 |    |    |    |    |**  |    |    |  Oenothera perennis
 |    |    |    |    |****|    |    |  Silene armeria
 |    |    |    |    |****|**  |    |  Solidago altissima
 |    |    |    |    |*** |    |    |  Verbena hastata
 |    |    |    |    | ** |    |    |  Galeopsis tetrahit
 |    |    |    |    | ** |    |    |  Helianthus annuus
 |    |    |    |    | ***|*   |    |  Lactuca canadensis
 |    |    |    |    | ***|**  |    |  Mentha spicata
 |    |    |    |    | ***|****|    |  Polygonum hydropiper
 |    |    |    |    | ***|*   |    |  Solidago gigantea
 |    |    |    |    | ***|****|*   |  S. nemoralis
 |    |    |    |    |  **|*** |    |  Aster ciliolatus
 |    |    |    |    |  **|****|**  |  Chenopodium album
 |    |    |    |    |  **|****|    |  Fagopyrum esculentum
 |    |    |    |    |  **|****|*   |  Muhlenbergia mexicana
 |    |    |    |    |   *|****|*** |  Anthemis cotula
 |    |    |    |    |   *|****|*** |  Aster simplex
 |    |    |    |    |   *|*   |    |  Bidens frondosa
 |    |    |    |    |   *|*   |    |  Gerardia tenuifolia
 |    |    |    |    |   *|****|**  |  Gnaphalium obtusifolium
 |    |    |    |    |   *|*   |    |  Leonurus cardiaca
 |    |    |    |    |   *|****|    |  Polygala sanguinea
 |    |    |    |    |    |****|    |  Amaranthus retroflexus
 |    |    |    |    |    |****|*   |  Aster lateriflorus
 |    |    |    |    |    |****|*** |  A. novae-angliae
 |    |    |    |    |    |*** |    |  Pilea pumila
 |    |    |    |    |    |****|*   |  Polygonum achoreum
 |    |    |    |    |    |****|*** |  P. aviculare
 |    |    |    |    |    |****|*   |  Sisymbrium officinale
It is still illegal in the province of Ontario to permit the following plants to grow! So, I had to remove them. Some day, we will be more civilized than to order the extermination of the food plant of Monarch butterflies...
Ambrosia artemisiifoliacommon ragweed
A. trifidagiant ragweed
Asclepias syriacacommon milkweed
Barbarea vulgarisyellow rocket
Cirsium arvenseCanada thistle
C. vulgarebull thistle
Convolvulus arvensisfield bindweed
Rhus radicanspoison ivy
Salsola pestiferRussian thistle
Sonchus arvensisperennial sow-thistle
S. asperannual sow-thistle
Tragopogon dubiusgoat's-beard
T. pratensismeadow goat's-beard