Meadow-in-a-can brings the prairies to the inner city

For years they had been just so many rubble-strewn acres scattered about the South Bronx. Then, quite suddenly last year, the wildflowers and grasses moved in. Almost overnight, it seemed, 18 blighted city acres became a picturesque meadow.

It took planning and effort on the part of many people, but the horticultural product that made it all possible is a wildflower-and-grass mix that comes in a can. Gene Milstein, president of Applewood Seed Company, Golden, Colo., calls it Mini-Meadow.

Mr. Milstein developed the product because of a trend toward low-maintenance gardening that is gathering momentum around the country.

Everyone, it seems, loves a green and well-groomed lawn, but not the hours and expense that go into keeping it that way. So, increasingly, gardeners are opting for a smaller lawn and turning to more natural landscaping for the bulk of the yard.

Simply letting nature take over isn't always wise (over much of the country an impenetrable miniature forest is the result). Mr. Milstein suggests meadow-gardening as a pleasing option.

The flowers and grasses, having come in from the wild, can look after themselves the way domesticated hybrids never could. They don't overwhelm the place, nor do they block the view. They can be walked in and will yield flowers by the armful. Once established, these little meadows renew themselves almost indefinitely.

While a meadow will look after itself with only minimal care, it does require a little effort to get the whole thing going. In the South Bronx project, for example, the rubble was cleared away and the soil tilled to a depth of six inches. Some composted manure from the Bronx zoo was hauled in to add a little organic matter to the almost sterile soil. Hydroseeding was employed, a method in which the seed is mixed with wood-fiber mulch and sprayed on the soil.

Here's how the home gardener would go about establishing a mini-meadow:

* Choose an area that gets at least four hours, and preferably more, of full sun every day.

* Remove all existing vegetation, and dig or till the soil to a depth of 6 inches, incorporating some peat or compost. Do not add any commercial fertilizer unless the soil is very poor. Remember that wild varieties adapt to a tougher situation than is generally found in a garden.

* Broadcast the seed in the early spring or late fall and lightly rake it into the soil.

* After planting, the area should be kept moist for the first three to six weeks, or until the seedlings are established. After this, only occasional waterings might be necessary in moist climate areas. In dry climates, water every two to three weeks.

The seed in the meadow mix includes two grasses, both fescues that are tough but not aggressive. They create the meadowlike effect and help to stabilize the soil, yet do not crowd out the flowers. The flower varieties vary, depending on whether the climate they are destined for is a moist or dry one. Each mix contains 16 or more varieties, including annuals, biennials, and perennials.

Black-eyed Susan, ox-eye daisy, columbine, forget-me-not, Johnny-jump-up, and larkspur are prevalent in the mix for moist climates; the dry-climate mix includes baby's breath, bachelor's button, California poppy, yarrow, painted daisy, and baby snapdragon.

Each can of Mini-Meadow contains enough seeds for 350 square feet. For more information write to Applewood Seed Company, PO Box 10761, Edgemont Station, Golden, Colo. 80401.

Meanwhile, in New York, the nonprofit Bronx Frontier Development Corporation, which sponsored the wildflower project, reports that land values have so improved because of what amounts to the beautification of the abandoned areas that private companies now are planning to develop 75 percent of the acreage.

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