O n farmland nestled in the rolling hills of southern Ontario’s Niagara escarpment, there is a wildflower meadow so artfully planted that it might have tumbled from a gallery frame. But there’s a hum in the air, and the one-hectare site stirs with the flitting of butterflies, honey bees and small birds. The bucolic display is the creation of garden journalist and photographer Yvonne Cunnington, and her physician husband, John, who left city life and moved to the farm 12 years ago. The transformation of a neutral hayfield into an environmentally friendly, artistic display, with changing colour palettes from spring through autumn, is testament to their basic gardening philosophy—perseverance pays.
Deciding what to plant
The large hayfield was directly in their vista, and seemed the appropriate place to make a dynamic garden with native plants. Yvonne particularly wanted a changing display that would shift colours through the seasons, with plants to invite a broad selection of butterflies and birds that she could chronicle with her camera. With the assistance of Wildflower Farm, an Ontario purveyor of wildflower seeds, a planting was designed to include both native grasses and flowering perennials. The hayfield is now classified as a short-grass prairie meadow, combining grasses like little bluestem and prairie dropseed with wildflowers, such as beebalm, rattlesnake-master (Eryngium yuccifolium), anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), and several kinds of echinacea and blazing star.
Choosing the right plant combos
Grasses and perennials work together to cover the meadow soil and compete with weeds, while protecting the emergence of desirable perennial seedlings. The combination of plants is a nectar-rich food source for important pollinators that are necessary partners in Niagara’s nearby fruit-growing region. Seeds produced in the meadow sustain birds staying through winter, until the meadow is mowed down in early spring.
Sowing with patience
Country life modifies concepts of time and change, and the wildflower meadow couldn’t be rushed into planting. The first spring, the hay was plowed under and a temporary cover crop of soybeans was planted, allowing time for weeds to emerge, show themselves, and be demolished again by the plow. The second spring Yvonne and John drove a rented tractor-pulled tiller over the field, and then a harrow to smooth the surface and prepare it for seeding. Finally, Paul Jenkins of Wildflower Farm brought his tractor and seed drill to spread the mix of native grass and perennial seeds (with annual ryegrass as a nurse crop, to discourage weeds). Then the field was mulched with straw to keep the seeds in place and preserve moisture while waiting for germination. Seedling perennial plants take two to three years to reach flowering size, and it wasn’t until the third and fourth years that the meadow was fully in bloom.