Seasons in the Meadow

Meadows change. All landscapes change, of course, even the most formal manicured gardens. But native plant meadows are wilder, less predictable. Nature has a freer hand where plants are allowed and expected to reproduce naturally, and where humans impose less control over conditions. In each season since the initial planting of our native Meadow (see last week’s blog post here), we have been surprised, sometimes frustrated, and always fascinated by the changes we see. Our challenge is to accept as many of nature’s changes as we can, while preserving the value of the Meadow for nature itself.

In the Northeastern US, which was once almost entirely forest, naturally-occurring meadows are typically “successional.” They occur when a storm or fire opens a spot in the forest and more sunlight allows grasses and wildflowers to emerge. Eventually, woody shrubs and tree seedlings settle in, grow taller, cast shade, and the forest returns. Unfortunately, in modern times, any newly opened ground is immediately colonized by invasive species, plants from other parts of the world that out-compete native plants because they have no natural insect or animal controls here.

So, maintaining a designed meadow in the Northeastern US requires effort to prevent invasive plants or forest from claiming the space. The incredible value of a native meadow as habitat for insects, birds, reptiles, and mammals makes that effort totally worthwhile. 

Guy Pardee of Suburban Natives, LLC mowing the Meadow in early April

We begin each year in the Meadow by mowing to prevent tree seedlings from developing, and to allow sun and water to reach new growth. The timing of mowing is important. We need to wait for over-wintering insects, including native bees and caterpillars, to emerge from their hiding places in leaves and hollow stems, usually in late March or early April. The Meadow is cut to the ground, leaving plant debris in place to add nutrition to the soil and to protect emerging growth from late frosts.

Seedlings of White Pine, sumac, and birch appear every spring, trying to re-forest our Meadow
Plant debris is left on the ground after mowing

Spring mowing also allows us to check the Butterfly Arbor and the trees in the Oak Circle for any winter damage. And it’s a good time to look for and remove invasive species before they can hide among the native plants.

Ivy trying to invade the Meadow

A few weeks after mowing, when the first spring flowers emerge, we see that the Meadow has changed again. Each year there are surprises, and occasional disappointments, as plants appear and disappear. We are delighted when native plants volunteer in places they were never planted – a true indication of a healthy landscape! And, sometimes, we notice that flowers we love have disappeared as they reach the end of their life expectancies, or lose ground to stronger plants.

Whorled loosestrife, Wild Sarsaparilla, and Appalachian Sedge are native plants that volunteered at the Meadow edge
Prairie Smoke, a spring bloomer, sadly disappeared from the Meadow after a few years
Photo: Travis Brady

By June, the Meadow is in full bloom. Coreopsis, Penstemon, Baptisia, and many other flowers greet visitors — including butterflies, bees, and countless other pollinators! 

Baptisia blooms in early June
Penstemon and Coreopsis in mid-June

Throughout the summer, the Meadow continues to change – not just seasonal changes, but changes in plant populations. Years after the original seeding, plants have appeared and bloomed for the first time as slow-growing seeds finally matured. And the number and location of plants in the Meadow changes every year.

An uncommon plant, Castilleja coccinea, was included in the original seed mix planted in 2014, but only appeared and bloomed for the first time in June 2021
Joe Pye Weed was not a big presence in the early years of the Meadow, but after one rainy summer, it became prolific

Throughout the growing season, some weeding is necessary to keep invasive plants out of the Meadow. Even some native plants are too aggressive to leave uncontrolled, or they would soon dominate. We make careful edits, avoiding use of herbicide, and quickly fill in weeded areas with container-grown native plants. 

Canada goldenrod is a beautiful native plant, but can out-compete everything else, so we cut it back before it goes to seed

Autumn is the most dramatic season in the Meadow. Late-blooming flowers and grasses change the scene daily with a profusion of color. Seed pods from faded flowers attract songbirds in large numbers, and bees scramble to stock up for winter.

Early September on the Arbor path
Late September flowers
Bumblebee on Echinacea
Switch grass in October
Milkweed seed pod
Photo: Travis Brady
Late October view of the Butterfly Arbor

Meadow plants are left standing all winter to provide seeds for birds, cover for animals, and winter hiding places for insects. There is a lesson here for all of us as home gardeners: a little mess, a little bit of wild in the landscape, can be as beautiful as it is beneficial for living things.

As the light changes with the seasons, the Meadow changes, too. It really is a different place each time we visit!


How We Made a Meadow

It was a weed-infested patch of land just steps away from the busiest commercial corridor in Greenburgh. A little less than 2 acres, it had been neglected for decades. But it was flat, sunny, dry, and open. Perfect for a meadow!

 Overwhelmed with invasive weeds
Meadow site cleared

After an initial clearing, we got a better look. There were some nice native birch trees, an ancient stand of bayberry, and several old apple trees remaining from what had once been an apple orchard. 

We were very lucky to meet a talented landscape architect who offered to donate his design services to the Nature Center. Bill Boyce of Biosphere Landscape Architects brought his expertise in natural landscape restoration to the project. He designed a space that would retain the best features of the site, while adding places for education and contemplation. Our guiding principle was to create and preserve a diverse habitat of native plants for insects, birds, and other animals.

Bill Boyce of BiosphereLA
Bill’s design plan

We knew that the most natural look for the meadow would require planting from seed, carefully selected for site conditions, using a large variety of native wildflowers and grasses. For that, we turned to Larry Weaner of Larry Weaner Design, the foremost authority in the Northeastern US on designing and planting native meadows. Larry formulates custom seed mixes using a complex formula based on seed germination rates, aggressiveness of various species, length of time each species takes to germinate and establish roots, and many other factors. Like Bill, Larry was kind enough to contribute his time and expertise for the Nature Center’s meadow project. 

Larry Weaner, expert on meadow design and planting

In December of 2014, we cleared the site again, much more thoroughly, removing as many roots of the weedy invasive species as possible, but leaving a few valuable native plants. Bill marked off the areas to be seeded, and we carefully hand-cast Larry’s specially-formulated seed mix.

Final thorough clearing and marked off planting areas
Hand casting seed in the new meadow before rolling to press seed into bare soil
Bill Boyce, Cathy Ludden, Larry Weaner, and Travis Brady did the final clearing and hand-seeding in December 2014

Bill’s design included an Oak Circle, which we hoped would become a calm space for meditation, as well as contribute the immense ecological value of native oak trees. Bill also designed a Stone Classroom, where our staff naturalists could work with students on-site in the meadow.

Newly-planted Oak Circle
The Stone Classroom

It takes at least 3 years for a seeded meadow to establish. Soon after plants emerge in the first spring, the meadow is mowed to about 6 inches in height. The idea is to cut back returning invasive species, which grow faster, giving the native seeds time to germinate without being overwhelmed. Two additional mowings the first summer, at increasing heights, keep invasive weeds under control as the new native plants develop roots.

First season meadow is kept short to allow new seeds to germinate, Spring 2015

In the second season, the meadow is mown once in the spring, and once more in mid-summer. The third year, the meadow is mown only once in the spring, as it will be annually thereafter.

Baby native plants appear in the meadow

In the winter of 2016, Bill Boyce constructed our Butterfly Arbor, taking his design inspiration from the wings of a Monarch Butterfly. He allowed native sumac shrubs to remain near the Arbor to soften the edges of the design.

The new Butterfly Arbor in April 2016
Design inspiration

The Arbor has removable doors and is specially designed to allow netting to be suspended inside for our annual butterfly exhibit

Preparing for the butterfly exhibit, Spring 2016

The native plant meadow at the Nature Center is now 8 years old. It has matured, but it still changes each year and in every season. It has become the very special place we hoped it would be. It is filled with life and beauty.

Monarch visits Swamp Milkweed
A diverse array of wildflowers

The meadow is a wonderful place for education and contemplation.

The Stone Classroom in use
The Oak Circle is a peaceful spot

The meadow is a joyful place to explore for people of all ages.

Next week in Around the Grounds we will discuss meadow maintenance and how changing seasons affect the meadow.