Meadow responses

I received a lot of responses to my meadow column in the News Journal.  Here is one of the responses with my answers:

I read your article ”Would a meadow a home work for you” in The News Journal, dated Saturday 7/26 suggesting I could start a fairly large “Meadow” by not cutting your front lawn and let nature “seed”, transform, the lawn area into a meadow.

I like the benefits of this concept eg: reducing the costs of cutting the grass, less watering, chemicals, and the increased rain water saturation to the and so, and I am interested but, I have a few questions before proceeding;

1. “won’t the lawn just turn into a weed patch of crabgrass, thistle, plantain, etc. when I stop cutting my grass”?

2. “what will prevent the weeds from crowding out the grasses and flowers mentioned in the article”?

3. “how can I control the spread of the weed seeds to my neighbors”?

4. “do you know if a “meadow” affects the value of my home considering right now all of my neighbors have lawns?

Great questions.  What the “lawn” becomes is highly dependent on what is currently in the lawn and the plants nearby.  If you currently have a vigorous stand of cool season turf, you will just get a taller stand of cool season turf.  Crabgrass is not a problem in a meadow, because the seed needs light to germinate.  Unless, you have many open patches in your lawn currently, the taller grass pretty much excludes light from reaching the soil and crabgrass will not grow.  In fact, crabgrass is less of a problem in a meadow than in a mown lawn.  Thistle could be a problem if you have it nearby.  It would need to be treated with an herbicide to get it under control.  Lontrel is recommended for use on Canada thistle. Plantain would be a relatively desirable component of a meadow. Its seed heads are interesting and it isn’t a problem plant.

Grasses are fairly competitive, so once you have a good stand in place they will do a good job of competing with incoming weeds.  I guess that also depends on what you define as a weed.  Many lawn weeds are not really weeds in a meadow.  Woody plants can be controlled in a meadow by mowing once or twice a year.

If the meadow becomes more diverse with age, which it will naturally do, there may be seeds that your neighbor would define as weeds.  But, there are probably natural areas, roadsides etc. that are already contributing weed seeds to your neighbor’s property.  You won’t be increasing that dramatically by having a meadow.

If you want a really great meadow that is comprised of warm season grasses and a few desirable perennials, it is best to seed the meadow with the plants you want.  Eventually warm season grasses will probably come into the meadow on their own.  Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) grows extremely well in southern Delaware and may become a component of your meadow over time.  Or you could seed it into the lawn and jump start the process.



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Does a meadow work for you?

When I teach lawn management, the first point I make to my students is the lawn is so important its location must be selected first when you are designing a new landscape.  Decide where you want to play, gather and circulate—that should be lawn.  The rest of your landscape should be something else.  What else, you say?  You really have three choices: traditional landscape beds, forest or meadow.  Traditional landscape beds provide lots of interest and beauty in a garden but they can be costly to install and take a lot of time to maintain.  Most landscapes will have some traditional landscape beds.  Using mulch to reduce weeds and locating plants to be the tree canopy, shrub layer and groundcover make landscape beds more manageable.  Using native plants attracts native wildlife.  Starting small and allowing plants to grow together will reduce the initial cost and allow plants to establish more easily.

The second option is a forest or woodland.  Most people think they don’t have a large enough property for a forest, but you can have a small tree grove (i.e. forest) on very little land.  And it doesn’t have to cost anything.  At the University of Delaware Botanic Garden we let a small area of what used to be a golf course become a forest over the course of about 15 years.  The trees (red maple, sweet gum, black cherry, birch, tulip poplar, oak) were all planted by the birds, squirrels and wind.  The only maintenance involved was removing exotic invasive species that might have taken over the forest if we had allowed them.  So, if you have 10 years, stop mowing and eventually you will have a forest.  If you want to jump start the process, plant small trees, woodland shrubs (i.e. spicebush, viburnum, witchhazel) and forest ground cover (ferns, wood asters, celandine poppy).

Option three is the least expensive but also least understood landscape—a meadow.  Fortunately, Longwood Gardens is attempting to change our perception of a meadow.  Visit Longwood Gardens’ meadow–just opened to the public this June. It is 86 acres and contains 3 miles of walking trails.  Obviously larger than a typical residential meadow, it shows the visitor various components of meadow that could be incorporated into a home landscape.  The back bone of the meadow is warm season grasses.  Indiangrass, switchgrass, prairie dropseed and little bluestem are a few of the grasses native to our region.  Throughout the meadow, you will see blooming perennials like butterfly weed and black-eyed Susan.  At key nodes in the meadow, such as path intersections, bridges, benches and other structures, you will find more flowering perennials planted in masses.  The vistas are wonderful but the details are also charming.   One of the most important parts of the meadow is the path systems.  Paths provide access to a meadow and also show the meadow is being managed.

How can you incorporate a meadow into your home landscape?  Many people have large front lawns that are used for nothing other than taking a few hours weekend time to mow.  Keep a small area of maintained lawn around the house and let the rest of the lawn become a meadow.  Be sure to mow the edges routinely and if the yard is large enough, mow a curving path through the meadow.  It could be your back or side yard isn’t serving an important function and could become a meadow, reducing the time spent mowing, helping water infiltrate into your soil, providing a home for wildlife (birds and butterflies) and providing a different and desirable aesthetic to your home.  The least expensive way to start a meadow is to simply stop mowing.  The plants that come in will depend on your soil, moisture available and surrounding area.  If you want to jump start the process you can seed a meadow (for more information on seeding a meadow refer to this brochure:  Another great meadow example can be found at the Mt. Cuba Center.  Start to explore the possibility of having your own meadow and spend your weekends admiring the birds instead of cutting the grass.

Residential landscape in Delaware with meadow as a front lawn rather than mown turf.

Residential landscape in Delaware with meadow as a front lawn rather than mown turf.

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Summer garden tasks

We have had a fantastic spring for planting.  Frequent rains have provided regular water to anything you planted this spring.  It is about time to wrap up planting for the season.  Of course, you can plant all summer but you will have to be much more vigilant about watering newly planted trees, shrubs and perennials as the weather gets warmer and the rainfall less frequent (probably if we are going to have a normal Delaware summer).  If the weather gets really dry, you will need to water most of the plants you put in this spring.  Plants shouldn’t be considered fully established until they have gone through at least one complete growing season.  Large trees may take several years to become fully established.   Consider using a gator bag on newly planted trees.  Fill up the bag with a hose and the water will trickle out slowly allowing the soil to absorb all the water and making it available to the tree roots.  The same thing can be accomplished with a five gallon bucket that has a few holes punched in the bottom.  You can also water using a hose set at trickle, but that takes much more time and effort to keep moving the hose once the soil has become saturated.  Do not apply water faster than what your soil can absorb.  Water that runs off is wasted and can cause erosion and particulate pollution in nearby waterways.

With the bulk of your planting completed, it is time to turn your gardening attention to taking care of your plants.  Early summer is the time to prune spring flowering shrubs.  Always cut branches back to another branch or bud, never leaving a branch stump.  Remove the longest branches to reduce the size of your shrubs but maintain their natural form.  As perennials finish blooming, remove spent flowers to conserve the plant’s resources. Some perennials and shrubs will even re-bloom if cut back after flowering and before seed heads develop. But, if you want to encourage seeding to spread a ground cover or plant you want to fill into a larger space, then leave seed heads on and allow seeds to mature.  You might also want to leave seed heads to feed birds.  Gold finches love cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) seeds, but I am always torn about leaving seeds because this plant seeds into the garden prolifically. Cut back fall-blooming plants, like mums and asters, now to encourage a compact habit when they bloom in August to October.

If you are managing a meadow, you may want to cut the meadow back now (mid to late June) to keep grasses from flopping later in the season.  We have had a wet spring, so grasses will be at the taller end of their normal range and may flop unless they are cut back now.  If you are cutting back your meadow, mow it to a height of 6-8 inches.  It will look sloppy for a few days, but the grasses and perennials in the meadow will quickly regrow and your meadow will be dense and lush again soon.  You should be mowing paths through your meadow to provide access and a “cue of care.”  You can mow the path on the same schedule as the rest of your lawn (approximately weekly) and mow one mower width on each side of the path every several weeks.  That will also help to keep the meadow looking neat and tidy and keep the path clear of flopping grasses.

This cup plant (tall yellow flower on the right) will feed gold finches but it will also seed into the garden, so be careful.

This cup plant (tall yellow flower on the right) will feed gold finches but it will also seed into the garden, so be careful.

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Weeding—does it ever end?

Weeding is one of those gardening tasks that some people find peaceful and enjoyable and others HATE!  Weeding is a component of gardening but it doesn’t have to consume all your gardening time.  Here are some strategies to help control weeds:

Use groundcover in your landscape beds to compete with weeds.  Most landscapes should have three layers—tree layer, shrub layer and groundcover.  When landscape designers, draw landscape plans, they tend to draw in large circles for the trees and smaller shrub circles, but often neglect to specify plants below the shrubs to cover the ground.  Few shrubs branch to the ground completely and therefore require a layer of plants below them to prevent weeds from growing in the bed.  The University of Delaware gets a lot of mileage from lilyturf (Liriope spicata) as a tough groundcover that out competes most weeds.  But, if you want more variety, you can try lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina), bugleweed (Ajuga reptans), sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum), Allegheny pachysandra (Pachysandra procumbens)—a great native that takes a little while to establish but fills in thickly once it gets going, Christmas fern (Polystichum aristicoides) or barrenwort  (Epimedium sp.)—a great plant for dry shade.   Also consider planting perennials to fill in spaces rather than just shrubs.  Catmint (Nepeta  x faassenii ‘Walker’s Low’) is a great perennial that grows densely and out competes most weeds.  It is blooming now in Delaware gardens.  If you have a large space to fill, you might try mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum).  It is a vigorous grower and could become a problem in a small garden but its mid-summer flowers last until September in the form of silvery bracts.  It is also one of the best nectar sources for butterflies and bees so it is great to include in a pollinator garden.

Another weed control strategy is to cover the landscape bed with mulch.  Mulch will prevent light from reaching the soil, so few annual weeds are able to germinate.  You can generate your own mulch with composted yard waste and ground up leaves.  You can also buy leaf mulch or hardwood bark mulch.  Use mulch as a temporary feature, until your plants fill in or at the edges of beds to differentiate the landscape bed from the lawn.

Herbicides can be used carefully to control weeds as well.  Pre-emergent herbicides are used to control annual weeds before they emerge, by setting up an herbicide barrier in the soil.  It is a little late to apply a pre-emergent product this year, but something to consider for landscape beds next year.  Selective post-emergent herbicides can be used to control grass in landscape beds or broad-leaved weeds in lawns.  You can also use a glyphosate product (Roundup is one example) to spot spray weeds, but be careful because glyphosate kills most green plant tissue it touches.  It is easy to get spray drift and damage desirable plants.

Barrenwort (Epimedium sp.) in flower at the Delaware Center for Horticulture.

Barrenwort (Epimedium sp.) in flower at the Delaware Center for Horticulture.

Allegheny spurge (Pachysandra procumbens) on UD's campus.

Allegheny spurge (Pachysandra procumbens) on UD’s campus.

Finally, readjust your attitude about weeding.  Bring a cushion and a glass of iced tea outdoors with you.  Put on a good pair of gardening gloves.  Have a weed bucket nearby and spend a little time each weekend or evening relaxing in your garden and pulling up a few weeds.

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Hydrangeas – Star of the Summer Garden

Summer?  Wait, we are just starting to enjoy spring weather.  But, now is the time to buy and plant trees, shrubs and perennials to enjoy this summer.  Do big blue and pink globes of hydrangea flowers remind you of your grandmother’s garden?  If so, come and get a dose of nostalgia or enjoy lots of trendy new hydrangeas .  Hydrangea is the featured plant of this year’s UDBG sale and is certainly a trendy plant in the industry.  This genus includes a wide range of plants from vines to large shrubs.

Bigleaf hydrangea  (Hydrangea macrophylla) is the old fashioned plant most of us remember from Grandma’s garden.  This species produces large balls of sterile flowers that are either pink in basic to neutral soils or blue in acidic soils.  The added fun of changing soil pH to change the flower color makes this plant unique.  There are also lacecap varieties in this group that have a ring of sterile flowers around a center of fertile flowers, looking like a lacecap (duh!).

Panicle hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata) is another old time favorite. The flower head forms a large cone of sterile flowers with lots of fertile flowers in the interior.  Most are white, fading to pink but some new cultivars fade to pink more quickly and retain the pink color longer, even as dried flowers.  Panicle hydrangeas bloom on new wood, so they should be pruned in late winter to early spring, for the best blooms.

If you want a native hydrangea, look for smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) or oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia).  Smooth hydrangea is not super showy as the straight species, but several showy cultivars are available.  Oakleaf hydrangea is a popular coarse-textured plant with exfoliating bark and large globose flowers.  Oakleaf hydrangea flowers are white, fading to pink and often hang on the plant all winter, providing interest and structure to the winter garden.  Leaves in this species turn a beautiful burgundy color in the fall.

If vines are your thing, there is even a hydrangea vine (Hydrangea anomola spp. petiolaris) that adheres to rough surfaces such as masonry and tree bark.  This vine has numerous white flat-topped flower clusters ringed by white sterile flowers in the summer.  Use it on a wall next to a walkway where there isn’t room for a shrub or tree.

Hydrangea flowers are great for cutting and drying.  Plants tolerate a range of conditions from full sun to full shade depending on the species and cultivar.  Many new cultivars have been selected for smaller sized plants with different flower colors and shapes.  The UDBG Plant Sale was the last weekend in April but you can still access the catalog for a complete listing and description of lots of great hydrangeas as well as many other plants. Look at the online plant sale catalog by visiting this URL. (

Spigelia marilandica and Hydrangea quercifolia – Oakleaf hydrangea with a native perennial, Indian pink, in the University of Delaware Botanic Garden.

Spigelia marilandica and Hydrangea quercifolia – Oakleaf hydrangea with a native perennial, Indian pink, in the University of Delaware Botanic Garden.

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When to Fertilize Your Lawn

A beautiful green lawn, like this gathering space at Chanticleer Gardens in Radnor, PA, can be achieved with fall fertilization.

A beautiful green lawn, like this gathering space at Chanticleer Gardens in Radnor, PA, can be achieved with fall fertilization.

Spring is here (even though it doesn’t feel quite like spring).  So, that means it is time to fertilize your lawn, right?  Wrong.  It is not necessary to fertilize your lawn in the spring.  In fact, it is much better to fertilize in the fall.  Grass puts its energy into growing leaves in the spring, which means more mowing.  But, grass puts energy into root growth in the fall, which means healthier, more resilient plants.  It is OK to add about ½ pound of nitrogen per 1000 square feet of lawn in April, which translates to 5 lbs of 10-10-10 fertilizer or 2 pounds of 25-5-10 fertilizer.  Some people like to have their lawn green up more quickly or at the same time as their neighbors.  This amount of nitrogen will be readily used by the lawn as long as it is not applied right before a severe rainfall.  But, it is not really necessary for a healthy lawn.  If you want to manage your lawn as simply as possible, apply one application of a slow release fertilizer in September, using 2 pounds of nitrogen per 1000 square feet (12 ½ pounds of 16-3-7 fertilizer).   If you don’t want to use a slow release fertilizer product, you can split the application of fertilizer into two applications-one in August/September and one in October/November.  If this sounds complicated, watch the videos on the livable lawns website for a simple explanation (

But wait, phosphorus is also an issue in lawn fertilizer.  That is the second number in the analysis (N-P-K).  Many soils in Delaware already contain plenty of phosphorus and it isn’t necessary to add anymore.  In fact, extra phosphorus can run off and pollute our rivers and streams.  So, it is a good idea to take a soil test before you fertilize.  Find out if you have enough phosphorus and if so, use a low phosphorus or phosphorus-free fertilizer on your lawn.  Some neighborhoods in Delaware, where phosphorus in the soil is high, simply require phosphorus-free fertilizer.

A number of Delaware environmental agencies want to encourage you to apply the right amount of fertilizer to your lawn at the right time, as well as increase the number of native trees in Delaware’s suburban landscape, so keep your eyes open for a new Livable Lawns Program for homeowners.  You can hire a certified livable lawn company to manage your lawn maintenance (see for the certified company nearest you).  Or you can manage your own lawn following the livable lawns guidelines (  If you become a certified livable lawn, Livable Lawns will provide a $100 voucher to purchase native trees from participating retailers to plant on your property.  Check the Livable Lawns website ( in late April for details about this exciting new program.

Spring is also the time people apply preemergent herbicides to control crabgrass in their lawns.  Crabgrass is an annual grass that germinates from seed each spring.  By applying a preemergent herbicide, you set up a chemical barrier that kills newly germinated crabgrass seedlings before they emerge from the soil.  The best way to prevent crabgrass is to have a thick, healthy lawn, which you can get by fertilizing in the fall.  The dense lawn prevents light, needed for germination, from reaching the crabgrass seeds.  If crabgrass has been a problem in the past, it may be necessary to use an herbicide this year to control the crabgrass and start your fall fertilization program in September.  You do not need to buy a product that contains both fertilizer and crabgrass preventer, although that is what many lawn and garden stores sell.  Look a little more closely for a product that contains just a preemergent crabgrass herbicide.

The bottom line is before you reach for that bag of fertilizer this spring, consider switching to a more sustainable lawn management program.

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