How do you establish a meadow of native wildflowers in an urban park that gets over 42 million visits annually? With patience and a plan! The Central Park Conservancy is creating a meadow in the Dene, a landscape in the southern part of Central Park just north of the Central Park Zoo.
A meadow is a field populated with grasses and non-woody (herbaceous) plants. Native meadows are a sustainable management solution for certain landscapes because once they are established to sufficiently prevent existing and self-seeding invasive species from taking over, they're less resource-intensive to maintain than lawns. This makes them a practical, sustainable treatment for steeply sloped sites, and areas of poor soil quality, like the Dene.
Native meadows also provide essential habitat resources for a wide variety of birds and pollinating insects. Grassland bird species nest in the shelter provided by tall grasses and feed on the abundance of insects and seeds they produce. And the dozens of butterfly species that reside within the limits of New York City are attracted to the more brightly-colored wildflowers as a source of nectar. Meadows in urban parks not only improve park sites that are unable to support other kinds of landscapes, they also encourage wildlife diversity.
A wildflower meadow takes many years to establish. The process of making one begins with eliminating weeds and planting cover crops, like rye and wheat, to improve soil health and suppress regrowth of weeds. This is followed by seeding and planting of native grasses and wildflowers and, during the first growing season, three to four maintenance mows to combat annual weeds that grow taller than the young meadow seedlings. By the second season of growth, the meadow will have begun to establish. A supplemental planting of native grasses and wildflowers will reinforce the process, with a few very high mows and targeted removals that will knock back any weed invasions. By the third growing season, weed pressure will be significantly reduced and the meadow will continue to mature with ongoing management and monitoring.
Volunteer support is a key component of the Dene wildflower meadow's management plan. Conservancy staff is training a corps of four volunteers to help care for it, starting now with weed identification so volunteers can help keep invasive species at bay until the meadow grasses and wildflowers take hold. This dedicated volunteer corps will support Conservancy gardeners over several seasons as the meadow establishes.
When complete, the meadow will be framed by new plantings around the edge of the landscape and feature a wood-chipped trail within. Rustic seating will be constructed at the top of its slope for visitors to take in the sweeping views. Come visit to see the transformation for yourself!