Preparing a Section of Lawn for Native Wildflowers


1. I rented a cultivator from Home Depot. I think it is important to rent the bigger cultivator because it cuts through the sod much easier than a lighter one would and I believe that the tines are longer so that you can go deeper. I used my truck to haul the trailer that the Home Depot provides and that is designed specifically for the cultivator. If you do not have a truck, Home Depot will deliver the cultivator right to your yard and pick it up later. You must make sure that this machine is totally cleaned just like when you got it, otherwise you will be charged a cleaning fee. Operating this self-propelled cultivator is very easy, even for all but the frailest of us. The trailer platform was very low, so that there was no steep incline to deal with. It is very easy to set the tine depth and make sure they are set deeply enough to really loosen the soil deeply. Do not worry about going too deeply; but I think that 6” is probably deep enough. You want to really disintegrate the soil so that when you are done, the soil is fluffy and full of air deep down inside the soil. This assures that when you plant your wildflowers, the roots will not have a compaction problem and there will be plenty of room for gas exchange and a large buffer capacity to hold water.

2. Using a stiff leaf rake or a steel rake, try to remove most of the chunks of sod that result from the cultivating. I wear gloves for any of this type of work and I will do whatever it takes to shake off or knock off the loose soil that is sticking to the chunks of sod. And that brings up another point. It is probably best to do this when the ground is quite dry, not totally desiccated, but dry. In this way the soil is less likely to stick to the sod roots. You really want to keep as much of that precious soil as possible.

3. Even after the sod clods have been removed, I would expect the grass to make a bit of a recovery. But if you remove those clods (which have the grass roots), the grass will no longer be able to compete with the already rooted plants that you are about to put in place of the grass.

4. NATIVE PLANTS ARE VITAL TO THE FOOD WEB: With very few exceptions, it is vitally important to plant ONLY native plants. This is because the species that are native to your area CO-EVOLVED (evolved together) for millennia to eons. It takes a long, long time to develop the relationships is a native ecosystem. In other words, if you plant “ornamentals”, as most people have over the last 50 years, you are planting organisms that our native insects did not co-evolve with and so are not familiar with and will probably not eat. This leads to a brief explanation of the necessity for our native insects. We have become perverted into thinking that all non-grass herbaceous plants are “weeds” and all insects are our enemies and must be destroyed. THIS IS SICK THINKING. And it is probably a product of the mega-chemical companies, such as Bayer and Monsanto. The facts are that those “weeds” are our native herbaceous plants and those insects are a vital part of the same ecosystem. How? Why? Well, here is the short, truthful and accurate response: There are about 4 million insect species globally and much less than 1/10 of 1 percent (.001) of those species are our enemies. So what are those enemies? We can include most of the biting insects, especially the mosquitoes, many of the other fly species, the fleas and the cockroaches. All of these parasitize us and are vectors for our diseases. But other than these, what more insect species out of that 4 million or so, can we justly label as our enemies? Yet, the insecticides that we use are ALL broad-spectrum, though the chemical companies get away with using such words as “targeted” and in some cases even “organic”. These are ALL lies!!! In suburban American, we have poisoned off most of the base of our beloved (that is right BELOVED!) terrestrial food web, just so that we can have that stupid looking lawn with a light stripe, a dark stripe, a light stripe a light stripe and so on. When I look at a perfect lawn I can only think of how vain and how ignorant the owner is. It is true. And guess what…..a natural area of native wildflowers not only looks much better, much more intelligent and is much better for out beloved songbirds and butterflies………it is also much less resource-intense to maintain; i.e. it is cheap to establish and maintain. Not so with a lawn….NO WAY! If you want to feed the birds, first feed the insects. Over 95% of our native songbirds (passerines) are obligated to feed their nestlings a diet consisting of greater than 95% insects….or the nestlings do not make it to fledging.

5. WHERE DO YOU GET THE NATIVE STOCK you are going to plant? 

I got some of it in the wild, along roadsides and some of it came from a local nursery.   In the Portland, Maine area I like Allen, Sterling and Lothrop because they will work with me to get some native wildflowers that are ready to be transplanted.  Decide what species you want as early as you can so that you can put in a request to the nursery as early as possible.  This is a problem because the season is short in Maine.  So though you may decide this year on a certain plant, it will not likely flower until next year.  I would rather plant an established wildflower than work with seeds. It is quicker and more likely to survive. I also used Broadway Gardens in South Portland. This is where I got my Gateway variety of Joe-Pye-Weed. I got some Phlox along the roadside. The Common Milkweed that is well established now, also came from Allen, Sterling and Lothrop. When you convert part of your lawn to native wildflowers, you also get some natural germination from some of the native wildflowers that are in surrounding areas, though this may take a few years.

6. START TO LEARN THE NATIVE PLANTS It is important to do whatever you can to gain at least a beginner’s familiarity with the various native wildflower species. In this way you can decide which species you want to establish and you can also learn to identify the species that naturally germinate next to the species you planted. You are likely to only get a few species that you will want to pull up. Give them a chance before killing them (more on this below). Any plant that I do want to kill is simply uprooted from the fairly loose soil and tossed onto an area where it cannot become re-established.

7. DO YOU HAVE PLANT ALLERGIES? I always wear gloves because through many years of habitat management, I have become allergic to the juices and spores of many different plants. The trick here is to wear gloves and to remember to thoroughly wash (with any mild soap) the face, neck and arms. No, one does not have to buy that soap that is advertised as a defense against Poison Ivy. ANY mild soap, used immediately after exposure to Poison Ivy or any other plant allergen, will assure that you do not get contact dermatitis. But you need to remember to wash with the soap after working with the plants. If you wait, and you do contract contact dermatitis, it will have to run its course, and that for me is up to three weeks.

8. IF YOU DON’T KNOW JUST LET IT GROW. I have learned to not be too quick to pass judgement on a naturally germinating plant; i.e. to decide if I want to let is continue to grow in my wildflower area or if I want to remove it. EXAMPLE: I just learned that American Goldfinches relish the seeds of the Mullein plant. Most folks consider the Mullein to be a nuisance, and it is an exotic to North America and a native to Europe. But here is the thing……… I have been doing this for more than 40 years and there really are very few plants that have nothing good about them and that should be attacked aggressively. Even if you find you do not want a plant that has become established, there are very few plant species difficult to eradicate even after they are established. So unless you can identify a naturally germinating plant’s leaves, early in its emergence from the ground, you almost never lose by waiting and watching.  You may be glad you did. I learned that lesson with the Mullein. Now next year, I may decide that I want to knock back some of those Mulleins, simply because they may have spread more than I liked.  Ok, so if I want, I simply pull up a few plants.  It is easy to pull the entire Mullein plant out of the ground.  But right now, I am watching my American Goldfinches digging into them to get at their seeds, and it is only early September. I like that because I love my American Goldfinches. 

9. Don’t be afraid of the water bill. I think my neighbors refuse to water their lawns for concern over a large water bill that they have never seen. Honestly, the only water bill I have gotten that shocked me was when I forgot to shut off the water a couple of times and it stayed on all night I think two different times. But all night is a long time….too long to leave the water on.

10. When I am trying to get a plant established, I make sure the base of that plant gets copious amounts of water….but only until I can see that it is not wilting. This does not require much water. I build a small dam of soil around the base and gently pour small pool or basin of water into it. It might wilt immediately after planting. But because of that copious watering, shortly after the wilting, the leaves will regain their rigidity (from turgor pressure) and the plant is now established in its new location.

Watering During Drought: Saving Money

If you see a drought beginning in your area, I advise you to make sure your plants, including you lawn, get enough water.  You can see a drought beginning in the leaves of the trees and in people’s lawns.  The leaves of the White Birch, especially will wilt and remain wilted during the beginning of a drought.  And of course, lawns will simply turn brown.  

During the 2016 drought, I ran my water for an hour here, moved it over for an hour there, and over into another area for another hour……and I did not get a big water bill.  Another way to save is to water at night.  It is the best time water, because water loss to  evaporation is dramatically less at night.  So most of the water eventually percolates down into the soil and gets uptaken by the plants.  

Besides, every living thing must have water, so even if the water bill is a little high, just do it.  During the 2016 drought several people in my area lost their lawns.  It was that severe.  They knew that they had to water and they decided against it.  I would rather have a living lawn and living wildflower garden than a brown lawn, and wilting trees and wildflowers.

I love nurturing things that live. I am not saying that I saturate the soil with water. I do not come anywhere near this. Here is my trick: I water for about an hour in each location, using the stove timer in my kitchen to tell me to shut off the water. Then, using a spade, I open up a thick sliver of soil down to more than say…..6 inches. Then, still using the shovel as leverage, I pry it open and lay it over so that I can actually see and FEEL with my fingers, whatever soil moisture is now there. If I can see and feel just some moisture down for most of 6 inches, my worries are over for now, because the roots of those plants will get much of that water and they will NOT turn brown or wilt. Try it, it works. And of course, watch your water bill.  I think you will be pleasantly surprised.  The objective is to pull the plants through the deadly drought……that’s all.

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