We've been hearing quite a few encouraging stories from people who want to turn old fields (from abandoned farmlands to smaller empty lots in suburban neighborhood) into native plant meadows.
The owners of these fields have beautiful visions: A mix of diverse native flowering plants with some woody species in the background to attract native wildlife population. They like to see lots of bird activities and butterflies and other beneficial insects and possibly more amphibian population. Some people inherited tens of acreage in the countryside and some happen to own small empty lots next to their suburban houses.
What they have in common is they don't really want to engage landscaping companies to turn these spaces into thriving meadows overnight. They like to do the work themselves and wonder how to go about implementing their visions without using heavy equipments or incurring high monetary cost or, for that matter, a lot of their time.
We appreciate this laidback gardener's approach. A lot, in fact! For one thing, if you make a mistake, it's likely be a small mistake and can easily be fixed. You can change your mind in the middle of a course without incurring costly damages. The other benefit is that you are gaining a huge amount of knowledge through your sweats and aching muscles and through your inquisitive minds. You will become a useful resource to others in the future.
There are ways to achieve the goals if you observe some basic ecological principles. It will still involve a lot of diligent works but the reward will be equally great.
Abandoned Old Farmlands into Woody Old Fields:
Most likely, the old fields are once cattle-grazed Fescue fields and now let go. See above two photos? They were exactly that about a couple of decades or so ago. Only that this current owner (a government agency) of these two lots did not do much except for mowing once a year. Fescue still dominates the ground composition, but slowly different grasses, flowering plants and shrubs have taken roots. But you probably do not want to wait for a full decade to see a patch of new plants finally appear!
In our region, woody old fields are naturally occurring by forest fires. When there is an opening in the forest like this, there are a lot of dormant seeds waiting to sprout taking the full advantage of sunlight and the less competitive ground space. A mosaic of forb, grass, and woody seedlings will grow as soon as the ground is cooled.
The opening of forests gives a great opportunity for early successive plants like Black-eyed Susan, Patridge Pea, Field Thistle, various Goldenrod species, Little Bluestem grass, Broomsedge grass, Indian grass along with woody plants like Eastern Red Cedar, Virginia Pine, Carolina Rose, Black Cherry, and various Sumac species.
You can create somewhat artificial Woody Old Fields in the thickets of Fescue. Let's imagine those massive Fescue grass as forests: you don't want to remove the entire field of Fescue. (By the way, these Fescue grass is so massive and immovable, they also protect your ground from obnoxious invasive plants moving in.) Instead, remove several patches of Fescue to create new garden plots and consider these plots as your own Woody Old Fields. Some plots are located in such a way to grow woody plants for wind protection. Some plots near the water (if you have one) for moist-loving grass and forb species. Some plots for dry meadow types.
When you have the patches of fescue-free plots, you are ready to sow or plant. It is likely that any new plants will experience a certain amount of stress in a harsh condition like this, and we advise that you choose the plant species as mentioned above and put them closely together to support each other. Let these hardy species take roots and grow and spread first before adding more visually charismatic plants. If you become confident, you expand the plots by removing more Fescues.
Suburban Open Plots for Meadow-style Gardens:
A small suburban lot can be deceptively challenging. You don't necessarily know the history of how the ground was made up and used. You think you've removed all the pesky brambles and invasive vines, but their root system can revive from those broken pieces left underground. In a year or so, they roar back to life. Or you want to save some mature Black Locust or Sweet Gum or Maple trees on the edge of the lot. They drop tons of seeds each year and it seems every one of them sprouts in your carefully tended garden lot, thereby engulfing your native perennials. Or you realize that inches down the surface the ground was filled with construction debris. In dry period, the soil is as hard as a rock and it doesn't drain well when raining.
The first order of the process is to observe what is happening on the ground and in the surrounding area. How the water is behaving when raining, and what happens when big storms hit the area. How people use the area around? You need to have a long-term management plan. How much time you could spend and how the immediate neighborhood would perceive this project.
If you've done your homework, you start with a small and manageable plot with a clear physical boundaries of the garden so that everyone could see that as a garden. You can rid of weeds by placing dark plastic sheets or tarps over the mowed plots for a few weeks in summer (I know, there aren't any perfect ways of killing weeds without incurring some damage to some creatures) or placing heavy cardboard sheets or layers of newspapers laden by wood mulch on top for a few weeks in summer.
You can also control the height of the plants by cutting down the stems of plants, especially cold-season species, in late spring. If cold-season Wildrye growing vigorously and tall in late Spring, you will see that other plants would grow tall to compete. The overall look is a bit unkempt for people whose eyes are trained by horticultural gardens. You can selectively control the height of some plants by cutting the stems at certain height in the spring. They may bloom slightly later in season but they are fine.
You need a real plan for controlling invasive plants. Invasive plants are so permeated throughout the region, they come to your plots in all manners and forms. If it is just half an acre or even an acre, you could set aside one hour a week to control invasive plants. In my own garden (the front is a native pollinator garden and the backyard is like a woody old field), I spend an hour a month to control invasive weeds. It's not perfect, but it's sufficient. You decide what works for you and how much work you want to invest, and do not bite more than you could chew. The rest of the plots can be mowed regularly but infrequently. If you choose the right native plants, they will spill over as the ground is gradually improving through native grasses.