“What are you doing?” my neighbor calls out, pausing on his walk down our stretch of rural road, his breath visible, his lanky but imposing frame hunched against a late December breeze. The plastic grocery sack dangling from his gloved hand bulges a bit with the beer bottles, fast food wrappers, and other litter picked up along his path.
“Digging up saplings,” I answer, boot poised on my shovel.
“Because they’ll take over if I don’t.”
Left alone, a field will always try to revert to a forest. But he knows that. In his late 70s or early 80s, he’s lived out here and farmed his entire life.
What he really means is: Why are you doing it that way?
I could cut or burn this patch of land regularly or spray it with herbicides or some combination of both. But I planted native grasses and wildflowers to attract bees, dragonflies, butterflies, hummingbirds, and goldfinches. Herbicides would poison them and me. Cutting regularly would mean no blooms or seeds. I cut it once a year in late winter after the seeds have been well picked over by the birds. And because I live in a wood frame house, burning is a risk I’m not willing to take. So, in winter, on days when the ground is saturated from a heavy rain or melted snow, I tackle the year’s emerging saplings with my shovel.
“Do you ever get anything to eat out of there?” he asks, sauntering closer.
“No, just flowers.” Penstemon, butterfly weed, showy goldenrod. My produce are all from the grocery store or the farmer’s market. I’m not self-sustaining. Compared to my neighbor’s ordered rows of crops, my patch of meadow looks disheveled and unruly, especially this time of the year when his fields have been cleared of corn or soy and freshly planted with winter wheat.
“How much of that did you plant?” he asks, gesturing at my shaggy mess.
“About ninety-five percent of it,” I say, pressing the shovel into the soil, so wet from last week’s snow it has the give of softened butter. A few volunteer plants have strayed in over the years—privet, plantain, sweet everlasting.
“Well, sometimes it looks pretty,” he shrugs, continuing on his way.
Our conversation is not unusual. I’ve often had older men in pickups stop and suggest I use the same stuff they do to control weeds in their crop fields or offer loans of equipment to plow it all under. They are well-meaning. They’ve made their living working this land. I’m just the city mouse come to the country.
Late summer into fall, at sunrise or twilight, I’ll head toward the meadow, gauging each time how close I can get before a flush of bright yellow springs from tall grasses and flower stalks, high up to tree limbs and the telephone wire. Goldfinches, dozens of them, startled mid-feast on purple coneflowers, black-eyed Susans, and daisies. They twitter a fuss until I finish perusing what’s new to bloom or fade and head back to the house. From a distance, I can see them, one by one, drop back down onto the season’s bounty.
I started developing the meadow in 2013 with the goal of filling a flat corner of our yard with native wildflowers. It was a time when I felt pummeled by loss. My parents had died within three months of each other—Dad of Alzheimer’s and Mom of a sudden, massive hemorrhagic stroke. My father’s death was not unanticipated. He’d been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s four years earlier and the disease had progressed rapidly. Toward the end, my mother was no longer able to keep him safe at home and moved him to a memory care unit. He passed away a few weeks later. His death was hard, but we had been losing him a piece at a time over the years, and he would not have wanted to live the way he ended up.
I thought Mom would have many good years left to enjoy after the stress of caring for Dad was over. Her doctor had declared her “healthy as a horse” at her recent physical examination. She had no memory or mobility issues and was planning her move to a retirement community, where a number of her close friends lived. But a little less than three months after my father died, while I was away from home completing a writing fellowship, my husband called. We had talked the night before, and he knew I used my mornings to write uninterrupted, so I feared something had happened with one of our sons. His voice broke as he told me my mother had had a stroke and was in hospice with no chance of recovery.
I threw everything into my car, drove straight to the hospital, three-and-a-half hours away, and joined my siblings in keeping vigil. She died the following Friday evening.
I was now mourning the death of both parents and in shock at the suddenness of my mother’s passing. Gathering with family and friends for her funeral offered momentary solace. And for a time, going through my parents’ things—sorting the contents of their home into trash, Goodwill, and keepsakes, and dividing up the latter with my brother, sister, and other relatives—provided a distraction. But in the end, there was still a big, blank space where Mom and Dad used to be, and I ached for something to fill the void, to help me cope with the pain.
What I needed, I decided, was Meadow in a Can.
In the 1980s, my job involved spending a lot of time on planes, traveling around the East Coast and Midwest. During long hours on tarmacs and above the clouds, my eye and imagination were often drawn to the “Meadow in a Can” ads in airline magazines. Introduced in 1982 by the Clyde Robin Seed Company, the product promised a constantly changing explosion of color in your own wildflower meadow . . . simply by opening a can.
I could see myself twirling in a field of bloom à la Julie Andrews as Maria Von Trapp in The Sound of Music. At the time, it was nothing more than a daydream. During the week I was schlepping between low-slung office buildings baked in seas of asphalt and sterile hotel rooms with expressway views, and then I returned home each weekend to a third-floor walkup in Chicago. But now I had a house with a couple of acres in the Virginia countryside with some empty spaces to fill. Now, it was possible.
A 1985 ad for “Meadow in a Can” says it’s easy to plant any time of year, and care is practically nil.
You can water your meadow if you like, or you can let Mother Nature take care of it.
“A piece of cake,” I told my husband. “It’ll be less work. We won’t even have to mow but once a year.”
He reminds me of those words occasionally when he’s helping dig up saplings or cutting, raking, and hauling off the old growth.
In a photograph—Bellingrath Gardens, June 1954—my mother, on her honeymoon, is poised straight-backed and beaming on a bench overlooking the Isle aux Oies River. Wearing heels, a floral summer dress, and ballerina skirt spread across the bench, she is tiny in the picture; my father and his camera far away enough to capture what was blooming all around her.
Eastern red columbine is always the first to bloom in the spring. Nodding red and yellow flowers emerge on thin stalks from a thick, leafy base. A delicate pleasure favored by hummingbirds, but not the most anticipated blossoming. That honor goes to flax—not native, I know!—for its notes of blue scattered throughout the green shoots of grasses and perennials, a sight offering the same delight one may feel in finding the remnants of a robin’s egg at the base of a tree, like a chip of the sky at your feet.
I was enamored with the notion that all I had to do to drive the sadness away, to have something to look forward to, was open a can of meadows. So, I killed a five- by twenty-foot section of chickweed and wiregrass close to the road with herbicide, found a meadow seed mix containing twenty-three different varieties of wildflowers (the original Meadow in a Can had only sixteen), and tossed it across the bare soil.
Late spring and early summer, the strip was a riot of red, blue, pink, white, yellow. Poppies, cornflowers, plains coreopsis, cosmos, none-so-pretty. I filled vases of sunshine for the house. But as the blooms started to fade, nothing I’d planted could ward off the mid-summer takeover of weeds and wiregrass. It was a mess. There was not going to be a quick fix, no simple way to make it OK. Gardening, I was learning, is not easy. Like grief, it’s a process.
I had no experience or inherited talent as a gardener. When I was a kid, my father, who had grown up during the Great Depression and World War II, used to talk about planting a victory garden, something that could feed us should hard times return. He even identified a spot for it—a flat, sunny area next to the split-rail fence in the side yard. My mother planted some tomatoes there one year, but that’s as far as it got. And for most of my adult life, I’d been too busy with work and my two sons to spend any time on horticultural pursuits. Learning how to properly create a meadow would mean venturing into new territory.
Some years the flax plants are few due to the vagaries of weather, and spring feels a little less graceful as a result. We skip straight from gentle columbine to the bold yellow of coreopsis and daisies as bright and white as starched Sunday dresses. But my winged friends love them nonetheless.
As I studied up on meadows, I learned that the Meadow in a Can idea had never really worked, at least the way it was originally conceived. As Adrian Higgins wrote in a Washington Post article, there is no such thing as a “meadow genie in a can.” He interviews Larry Weaner, an environmental designer, who explains “you don’t plant a meadow; you set a series of natural events into motion and then guide their development.” In other words, it’s more like raising a child.
Catherine Zimmerman, in her book Urban & Suburban Meadows, convinces me, however, that I can create a meadow that’s environmentally friendly. The great thing about practicing organic land care is you don’t have to kill something with toxic chemicals to grow something, she writes. In other words: First, do no harm.
I was fourteen in 1968 when my parents took my brother, sister, and me on a float trip down a portion of the Snake River in Wyoming. The guide for our raft was a burly twenty-something named Charlie Brown with a beard and long curly hair, who combined steering our raft with a lecture about pesticides and overpopulation endangering the planet. He described how eagles were at risk of disappearing because the widespread use of DDT made their eggshells so fragile that the embryos could not survive. He held up books like Silent Spring and The Population Bomb. I was smitten. Then my mother, mid-float, surveyed her children’s bare legs, pulled out a can of bug repellent and sprayed us thoroughly, seemingly oblivious to Charlie Brown’s message. I was mortified. I was also convinced I might never see an eagle again.
So, I start over, using newspaper and cardboard topped with fall leaves to clear another section of weeds and wiregrass for planting. One spring, removing the covering, we find a mole family that had been using the cardboard and leaves as the roof to their den. They must feel they hit the jackpot in locating such nice, dry property. The tiny babies were a silky blue-gray with pink feet. Moles and voles help keep our yard aerated. We cordon off a little area around their home so they could safely burrow deeper or move on without our planting interfering.
But using newspaper, cardboard, and leaves had some drawbacks. It meant we couldn’t cover up what we wanted to kill until fall and couldn’t plant until spring, which for perennials in our area is a bit late. So now we use black tarp instead. It allows us to plant earlier and we can reuse the tarp each year as we add new sections. Starting in July, the hottest time of the year, we mow the existing weeds as short as possible, then lay the tarp down and hold it in place with bricks and bags of mulch. A good stretch of dry weather and ninety-plus degree temperatures will kill just about anything beneath the oven of polyethylene.
We take the tarp up in late November and spread seed on the exposed soil. Native grass and wildflower prefer hard, poor soil. And because the seeds can be a bit light and delicate, they could easily blow away or be pillaged by birds and field mice. We rent a large drum roller to mash the seed firmly into the dirt, then wait to see what happens.
Family and friends have found different ways to hold their memories of my parents close. One of my sons keeps Dad’s bulldog figurine on a shelf with other treasures in his living room; another uses Mom’s battered cookie tin to take goodies to office parties. An aunt cherishes my mother’s carved wood cardinal. A charity donation made in Dad’s name helped some children in need in his hometown.
Native grasses, I learn, are the bones of a meadow, the structure that supports the more delicate wildflowers. And birds use them as a food source right into the winter. I now plant seed mixes that include at least sixty percent little bluestem, Indiangrass, and rye.
What I didn’t realize at the beginning was how long it takes for native grasses to establish. They spend the first year making roots, which grow very deep, so there’s not much of a show above ground. I thought the seed didn’t take. The Black-eyed Susan aggressively filled in the gaps, turning much of the summer meadow into a large, solid patch of sunny yellow.
“That makes me smile every morning on my way to work,” said a neighbor, pulling his car over and leaning out the window grinning. It felt good to bring a bit of cheer into someone else’s life.
But all that yellow seemed to be blocking space and light that could give other, less aggressive plants a foothold. Once they’d stopped blooming, I spent part of late summer thinning them out, trying to give the fledglings of green sprouting up beneath them some air and sunshine. Then I scattered more grass and flower seed in the blank spaces left behind.
Bee balm now covers a large swath of the meadow for much of June. Masses of lavender-pink blooms rise shoulder-high. Intermingling here and there—sprays of daisy fleabane, a welcome intruder. The dragonflies arrive with helicopter maneuvers. The bees, too, visit en masse, buzzing among the frilled blossoms, followed by the butterflies—mostly painted and American ladies, yellow and black swallowtails—wafting about.
Some days I spot a small rabbit or cat hidden among the stalks until whoosh, it’s off.
Traveling back to places where I grew up, I can’t help comparing and contrasting what I see now to what I remember from the days when we were a young family. The more things change, it seems, the more the present is reshaped and enhanced by memories.
I learn there are a number of ways the meadow manages itself. It’s OK to let the Black-eyed Susan take over while the grasses gradually establish themselves. It’s just temporary. No need to yank them out. When the slower growing plants come into their own, they will naturally thin the yellow mass, much the same way that time gentles grief, allowing hope and happiness to regain a foothold in a mourner’s day-to-day life.
Noel Kingsbury points out in The New Perennial Garden, that “a meadow is a dynamic community, there is constant to-ing and fro-ing as some individuals seed themselves and then die out and other plants spread or creep to colonize new areas. . . Perhaps the ultimate pleasure is the arrival of new species altogether, brought in on the wind or by birds.” Grief reshapes who you are, settling in and finding its place among all of your other life experiences.
Over the years, the daisies have formed a drift across the southwestern part of the meadow. Columbine has spread into a large colony on the northeast end just beyond the leaf span of a maple tree. And bee balm has proliferated on the eastern side. Aromatic aster prefers the edges. And “volunteers” like fleabane and Queen Anne’s lace have added a soft white that highlights the more colorful bloomers. Each contributes in its own way to the beauty of the continually changing whole.
But not all volunteers are welcome. One year, poison ivy crept surreptitiously in from the edges, then wound its way deeper into the meadow. I attempted to pull it up by hand. But even after taking the precaution of covering my hands and arms, and scrubbing any exposed skin after I came inside, I still broke out in rashes that lasted for weeks.
So, one morning, in desperation, I abandoned my goal to be environmentally friendly, bought some herbicide and snuck out to the meadow hoping no one would see me. I told myself nothing was flowering yet near the spot where the poison ivy had invaded, that I was spraying just close to the ground where most insects and birds wouldn’t venture. I’d de-contaminate myself afterwards by stripping off my clothes and tossing them in the wash, then showering and washing my hair. No harm done, right? The lies we tell ourselves.
In a New York Times article, “The Insect Apocalypse Is Here,” Brooke Jarvis notes that insects pollinate about three-quarters of our food crops. And in a National Geographic article, Stephen Leahy says the US agricultural landscape is forty-eight times more toxic to honeybees than it was twenty-five years ago, primarily due to the use of neonicotinoid pesticides. Corn and soy seed are often coated in neonics. These crops are all around me, acres and acres.
I vow to do better.
Summer into fall, the long-blooming mountain mint attracts so many bees that you can hear the hum while you are still a number of feet away. Their movement on and amongst the plants makes the mass of silver-green leaves and pale pink flowers appear to be quivering. Mostly, they are tiny native bees and honeybees; the large bumbles are more attracted to the bee balm.
A young arborist removing dead limbs from a chestnut oak nearby was so taken by the winged crowd the mint attracted that he asked if I could spare a couple of runners for him to take home to his own garden. Because it spreads enthusiastically, mint is made for gifting, and your hands smell so wonderful after pulling some to give away.
The massive famines predicted in The Population Bomb have yet to happen, and DDT was banned from use in the US in 1972. It took until 1978 for the US government to declare eagles an endangered species. Once the bald eagle was declared endangered, funding became available for breeding eagles in captivity and releasing them into the wild. In 2007, almost thirty years later, the measures enacted to save them had had enough impact to take them off the endangered list. Today, I sometimes see eagles from my yard or flying over the woods or fields near my house. I wouldn’t say they are a common sight, but they are no longer a rare one.
I now anxiously monitor the meadow for monarch butterflies. The first couple of years I saw quite a number. But now I see one or two in early summer and one or two in late summer through late fall—sometimes so late that I worry they won’t make it further south before the first frost hits. According to Jarvis, scientists in the US have found that the population of monarchs has fallen ninety percent in the last twenty years.
After seeing or hearing about my meadow, I’ve had people tell me they want to do the same at their home. The UPS delivery person, friends, and strangers driving by.
“It’d be great to just let everything go natural,” or “It’d be nice not to have to do yard work anymore,” they say.
It’s always exciting to hear their interest, but I try to be honest with them, share what I’ve learned.
A meadow is actually a lot of work, I tell them. It’s just a different kind of work.
Near my birthday in September, the tickseed comes into full flower at the edge of the meadow. The tall, bright yellow, a lush flourish heralding the beginning of fall and offering solace for the fade of heat-loving blossoms. It’s my favorite moment in the meadow, seeing how its sunniness spreads each year, taking up more and more space, like happiness shared.
We leave the brown remains of the meadow’s annual growth in place until the end of February or first part of March. The brittle plot still has a purpose, providing winter shelter to animals and birds as well as seeds that feed both, the way memories and tokens of our loved ones sustain us long after they are gone. When we do take the meadow down, the area is small enough that we can get it done over a couple of days with a weed-eater and hand clippers. We rake up and haul away all of the debris, and add it to our community yard waste heap to be turned into mulch that will nourish other gardens.
Horticulturist Peggy Bowers says in Zimmerman’s book, “when you walk into a meadow it’s so full of life; it’s just teeming.”
Instead of twirling in the meadow à la Julie Andrews, I suit up in summer—long pants, socks, Wellies, long-sleeved shirt, gloves, and a wide-brimmed hat—to gather cut flowers for the house or to give away to friends. In addition to pollinators, birds, rabbits, and the occasional cat, ticks and snakes are always a possibility, and it’s wise to take precautions. Not quite the image I started out with, but this is what it means to be brimming with life, and I relish venturing in.