Who hasn't fantasized about growing an effortless wildflower meadow, changing with the seasons, alive with birds and butterflies, to replace the endless round of mowing, watering, fertilizing, weeding, edging, blowing and raking needed to produce a flat, green expanse that is never quite perfect?
The resources and expenses required to maintain a typical lawn might be justified (assuming no pesticides are used) if you need a safe outdoor space for toddlers to run off excess energy. But if the lawn serves as no more than an outdoor "carpet" that's rarely walked on, a meadow is a more effective and economical design solution.
Of course, no landscape is maintenance-free. Meadows need a seasonal cleanup to remove old leaves and flowers and check for stray weeds. But replacing a typical lawn with hummocky native grasses and a sprinkling of seasonal wildflowers will drastically reduce your water bill, eliminate the need for mowing, fertilizing, edging and blowing and bring nature to your doorstep.
Even for small children, a meadow can offer endless sources of delight - colors, textures and fragrances, as well as the magic of buds turning into flowers and the opportunity of observing interesting insects close up. For observers who can sit still, wildflowers can attract colorful butterflies, hummingbirds and songbirds.
In general, meadows are not suited for heavy foot traffic, but they are resilient enough for careful nature observers.
Thoughtful preparation is crucial. Spend at least a couple of seasons making sure the area is weed-free before you begin, using sheet mulching, solarizing or a few rounds of watering, fertilizing and cultivating to use up the soil's supply of weed seeds.
The easiest kind of meadow has only grasses. Native grasses have a mounded form, so a "lawn" of native grasses has an undulating quality, punctuated in summer or fall by the plumes of flowering stems. Planted in patterns and drifts, different warm-season and cool-season grasses form a tapestry. Many grow easily from seed.
Do some research to make sure the grasses suit your soil type, the sun/shade exposure and the amount of watering you intend to do. For instance, taller California fescue likes dry, dappled shade under oaks, but red fescue looks best with weekly water (and vigorously reseeds to fill in any empty spaces). Grass-like plants, such as Berkeley sedge, can also form the foundation of a meadow.
For more of an oriental carpet effect, plant well-behaved grasses along with flowers. Planted in drifts, perennials such as yarrow, checkerbloom, low-growing buckwheat, California fuchsia and blue-eyed grass grow deep roots and come back every year, gradually spreading.
During the first year or so, before the grasses fill in and the perennials get established, plant annuals such as clarkia, phacelia and annual lupines for a riot of spring color - clarkias can grow to 4 feet tall, smothered in pink flowers. California poppies grow effortlessly and will rebloom if they are periodically cut back. If you find a "wildflower" seed mix, make sure it doesn't contain weedy non-natives that you'll spend hours getting rid of.