Pollinator meadows produce low-maintenance beauty

Have you heard the buzz about helping pollinators with native plants? Planting a meadow of native plants for pollinators is a rewarding way to enhance your local ecosystem with a low-maintenance landscape feature. In the Green Mountain and Finger Lakes National Forests, we have planted pollinator meadows at two of the ranger stations, Rochester, Vt., and Hector, N.Y., as part of our Native Plants Program. Below, we share our tips so you can plant one too.
Native plants are plants indigenous to an area and have evolved over time with the other wildlife there. That makes them great at providing food and shelter for local wildlife, including pollinators, such as bees, wasps, moths, birds, and butterflies. In turn, the pollinators produce fruits and seeds important to people and animals. According to MaryBeth Deller, Botanist for the Green Mountain and Finger Lakes National Forests, “The meadow at the Rochester ranger station has been a big help in reducing mowing, increasing biodiversity, and creating an eye-catching display that changes throughout the summer.”
Compared to conventional lawns or ornamental plantings, these plantings save water, reduce pesticide use, don’t require fertilizer, and are resilient once established.” If this all sounds good to you, follow these steps to create one yourself.
Native pollinator meadows can be established in yards, parks, schools and public spaces — they are especially beneficial in areas with many lawns, or extensive corn, hay, or other crop fields. Sunny spots are ideal for wildflower meadows. After you select the site for your pollinator meadow, delineate the bed dimensions. A large swath usually looks more intentional and aesthetically pleasing than a small patch or fragments of planted areas. That’s why we created a large bed at the Hector, N.Y., ranger station; it measures 175 by 12 feet and is surrounded on all sides by a mown swath of turf grass. A mown border minimizes encroachment by neighboring vegetation and sets off the garden in an attractive way. If you are concerned about the meadow looking too wild, a mown border will signal that the area is being cared for.
To prepare the bed, first remove the current vegetation with a method that works best for you. Without careful preparation, turf grasses will return each year and out-compete the newly planted native species, so take the time to do it right! To remove turf grass effectively without chemicals, till the bed beginning in early August and repeat every 2-3 weeks, totaling four times. After four repetitions, the grasses should have exhausted their energy re-sprouting and should not compete much with the new seedlings. Alternatively, smother the turf with newspaper; it takes six layers of newsprint (non-glossy is biodegradable) to prevent grass from growing up through it. Wet the newspaper and top it with a mixture of topsoil and compost, four to six inches is recommended. Because the layered method takes a lot of materials and labor, it is best suited to smaller patches.
A seed mix from a nursery specializing in natives is a great place to start selecting plants. These mixes are carefully crafted to provide a succession of nectar and pollen sources throughout the growing season. Generic “wildflower” mixes can be ineffective if they are not suited to your area and might contain non-native invasive species. For this reason, read the species list carefully and be sure that the plants included are native to your region. A reputable nursery or seed-seller will be able to help you with this.
In mid-autumn it’s time to plant. Sow the seed mix that you have chosen at the recommended rate. For our most recent project we used Northeastern Pollinator Mix created by the Xerces Society. Hand seed or broadcast the seed and rake it lightly or roll it to get good seed to soil contact. Mulch lightly with straw (be sure there are no seed heads present) and skip the fertilizer — these plants are adapted to lower fertility and the fertilizer would encourage weeds.
 A little bit of care will get things off to a good start, so this is important — during the first growing season, when the vegetation reaches 18-24 inches, mow or string trim to a height of 8 inches. Repeat this high mowing technique as needed throughout the first season until September in order to give all the plants in the mix a chance to establish.
During the second season, look for weeds such as ragweed, and if you find them, trim once to a height of 8 inches to prevent them from flowering and going to seed. If weeds aren’t present, no trim is needed. Ongoing maintenance is achieved by burning or brush hogging the area every two to three years to prevent the succession to woody species.
Many of the plants will begin flowering in the second year and by the third year, the meadow should be expressing its full beauty! Your pollinator meadow is ready to provide you with seasonal swaths of color and food for pollinators for years to come.
Learn more about pollinators and native plants at the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation xerces.org and the New England Wildflower Society newenglandwild.org/grow/pollinators. Stop by the ranger station in Rochester, 99 Ranger Road off of Route 100 north of Rochester village, to see an established garden, or the ranger station in Hector, N.Y., 5218 State Route 414, to see a recently added but not yet fully established pollinator meadow. For more information on this project you can contact: MaryBeth Deller, Green Mountain and Finger Lakes National Forests, 99 Ranger Rd., Rochester VT 05767, email: [email protected].

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