We gave our eldest a particularly good book on American wildflower and prairie gardens for Christmas and her eyes lit up. It seemed a moment of triumph in parenting which I have not seen recorded before – the age when children of gardening parents are delighted to be given such a gift. There was a touch of envy from us. It was a lovely book but also a gardening genre which is largely beyond our reach.
Prairie gardens and meadow gardens are not compatible with good dairy country so this garden style is likely to be unattainable for a fair swag of readers too, but it doesn’t mean we can’t admire it elsewhere. Dairy country by definition has high fertility and good rainfall along with temperatures that are mild enough to grow grass strongly all year round. That is not prairie territory.
Our eldest lives in Canberra which offers perfect conditions. It has low rainfall, low fertility and is very cold and dry in winter (which stops pretty much all plant growth) and very hot and dry in summer. Pasture grasses and weeds will not overtake the chosen plants. Annuals and perennials will not romp away with lush growth that gets flattened here by frequent heavy downpours. Instead, plants will hang in and grow slowly, tenaciously putting down roots in search of elusive moisture and sustenance and flower stems will be much shorter and sturdier. Prairie conditions, in fact. So it is perfectly realistic to think that one can create a garden sward of tough perennials and ornamental grasses which will sway in the wind and put up a succession of blooms over a period of several months.
Essentially a meadow garden is made up of wild flowers as close to their natural form as possible, often natives. This means shunning modern, sometimes over-bred hybrids which tend to go for much larger flowers and compact, bushy growth. A meadow garden is simulating the wild but modifying it to a garden setting. There is a long tradition in English gardening and the routines are well known. It relies on low fertility to keep down competing grasses and the parasitic plant referred to as Yellow Rattle is often introduced because it weakens the roots of grasses.
At the end of the season in autumn, the meadow is mown and left to lie for a week or maybe two. This allows the seed to fall out of the spent plants. After 10 days, the mown area is raked free of the cut vegetation to keep fertility low. The area is then left to come again the following spring.
Can you imagine doing that in dairy country? It will not work.
The advice I saw in a NZ magazine, which I will not name here, to sow your wildflower garden into an area which you have cultivated and fed to the max with proprietary fertilisers and then to sow again in mid season if it starts to pass over is not a wildflower garden at all. It is simply mixed annuals.
Introduce grasses to the mix along with at least some North American native flowers and your meadow garden becomes a prairie garden, more or less. Cone flowers (echinacea), ox-eye daisies (Heliopsis helianthoides), monardas, Californian poppies (properly called eschsholtzias but I have to check the spelling every time) – North America is rich in wildflowers. The prairie garden has been embraced by contemporary European and UK gardens and designers and I can see why. Clumps of grasses are deathly dull when planted in groups or when mass planted to achieve the motorway embankment look, but take on huge charm in the company of a wide range of flowering plants, both perennials and annuals.
What characterises both meadow and prairie gardens is an absence of woody plants, an absence of layers (plants tend to be of a similar, low height), a higher tolerance of weeds and seasonality – in winter there is no garden at all to speak of. It is a much more relaxed style, hugely different to how many of us choose to garden. It can also be environmentally sound, especially in harsh climates, because it provides food for birds and insects while anchoring the soil in windy conditions with no fertiliser inputs or spraying.
In season, such gardens are infinitely charming in all their manifestations. It has a lot to do with the simplicity and the relaxed style. We are still wondering whether we can manage something similar here in a new garden we have planned but we are fighting nature and will have to choose plants carefully as well as overcoming our ingrained antipathy to weeds and a belief that gardens should look good for all twelve months of the year.
Earlier last month, I visited a field of bearded iris in flower. I don’t want to overstate the case. It was a nursery (http://www.theirisboutique.co.nz/) growing the iris rhizomes in rows in a field and there were a fair number weeds, to the embarrassment of the owner. It was also an absolute delight which made me smile.
It is the simplicity of an expanse of flowers in a field situation which appeals. Gardens do not have to be heavily designed and intensively maintained with high quality permanent plantings of trees and shrubs to make one’s heart sing.
First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.