Like the world, gardening is going through a period of substantial change. Subjects of climate change and sustainability are (hopefully) changing the way we garden.
Big issues such as herbicide/pesticide and single use/non recyclable plastic use (something which the horticultural community is very much guilty of) are being tackled. Pollinating insects essential to food production, bio fuels, clothes and fabric production, building materials, medicines and much more continue to decline. Awareness of the negative effects to wildlife and humans alike is increasing and alternatives to traditional garden chemical use are increasingly available. Manufacturers are turning to alternatives to the traditional black plastic pots and trays, which cannot be recycled due the limitations of the technology used in the recycling process. The world is slowly waking up to the fact that cultivation of the soil, and ploughing en masse, releases stored carbon into the atmosphere.
The loss of wild habitat and increasing urban development and separation from nature is believed to have a negative psychological impact too and contact with nature can improve your mental and physical wellbeing.
As a result concepts such as working with the land rather than battling against it, rewilding, ‘greening the grey’ and generally a more ‘hand’s off’ approach to gardening is now very much on trend. More thought and attention is being given to drought and drench tolerant forms of planting in response to climate change. Some traditional horticultural production and gardening methods are looking increasingly outdated, especially in terms of their safety to life, their carbon footprint and plastic waste.
As a response to all these pressures gardens themselves are changing. In the past gardeners may have rejected a more hand’s off approach to gardening, being contrary to the horticultural attitudes of what is considered ‘good gardening’ of the time. The New Perennial movement that appeared in the 1990s and has continued ever since has popularised the naturalistic look in gardens. A natural progression, meadow making or leaving an area of lawn to grow in gardens is becoming more popular.
Gardens can offer a means of sanctuary to insects away from the farmer’s crop sprayer and concrete deserts. Manicured lawns are a biodiversity desert, and the perfect sward is both labour and fuel intensive. So how about giving over some of your lawn to a wildlife rich meadow instead? Meadows can be a part of the solution to all these gardening challenges and offer the gardener a more healthy and sustainable, low input and high impact way of gardening.
Meadows don’t require deadheading, regular cultivation of soil, fertilizing, or other form of cossetting, and once established they need no irrigation. By leaving the plants to set seed as they would do in their native habitat the planting will sustain itself year after year. Select the right non-dominating plants for the right place and they will eventually settle into a community in harmony with one another all by themselves. Typically all that is required maintenance-wise from the gardener is an annual cut or two to reduce the grass and disperse the seed.
What is a meadow?
The term meadow is generally used as a bit of a catch all term and over the years the terms meadow, cornfield, prairie and steppe have all become a bit conflated. The names themselves only add to the confusion; the French word ‘prairie’, after which the North American prairies are named, means ‘meadow’. There are even two distinct types of prairie, with a transitional third prairie nestled between the two! To make matters worse, the Royal Horticultural Society (article ‘Steppe by steppe’ May 2017) refers to the prairies, the South African Drakensberg and the Eurasian steppe, all as steppes.
Meadows are open grasslands containing herbaceous perennial flora cut for hay and for the gardener this has one obvious benefit, it need only be cut down once or twice a year and the material you remove can be easily composted.
Steppes are considerably more arid than grass-based meadows and contain woody shrubs and sub-shrubs. Cornfields are fields of non-woody/non-grass annual flowering species that must be cultivated annually to perpetuate.
Aside from containing quite different species, our western european meadows grow in less extreme climactic conditions and leaner soils than the long and short grass prairies. But the prairies’ adaptation to more extreme temperatures and the late summer to autumn flowering season is what makes them of particular interest to the european gardener.
In the garden there is every reason to use natives, although not exclusively. Native european flowering plants are likely to be adapted to your weather and soil conditions and so more likely to survive in persist in the garden. Wildlife will have evolved to benefit from it. That said, natives may result in a short period of flowering, typically flowering before mid-summer. Using a mix of natives and non-natives in the garden, such as those from North America, can extend the flowering period into autumn. Studies have shown that a mix of native and non-native plants is best for native wildlife, as this extends the range of sources and the period during which nectar is available to them.
But you can’t just throw any plants together and expect them to thrive in the conditions you have, or co-exist peacefully as a relatively stable community without wiping out some of their neighbours or taking over entirely. Specialist seed companies, such as Pictoral Meadows, do offer worldwide a range of seed mixes for different sun exposures and soil conditions. For a truly tailored planting, choose a planting designer.
Here in France there are two methods of making a meadow: sow seed, or plant directly into existing grass with plugs/small plants (I am yet to have found a supplier in France of meadow turf, so if anyone knows of one do let me know). In either case, the key objective is to keep grass and weeds at bay whilst your chosen planting establishes itself. Keeping nutrient levels low restricts grass and weed growth and keeps plants from flopping everywhere.
Whichever method you choose do it in the autumn. For seed this will reflect the natural germination period of many species that germinate when the rains arrive in autumn, or indeed require a cold winter to burst into life the following spring. For planting small plants directly into lawn, the soil will still have some warmth to encourage some root growth before winter and the plant will benefit from the rains setting it up well for the following spring and summer. Do it too late, say in spring, and and you may lose a lot of seed to nesting birds or your young plants might not be sufficiently established to survive the summer without irrigation.
Choose your seed carefully. You will want the seed mix to contain plants that will survive the levels of sun and soil type you are giving them as well as the moisture levels available to them. Your seed mix should contain some high impact annuals and biennial plants, as well as perennial plants. Long term the perennials will form the backbone of your planting, but they will be a little slower to establish so annuals and biennials are essential to fill the gaps that would be otherwise become occupied by undesirable weeds. These annuals and biennials will become less over time as the perennials assert themselves and the aesthetic starts to take shape, but this is the intended natural order of things.
Scalp the chosen area of ground by removing the turf. Rake the soil just to break the surface only. Don’t cultivate the soil; it is bad for the climate, for the soil and you will only bring weed seeds to the surface, which will then germinate. Instead, apply a sowing mulch of sharp sand to keep soil borne weeds from germinating and nutrient levels low. Broadcast sow the seed into the surface of the sand, rake over and tread to firm. If cats or other animals digging is an issue, peg a jute matting over the top. The plants will grow through the matting. The jute will decompose naturally over the course of 2 or 3 years, which is sufficient time for the ground to consolidate naturally and the planting to thicken sufficiently that cats no longer become an issue. Finally, water well.
The alternative method is to plant young plants directly into the lawn and leave them and the lawn to grow together. Planting with young plants in pots of between 8cm and 1 litre in size helps with establishment and long term drought tolerance.
This method has some advantages as it is a bit more flexible than by seed. You can undertake planting in late autumn or winter, if you were a bit slow off the mark (although early autumn is still optimal), as soil warmth is not required for germination. There is less ground preparation involved and the result is truer to the eventual planting you intend. You can be less random with this approach as it allows the gardener to be more specific with regards to plant positions and create plant associations, if they so desire, a little more like one might with a traditional border.
Prepare the area by cutting the grass short with a mower on your lowest setting. Don’t worry if it scalps the grass in places. Next, scarify the grass hard to really knock it back. Punish it and remove all the grass clippings and other material. Don’t encourage the grass by leaving the clippings in situ. Dig small holes and plant. Don’t fertilise or mulch, you will only encourage the grass around it to grow well and smother the plant. Water the plants in well.
Whether you choose to start your meadow from seed or young plants, I recommend an overseeding of yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor). This wildflower is hemi parasitic, which allows it to hold back the growth of grasses by taking some of its nitrogen and help prevent grasses from eventually crowding out the flowering plants. Do seed sparingly and where most needed however: contrary to popular belief they are not hemi-parasitic on grasses only and will supress the growth of your flowering plants if used too densely and indiscriminately.
I am currently experimenting with establishing a meadow comprising a mix of natives and non-natives by planting young plants directly into existing grass, a method favoured Professor Nigel Dunnett.
My grass grew last year much more strongly than I anticipated, so this year in addition to increasing the density of the flowering plants, and giving the grass another beating, I will be adding yellow rattle. I will be posting my progress on my instagram account. If you have any photographs of your own efforts this year to share I would love to see them.
If you would like help with installing a bespoke meadow planting in your garden, please get in touch here.