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Managing a Natural Meadow  
by Ginny Stibolt

Gray Hairstreak butterfly and a wasp share a fleabane. Photo by Stibolt

A Gray Hairstreak butterfly shares a fleabane(Pluchea foetida) flower head with a wasp.

We enjoy our front meadow on the east side of the pond, a wonderful area filled with a wide variety of wildflowers, grasses, sedges, and rushes.   A collection of birds, frogs, lizards, butterflies, wasps, bees, and squirrels entertain us with their activities.   

We don't know whether the previous owner had sodded this area with St. Augustine grass like most of the rest of our lot, but it was not doing well as a mowed lawn.  In June 2004, when we moved in, we decided not to continue mowing this area and let a meadow start.  

We did no maintenance in the meadow except to watch the seasons go by until February this year-18 months after we stopped mowing.  Then I spent a few hours pulling out lots of pine tree seedlings and some other woody plants.  I also chopped down the tall grasses, dog fennels, and goldenrods.  I left the St. Peter's-wort (Hypericum tetrapetalum) because even in February, its bright yellow flowers attracted bees and other insects that were out for an off-season flight on those warm winter days.  

An early morning bee works on the weird anthers of the meadow beauty (Rhexia mariana). (I think the anthers look like a yellow version of the Rolling Stones' logo.)

In order to maintain this area as a meadow, we needed to remove the trees and shrubs before they grew too large.  If we'd left them there, this area would have started its natural succession to become a pine-dominated forest for a few decades.  Later, oaks would become predominate.  The oak forest is the climax state or ultimate sustainable condition for this area.  When this occurs, the plant community will be stable and not tend to be replaced by another group of plants unless fire or man alters the environment.

Sustainable Gardening Practices

So for a year and a half, we spent time on other projects while Mother Nature worked on the meadow.  Now after just those few hours of maintenance pulling out the trees and putting in the path, we're done for another year.  Compare that to the time, effort, energy, and money we've saved by creating a meadow here instead of trying to force a lawn to grow.  

Creating meadow areas is one of the sustainable gardening practices on National Wildlife Federation's  list to certify your backyard as habitat. (

Doesn't this early morning photo of the meadow path invite you to take a stroll?  Most days I enjoy the looping path several times-the meadow hosts different critters at various times during the day.  I also chase neighbors' cats from our property and I've piled sticks in areas that they've used as their sandbox.  I don't want these subsidized predators catching the wildlife we've worked so hard to attract. (Keeping your cats indoors is another sustainable garden practice on NWF's list.)

I also extended the path so there's now a complete circuit going along the edge of the pond and cutting over closer to the front fence and back to our mowed area.  To create a path, I dug out a few bunches of tough grasses, covered it with the hay and plants I'd chopped down from the meadow trimming, tromped that down, and then topped the whole path with pine needles.  The path is wide enough for a wheelbarrow, but not wide enough for two people.  

I think paths are important when designing a meadow or other garden area to provide easy access for the caretaker(s) and for the wildlife watchers.  I've taken many photos of birds, butterflies and flowers with their pollinators, but no matter how many I take, they don't begin to represent the buzzing busyness of our meadows.  

<< Bees and butterflies are not the only pollinators.  This fly visits the flower head of a blue mistflower ( Conoclinium coelestinum), a Florida native.  (For some reason mist flowers and ageratum flowers don't photograph as true blue in the sun. Maybe they emit an odd wavelength of color to attract the flies--it's called the ageratun effect...)

I have removed some exotic or invasive plants so the natives have a better chance to survive and so their seeds, berries, and leaves may provide better habitat for our native birds, butterflies, and other critters.

You may also plant wildflowers in your meadows, but that's another column.  We've been entertained by the flora and fauna in our marvelous natural meadow in all its seasons.  When can you say that about a manicured lawn, unless there are golfers upon it?

Related Information

If you're interested in learning about native plants, join the Florida Native Plant Society: for general information.

This article details the certification of our yard.

This article covers what we've done to reduce and better manage our mowed areas: Less Lawn.

For more and up-to-date information on our front meadow and the other meadow areas, see this supplemental webpage: 

To listen to my Times Union podcast on meadow management, click here: 
podcast Meadow Management.

Ginny Stibolt would like to hear from readers who have suggestions and questions. After all, there are more than a few transplanted gardeners here in northeast Florida trying to figure out what works and what doesn't in planting zone 8/9.

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Tallahassee, Florida USA