Planting a Native Northern Virginia Meadow

  1. Diversity attracts diversity; to attract a wide range of wildlife, offer a wide range of:
    • Bloom times (aim for May through October).
    • Plant heights (maximize vertical space by using short, medium and tall species – build up by using very tall plants, like sky-scrapers utilize space in crowded cities).
    • Flower colors (different animals are attracted to different colors – butterflies prefer blue, pink and purple, bees, wasps and beetles like white and yellow, goldfinches like yellow, and hummingbirds look for red, orange and pink).
    • Diverse plant groups (move beyond black-eyed susans and purple coneflowers – mix it up with milkweeds, mints, legumes, goldenrods, violets, wild geranium, ironweed, etc.)
  2. Use native grasses/sedges; a healthy meadow should be 30-70% native grasses to provide shelter, vertical and soil structure, caterpillar food and seeds for birds and mammals.
  3. Provide plant species eaten by caterpillars; a great way to bring moths and butterflies into your meadow is to provide food for their larval stage.

Suggested Plant List for a Native Meadow

Include at least one species from each of these eight important meadow plant groups. (All named plants are native to Fairfax County. Most are also native to Arlington/Alexandria, Loudoun and Prince William counties. See our Note below for more details.) 

All plants on this list are native to Fairfax County. Most are also native to Arlington, Prince William, and Loudoun Counties. Non-natives to Arlington County are Euthamia graminifolia, Asclepias purpurescens, Eutrochium purpureum, E. dubium, Eupatorium rotundifolium, Rudbeckia fulgida, Desmodium paniculatum, Vernonia noveboracensis, Zizia aurea, Verbena hastata, Carex stipata. Non-natives to Prince William County are Monarda fistulosa, Eutrochium dubium, Eupatorium rotundifolium, Rudbeckia triloba, Helianthus angustifolius, Liatris pilosa, Carex annectans. Non-natives to Loudoun County are Eutrochium dubium, Eupatorium pilosum, E. rotundifolium, Helianthus angustifolius, Clitoria mariana, Carex stipata

Many require moist soils at least part of the year; those requiring wetter soil are identified by ^. Very drought-tolerant plants are identified by +.)

  1. Goldenrods+ , such as Solidago rugosa (wrinkle-leaf goldenrod), S. juncea (early goldenrod), S. nemoralis (gray goldenrod), S. altissima (Canada goldenrod), Euthamia graminifolia (lance leaf or flat top goldenrod).
  2. Asters, such as Symphyotrichum lateriflorum (calico aster+ ), S. pilosum (frost aster+ ), S. novaeangliae (New England aster), S. patens (late purple aster), Doellingeria umbellata (tall flat-topped white aster).
  3. Milkweeds (the host plant for monarch caterpillars), such as Asclepias syriaca (common milkweed+ ), A. purpurescens (purple milkweed), A. tuberosa (butterfly-weed+ ), A. incarnata (swamp milkweed).
  4. Mints, such as Pycnanthemum tenuifolium (narrow-leaved mountain mint), Monarda fistulosa (wild bergamot+ )
  5. Joe-pye weed and boneset, such as Eutrochium fistulosum (hollow Joe-pye weed), E. purpureum (purple Joe-pye weed), E. dubium (three-nerved Joe-pye weed), Eupatorium perfoliatum (boneset), E. pilosum (rough boneset), E. rotundifolium (roundleaf boneset), Conoclinium coelestinum (mistflower).
  6. Yellow ray-flower composites, such as Rudbeckia hirta (black-eyed Susan), R. fulgida (orange coneflower), R. triloba (brown-eyed Susan), Helenium autumnale (sneezeweed), Heliopsis helianthoides (oxeye sunflower), Helianthus angustifolius (narrow-leaved sunflower), H. divaricatus (woodland sunflower+ ), H. strumosus (pale-leaved sunflower), H. giganteus (giant sunflower), Coreopsis tripteris (tall coreopsis), C. verticillata (threadleaf coreopsis), Verbesina alternafolia (wingstem), Bidens aristosa (tickseed sunflower) and other Bidens species.
  7. Evening primroses and sundrops, such as Oenothera fruticosa (narrow-leaf sundrops), O. biennis (common evening primrose).
  8. Legumes/pea family, such as Chamaecrista fasciculata (partridge pea), Baptisia tinctoria (yellow wild indigo+ ), Clitoria mariana (butterfly pea), Desmodium paniculatum (narrow-leaf tick-trefoil), Lespedeza virginica (slender bush-clover), and L. procumbens (trailing bush-clover).

If space and site conditions allow, adding a few of the following unique species will increase your meadow’s wildlife value and variety of bloom times: 

  • Vernonia noveboracensis (New York ironweed) 
  • Blazing Stars, such as Liatris spicata (dense blazing star), L. pilosa (grass-leaf blazing star+ )
  • Aquilegia canadensis (wild columbine+ ) - spring bloomer
  • Violets (host plants for fritillary butterflies) – spring bloomer
  • Apocynum cannabinum (Indian hemp or common dogbane)
  • Chelone glabra (turtlehead^ )
  • Phlox paniculata (fall phlox)
  • Fragaria virginiana (wild strawberry) – spring bloomer
  • Geranium maculatum (wild geranium) – spring bloomer
  • Zizia aurea (golden alexanders) – spring bloomer
  • Packera aurea (golden ragwort) – spring bloomer
  • Verbena hastata (blue vervain)

Use several species of Native Grasses; select from each season group to ensure that a diversity of grasses provide essential structure, shelter, and food year round:

Warm-season species

  • Schizachyrium scoparium (little bluestem+ )
  • Andropogon virginicus (broomsedge+ )
  • Sorghastrum nutans (Indian grass+ )
  • Tridens flavus (purple top grass+ )
  • Coleataenia anceps (beaked panic grass)

Cool-season species

  • Elymus hystrix (bottlebrush grass)
  • Elymus virginicus (Virginia wild rye)
  • Sedges: Carex amphibola (Eastern narrow-leaved sedge^ ), C. annectans (yellow fruited sedge), C. blanda (Eastern woodland sedge), C. caroliniana (Carolina sedge^ ), C. stipata (stalk-grain sedge^ ), C. stricta (tussock sedge^ ), C. swanii (Swan's sedge), C. vulpinoidea (brown fox sedge^ ). 

Note: Non-natives to Arlington County are Euthamia graminifolia, Asclepias purpurescens, Eutrochium purpureum, E. dubium, Eupatorium rotundifolium, Rudbeckia fulgida, Desmodium paniculatum, Vernonia noveboracensis, Zizia aurea, Verbena hastata, Carex stipata. Non-natives to Prince William County are Monarda fistulosa, Eutrochium dubium, Eupatorium rotundifolium, Rudbeckia triloba, Helianthus angustifolius, Liatris pilosa, Carex annectans. Non-natives to Loudoun County are Eutrochium dubium, Eupatorium pilosum, E. rotundifolium, Helianthus angustifolius, Clitoria mariana, Carex stipata

Establishing and Maintaining a Meadow


Perhaps the most challenging part of developing a meadow is getting rid of the lawn. Killing the fescue and other weeds of the modern turf grass lawn is not easy.

Different strategies include using herbicide, or suffocating with paper or cardboard covered with mulch. Tilling can cause more problems than it resolves as it leaves clumps of grass to regrow and encourages weed seeds to sprout.

These strategies can be time consuming and difficult to successfully implement.

Alternatively—start with a small area and proceed in stages. It is possible to remove turf grass with a shovel, after which native plants can be seeded in or planted. If it’s a good spot for them, they will spread and seed themselves into your evolving and expanding meadow.

Many native plants—such as asters, Indian hemp, goldenrods, broomsedge—are very likely to show up in your meadow on their own, so be sure to identify plants before you pull them. They may be good native weeds, beneficial to wildlife and lovely too.

Unfortunately, invasive plants will also show up, so you’ll need to pay attention and remove them before they gain a foothold. An excellent source to help identify invasive plants is Plant Invaders of Mid-Atlantic Natural Areas, at www.nps.gov/planTs/alien/pubs/midatlantic/index.htm

Your meadow will need to be mowed once a year. Late winter or very early spring is the best time. Birds and animals make use of the standing grasses and plants as a source of food and shelter through the winter.  (An alternative to mowing is burning, but that’s not an acceptable option for suburbanites.)

This information was revised by Betsy Martin, with contributions by Alan Ford, Ann Garvey, and Lisa Bright. September 22, 2014.

Alternatives

Try Installing a Meadow from Seed or just stop mowing, manage invasives and see what meadow plants volunteer over time.

WHERE TO FIND NATIVE PLANTS

The Plant NoVA Natives website maintains a list of native plant sources and updates its list of seasonal native plant sales in our 4-county region.  A growing number of local garden centers are adding natives to their inventory and we encourage you to ask about them to help get the message to plant suppliers that native plants are in increasing demand.  If you are having trouble finding native plants please contact your Audubon At Home Ambassador or Regional Coordinator for more information.