By Melissa Starkey
Mt. Cuba Center’s natural lands span more than 1000 acres, including meadows, forests, and old farm fields with the potential to be transformed into rich habitats that provide ecosystem functions and services. In one of our latest projects, Mt. Cuba’s natural lands manager, Nate Shampine, and his team are converting a 10-acre degraded site into a native upland meadow. The goal of this project is to create a natural-looking meadow brimming with native wildflowers that support pollinators and other native species.
Preparing the Site
Work to prepare the site for the new meadow started in August of 2021. One of the biggest challenges with installing and managing a meadow is that initial competition by invasive weeds can result in poor establishment of the native plants. Therefore, it is best to start with as clean of a slate as possible to give the desired plants the best chance to survive and thrive. To this end, the Mt. Cuba team carried out multiple weed control applications throughout the 2021 and 2022 growing seasons, with the goal of exhausting the unwanted weed seedbank in the soil prior to planting.
Image 1: The degraded field on Mt. Cuba’s natural lands which will one day be an ecologically functional meadow.
Selecting the Seeds
Shampine designed a fully customized seed mix of 39 native plant species historically found in the Piedmont region of Delaware, with a ratio of 60% wildflowers to 40% grasses. In order to maximize genetic diversity, Mt. Cuba purchased seeds from three different suppliers and used local ecotypes to ensure that the selections are genetically appropriate for our region. In addition, volunteers collected and cleaned seeds for one commercially unavailable grass species, broomsedge bluestem (Andropogon virginicus), from Mt. Cuba’s property so that it could also be included in the mix. Designing a meadow with increased species diversity and genetic variation will help to build a resilient landscape that has the genetic toolkit to withstand potential future challenges, such as climate change, disease, and invasive species.
Image 2: Native plant seeds of all shapes and sizes were included in the fully customized meadow mixture.
Since the site is less than 20 acres in size, the primary goal for the meadow is to support pollinators rather than grassland birds, such as bobolinks and meadowlarks, which need larger habitat areas. Therefore, the seed mixture contained a diverse array of native wildflowers that bloom throughout multiple seasons to maximize floral resources for pollinators. The unique blend included species less common in meadow plantings, such as Culver’s-root (Veronicastrum virginicum), and not just one but seven species each of goldenrod (Solidago) and native bush clover (Lespedeza). Shampine focused on including shorter growing grass species, such as broomsedge bluestem, purple lovegrass (Eragrostis spectabilis), and little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), while avoiding large, aggressive native grasses, such as yellow Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and big bluestem (Andropogon gerardi), that can outcompete other species and result in a monoculture.
Planting the Site
The team planted the new meadow in January 2023 to allow for the cold stratification that many wildflower seeds need to germinate. They planted the seeds using a no-till seed drill, which minimizes soil disturbance by only disrupting the top layer of soil.
Image 3: The Mt. Cuba team used a no-till seed drill to disperse and plant the seeds with minimal disturbance.
Since the seeds in the mixture varied greatly in size, weight, and shape, ranging from solid and heavy Senna hebecarpa seeds to light and fluffy grass seeds, the team had to calibrate the machine to ensure proper distribution when planting. Shampine opted for a seeding rate of 50 seeds per square foot, which accounts for losses due to low germination rates, seeds being eaten by birds, and other factors. The team planted over 24 million seeds weighing a total of 90 pounds, with an end goal of establishing three to five mature plants per square foot.
Image 4: Transforming the degraded field into a meadow one row at a time.
Looking to the Future
Installing a meadow from scratch is a long-term project which requires extensive preparation and forward thinking — seeing results will take time. During the first two growing seasons, the team will mow the newly planted site at a height of 8-12 inches, which will reduce competition from weeds and allow the newly germinated shorter vegetation to establish. While a few annuals such as Rudbeckia species might pop up this year, substantial growth will be clearer by year three, and some species will take up to five to seven years to appear. Mt. Cuba plans to do more meadow restorations each year, so keep checking back to watch our new meadows grow!