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Establishing meadow from scratch in rocky soil

August 13, 2006

Hi Everyone - We've moving into a home with almost eight acres of extremely rocky soil, as is the norm in our area. The builder did virtually nothing other than throwing down some grass seed, so we're literally starting from scratch. (This is a spec home, not one we built.) We're okay with this, and view the property as a blank canvas. But we're trying to make sure we take it one step at a time, and know we have a tremendous amount of work ahead of us.

We want to establish grass only in limited areas directly in back and front of the house, and our "dream" is to create some sort of meadow on 4-5 acres to the side/front of the house that sits between us and a neighbor. This area is gently sloped, with no trees, although we hope to eventually add those. We've talked to numerous landscape designers, but can't seem to find anyone who wants to help us establish a controlled, but wild area (they're all pro-grass everywhere). So, we're at the point of doing it ourselves. We have some experience with cleaning up acreage/invasives, but no experience with rocky soil and meadows.

We realize that our first step will be to use a rock picker in the areas that will be grass, and are assuming this is also required in meadow areas? Does anyone else have any tips regarding working in rocky areas?

Thanks so much - I hope to be a frequent poster here :)

Comments (9)

  • ahughes798

    What area of the country are you in? If you wish to establish a native prairie meadow, there are several companies that have seed mixes that will do fine in your soil...after all, the natives evolved with that rocky soil. Since you're starting with a blank slate, this might be easier than you think. Here are my favourites:


    These sites also have extensive cultural information, too! Avoid the "meadow in a can" stuff, unless that is what you want, but I guarantee you that it will look good the first year, and that is it. It will be a weed patch by the second year.

  • goldgirl

    Thank you ahughes! We're in Hunderdon County, NJ.

  • willameadows

    I agree that you should work with, rather than fight the terrain and soil that you have. Otherwise it will be a continual uphill battle. You didn't specify if you want a native plant meadow, or if non-natives that adapt well to the conditions would work also. If you are having trouble finding a landscaper that will work with you, you might try contacting your state's native plant organization (link below). Someone there might be able to direct you to a landscaper that would LOVE to be a part of what you're doing. Also, if you're going native, and talking about acres, there might be grant money available to help you with the project. The US Dept of Fish and Wildlife should have information about that, or maybe the Conservation Service. Good luck!

    Here is a link that might be useful: Native Plant Society of New Jersey

  • goldgirl

    Thanks willameadows! I've been Googling, but completely missed that link. I've already sent an email asking for assitance. It sounds like Rutgers University may also be able to help :)

  • froggy

    if i am given 2 pieces of soil to do a meadow from scratch, nasty rocky soil or rich lucious top soil, ill take the nasty stuff anyday. why u ask?

    the richer the top soil, the higher % chance that invasives are already in the seed bed/surrounding area/unable to kill/ etc.

    it may take a few more years for the natives to establish on 'nasty' soil, but in the long run, its easier to manage.

    up the seeding #, make sure u have a decent seed source and a decent spp list and u will be fine.


  • ladyslppr

    I agree with froggy on this one - tough rocky soil is better than rich soil for a nice wildflower meadow. In the northeast, most of the pretty wildflower and grass patches you might see in the wild exist at least in part because the soil is bad. In addition to bad soil, some sort of repeated disturbance is needed to keep out woody plants. Without disturbance your meadow will turn into shrubs then into a forest. Bad soil means that the disturbance won't have to be as frequent as it would with rich soil. Also, rich soil is great for plants that are adapted for rapid growth in high-nutrient, disturbed conditions. These plants are also known as weeds.

    If your soil is rocky, maybe it is also excessively drained, which will help reduce weed growth. I wouldn't bother to remove the rocks unless they will interefere with your chosen method of "disturbance." For most of us, disturbance means mowing, and rocks could be a problem for the mower. However, you might have the option of using something besides a standard lawn mower, which really isn't great choice anyway ( I find it mows too low even when on the highest setting and can scalp some perennials), in which case rocks might not be a big concern.

    Many of the showiest wildflowers are at home in poor, rocky, sunny places. I'd include butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), Black eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Nodding Onion (Allium cernuum) in your mix. The grass everyone chooses is Little bluestem, but you could also try Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and maybe Sideoats Grama (Boueteloua curtipendula). Other wildflowers such as Goldenrods and Asters will introduce themselves.

    Good Luck!

  • jabee

    Hi, goldgirl,

    Congratulations on your new home and your decision about a meadow.

    Do remember that a meadow is a combination of grass and flowers. You'll want to find a bunch grass or short-lived grass that self-sows and "moves" from place to place in different years. This leaves room for the wildflower seeds to touch the soil and grow.

    I like Blue gramma grass but don't know if you have it in the North.

    Rocks are fine. The only problem I foresee is that you'll want to press the seeds to the ground and on a large area a roller is easier than my method (stamping my feet back and forth, LOL). Rocks would make rolling harder.

    Here's a link to some information about wildflower
    Gardening". The seeds are from the Texas area and some won't be right for you but the tips are good. If you call them they'll take the time to really listen and help you out.

    Best of luck!

    Here is a link that might be useful: Native American Seed

  • huzzah

    I have had my best luck with many native plants on poor soil.
    the poorer the soil, the better.
    only certain plants can survive there and some of the showiest most hardy native grasses and forbs will thrive there.
    one thing about poor soil is that a plants tend to be shorter there and the overgrown look is less prominant.
    I would try to find local ecotype seed.
    do some homework on what is native to your area and go visit some natural communities similar to yours if possible. while you are there, you might see about gathering some seed.
    depending on your situation you can either interseed or
    work to establish a clean slate to begin on.
    look into getting a matrix of short grasses and forbs that will offer a succesion of blooms over the course of the year.

  • huzzah

    one other thing that works for me is to plant some tree seedlings in a meadow/prairie type environment
    having a few hardy pines or oaks or other trees that tolerate a burn in a meadow can create more of a savannah effect which looks great and also provides some diversity of habitat by creating shaded areas where different types of plants can flourish.
    now is a good time to collect seed to start trees or you can purchase seedling trees relatively cheap.
    the key is to get them through the first year. by planting in fall or really early spring and hope for timely rain or water them. if they dry out at this age, they die.

    huzzah man out

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