Wildflowers and Meadow Gardens

We had cause to go to Auckland last week and were reminded once again of the charm of the wildflower plantings down the centre of the motorway. Driving out of the city on Saturday morning, we slowed to the expected crawl. Auckland can lay claim to having the most expensive stretches of motorway built for moving high volumes of traffic at reasonably high speeds but in fact accommodating vehicles which are relatively frequently travelling at 10 km an hour. In this case, workmen were repairing a central crash barrier and this necessitated closing one lane entirely despite the very wide median strip. But it did mean we could enjoy the wild flowers at a crawl. It was the cosmos that dominated this autumn, both cerise and white along with a sprinkling of yellow daisies and something blue (we couldn’t stop to do a full identification). Wildflower and meadow plantings are exempt from the modern requirement for colour toning.

Many years ago when the children were little, we took them on a camping trip around Nelson and were enchanted by a meadow garden we found. It was a field of mixed annual flowers up to waist height and the charm lay in the simplicity and nostalgia, not in design, form or plant composition. We came home inspired and did a bit of dibbly dabbling and research before we came to the conclusion that this is a garden style best suited to harsher climates. The Auckland motorway median strip represents pretty harsh conditions.

USA is renowned for its prairie gardens where mixed grasses and wild flowers can co-exist and return every year to delight afresh. North America has many native wild flowers so these are growing in their natural habitat.

Similarly, Britain has long established meadow gardens where native wildflowers can live in amongst the grasses and meadow gardening is recognised as being of both ecological and aesthetic merit. Western Australia is known for its spectacular wild flower season and parts of Southern Africa must put up splendid seasonal displays with the wealth of different bulbs which are indigenous to that area.
New Zealand lacks most of the native wildflowers and bulbs which give rise to natural meadow gardens and the imports that have thrived here don’t quite cut the mustard. Arum lilies and agapanthus can not foot it with Britain’s ground orchids such as the dactylorhiza. Anything that naturalises in this country is more inclined to be a thug than a treasure. It is possible to manage a perennial meadow garden here but it is not the easy care style requiring minimum labour that it is in other countries. And wildflower meadows are even more difficult to manage, having to be treated as an annual labour of love rather than a self seeding, ongoing venture with just a once a year mow required.

I suspect that anywhere that is good dairy land is not going to be good wildflower or meadow country. The reliable rain, good soils and benign temperatures mean that we get rampant grass growth for most of the year. So the grasses choke out the wild flowers and discourage them from gently self seeding. And every gardener knows that weeds are thugs. Left to their own devices, the law of nature says the thugs will dominate and it only takes a year before the undesirable weeds have such a hold that the charm of the wildflower field or meadow has been swamped by dock, dandelion and hawkweed and you are faced by a paddock of out of control weeds.

Internationally, these wildflower displays occur in areas where summers are dry and often hot and where winters are very cold. Thus the plants stop growing in both summer and winter. The triggers for plants to grow in these conditions are either autumn rains or the rise in temperatures in spring. Plants under stress will often respond by putting on splendid floral displays (it is the survival urge to flower and set seed before they die) and the harsh conditions of summer drought can trigger flowering. In Taranaki, the message to most plants is just to keep on growing so we can end up with disproportionate amounts of green foliage instead of blooms.

All of this means that if you covet a field of charming, summer wild flowers, you are probably wasting your time unless you live in an area such as Pukearuhe or coastal Waverley where the poorer and drier conditions will accommodate them better. And you will have to create it with imported flowers. New Zealand evolved as forest in the main, so we lack the pretty seasonal annuals.

Meadow gardens can be managed here, sort of, though it is much easier to do it with bulbs that with annuals. By definition, a meadow garden should be low maintenance so you want to keep the thugs right out of it from the start. And if you are thinking of planting intensively with herbaceous perennials such as primulas, essentially you are creating an informal herbaceous drift rather than a meadow garden. A meadow garden is a mix of grasses and naturalised plants. In spring, many of us do it with daffodils, bluebells, snowflakes or, if you are Mark, proper snowdrops but really, a meadow garden should have a much wider range of plants all co-existing in a gentle sort of way. All we are doing with the bulbs is naturalising them rather than creating a self sustaining mixed habitat.

A wild garden is often included in large English gardens and it can sit quite happily alongside more formal areas of topiary or well tended borders. Sadly, we are resigned to the fact that this is not a technique readily transplanted here and the wild garden is almost guaranteed to look like an unloved and unkempt wasteland. But then we do have compensations. Here the impending winter is not a sign of low light levels, abominably short days, general greyness and a complete lack of flowers. The sasanqua camellias are already in flower and we will continue to flower different plants all through autumn and winter. It is probably only eight weeks or so until the magnolias in Powderham Street next to the radio station start to flower and then we can feel spring is imminent.

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