The Missouri Meadow in 2009, 2014 and 2017 (Part 3 of observations on the Sheffield School genre)

The Missouri Meadow in 2009

No discussion on the Sheffield School is complete with the Missouri Meadow at the RHS flagship garden, Wisley. This is the work of Professor James Hitchmough. We first saw it in late June 2009 and it was an absolute highlight of that trip for us. A joy. Inspiring.

The planting was started from seed sown in 2008 so we saw it in its second year. The selected mix had a heavy focus on North American perennials, hence the Missouri reference. It was still low growing and relatively sparse with gravel mulch. It was also completely different to its adjacent plantings – the Tom Stuart-Smith perennial beds that face the glasshouse directly across the lake and the Piet Oudolf twin borders up the slope. That distinction was a defining character of the area.

And again at the same time of the year in 2014

We next saw it five years later in the same month of the year in 2014. It had matured, changed. The juvenile charm had gone but it was still meadow-like with lots of variety and bloom. The demarcation lines had begun to blur as some plants formed sizeable clumps so it was not as clear where the Missouri Meadow ended and the Stuart-Smith plantings started. I think most of the echinaceas had gone. Ain’t that just the way? I don’t feel so bad about our failures to get them established as permanent plants.

And in 2017

Looking at the photos, I think there are lessons to be learned in  terms of the outcome of a very laissex faire maintenance regime. Meadow it may be but whether this is the meadow effect that is wanted is something else altogether. Also the growth habits of the different perennial plants has a major impact Where plants form solid, vase-shaped clumps, such as the day lily and red hot pokers (hemerocallis and kniphofia), over time they morph into a more traditional herbaceous planting where they will dominate more ephemeral plants and choke them out. Plants which gently spread, rather than clump, like the geraniums and achilleas, retain more of a meadow feel in the longer term. Many of these are quite shallow-rooted so they can get out-competed by more determined neighbours. I am no longer clear where the meadow planting by Hitchmough meets the perennial planting of Stuart-Smith so I am only guessing that the kniphofia may be the former and the hemerocallis the latter.

 

2009

2014

Three years on, we were looking forward to seeing the Missouri Meadow again in 2017. Same time of the year (note to self: it is time I booked these trips at a different time of the year). One-Who-Knows warned us that we may be disappointed. I would say more interested, than disappointed.

It wasn’t ALL like this in 2017, but there was enough of it to be a worry

Most of it was no longer a visual delight, though it may well be eyecatching for a few weeks when the aster flowers, turning it into a sea of blue. I am deducing it is A. oolentangiensis, as named on the display board, that has colonised the largest area and is on track to smother everything else out. It would seem a problem for Wisley staff in that they cannot continue to leave the area to evolve because it is in a prominent location, taking up substantial space. Garden visitors are more likely to judge on immediate appearances than take an interest in the evolution of a naturalistic planting. The inclusion of this aster in the original mix appears not to have been a good long-term decision for the conditions and climate at Wisley. I wonder if it has been dropped from subsequent seed mixes from the Sheffield School?

Of course there is trial and error in this new wave gardening and that is one of the roles taken on by the Royal Horticultural Society in collaboration with others. Mark observed that the whole area had been in for nine years, requiring very few resources and, seemingly, little maintenance. If it needs a major reworking once a decade, that is still a lot less input than more traditional perennial plantings in herbaceous borders.

As I understand it, the aim of the Sheffield School is to create self-sustaining eco-systems that don’t require even that level of intervention. It will be interesting to see whether the higher proportion of grasses at Olympic Park overwhelm the pretty perennials over time or whether the current balance is maintained. The extensive recent plantings by Hitchmough’s colleague, Nigel Dunnett, at Trentham Park are currently at the show stopping stage of gorgeousness. More on these in a post to come. No doubt the experience gained from the Missouri Meadow will have been applied to these newer plantings in some way or another. And we will continue to follow with interest what the Wisley staff decide to do with their earlier example of a managed meadow of predominantly American perennials.

The Dunnett plantings at Trentham Gardens are like a pointillist painting from the Impressionist era at this time

There is a quandary in gardening: when you have a style that looks its most appealing and delightful when juvenile, do you commit to returning that area to its juvenility from time to time in the ongoing attempt to recapture the charm? Wisley is not alone in having that problem. I see domestic gardeners do it all the time – hacking back shrubs like azaleas and camellias to ground level to encourage them to “come again” amongst other examples of gardening brutalism. We lean more to celebrating maturity and moving on, probably in life as well as gardening.

Will the Missouri Meadow be developed further or should it be wiped and resown to achieve that early charm again?

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8 thoughts on “The Missouri Meadow in 2009, 2014 and 2017 (Part 3 of observations on the Sheffield School genre)

  1. Ray

    Really interesting I see I will have to do some serious reading on the subject.
    But as a first thought is it part of the human psyche to see a “natural” landscape and try and maintain that even though Mother Nature is determined to push on with her plan.
    Thinking the Mckenzie basin which we see as a grassland but was a forest and will be again if nature has its way, or the “english ” landscape that has been manicured for 1000s of years.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      I have been pondering this and decided no. I think in times gone by, humans probably regarded nature with a mix of fear and gratitude which meant there was considerable respect. In modern times, I fear too many now regard nature as a resource to be bent to human will, failing entirely to see that humanity is dependent on nature to survive but the reciprocal of that is not true. And there are some who, in disagreeing with that as a life principle, wish to return nature to some random past point in time, as viewed nostalgically through rose tinted spectacles. Could I suggest you look at Emma Marris who, in her book called Rambunctious Garden, is looking at the whole idea of conservation being equated with the restoration of some magic time that usually coincides with pre-European settlement – in the New World at least. Yet our landscape in NZ had already been heavily modified by tangata whenua before European settlement. Wiping out the mega herbivores was a major change. The whole idea of establishing new ecosystems to support nature in our current age is somewhat different – drawing on the the threads of what IS, rather than how things WERE.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      That is part of what we have been looking at. Meadow Theory 202, I call it. Still getting it clear in my own mind how this relates to our conditions.

  2. James

    Thank you for this valuable piece of long-term observation. I saw this meadow in 2015 and was very pleased with it (along with the Merton Borders in Oxford–I wonder what is happening there?). I’ve been reading Hitchmough’s new book with both pleasure and anxiety. The knowledge required to make these seed mixes is astounding (germination rates in various climates, aggressiveness of the plants, height, growing rate (up and out), an almost endless number of factors to be considered, then processed in spreadsheets). Your post gives us a very good overview of one example. We need more of this kind of observation. Too often, these plantings appear, are photographed, then forgotten. There is hope. I remember seeing one border at Hummelo that Piet Oudolf said had been in place for 25 years.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Thanks, James, I would not, however, equate what I have seen of Oudolf’s work with these Sheffield meadows. I can line up the photos of the Wisley Oudolf borders as well – and will do shortly – but my overall impression is that it has not changed much at all in the time we have been viewing it. Oudolf has given a model for managing herbaceous plantings with a hugely reduced input (from memory, I think we were told the Wisley borders required a third as much input as the more traditional borders) but they are still having some management whereas the Sheffield meadows are intended to evolve into self sustaining eco-systems. Curiously, John Coke at Bury Court told us that his shimmering, grassy meadow needed more work to keep it looking that way than any other part of the garden. I am keeping an open mind on how long term these Sheffield meadows are but glory be, what a joy they are in the short term! I was reading Dan Pearson on trialling the Dunnett seed mixes in his own garden so I went and had a look on line at these seed mixes. Dan was writing about the annual mixes which are great fun but not a long term option unless one then lets the area evolve into a meadow under its own steam where only the fit and determined varieties will survive and continue to seed down.

      As an aside, I appreciate your interest in this. I received more response to my simple post on the horror of the tanalised pine fence than to this one on the longer term future of the managed meadow – I think maybe the finer points of tracking may be a little esoteric for some.

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