Meadow, meadow. Three meadow styles.

It was like an Impressionist painting but in real life – a pictorial meadow at Trentham

It is compulsory that every garden in Britain have a meadow. Well, not quite law, perhaps, but certainly lore. We have watched the rise and rise of the meadow on our trips over the past decade. The trend is also evident in many European and North American gardens though it is not a style we have embraced in New Zealand yet. For years, I thought it would not work in our fertile and lush growing conditions. It has taken several visits looking at northern gardens to better understand meadow gardening.

In this country, we do not appear to have progressed past the point where we see ‘meadows’ as dense sowings of annual flowers loosely described as ‘wildflowers’. That is plants like the red corn poppies, cornflowers and cosmos, though they are certainly not wildflowers of New Zealand. But there are different approaches to establishing a meadow.

A perennial meadow, the work of  Professor Nigel Dunnett at Trentham Gardens near Stoke on Trent

If you want to see flowery meads at their prettiest, type in ‘Pictorial Meadows’ on Google or Facebook and prepare to be blown away by the beauty. This is the commercial arm of the work that has been done though the landscape department of the University of Sheffield, spearheaded by Professors Nigel Dunnett and James Hitchmough. It is a whole subsection of the naturalistic gardening movement that is so dominant in Britain and elsewhere today, to the extent that it is now referred to as the ‘Sheffield School’. It has layers of complexity and sophistication that take it way beyond the scattering of a few random seed mixes, predicated instead on sustainable eco systems with a whole swag or research going into their seed selection.

We were delighted by the perennial meadows which were the work of Dunnett at Trentham Gardens near Stoke on Trent, just as we were entranced by the Hitchmough Missouri Meadow at Wisley in its early days. This is wildflower gardening taken to new heights altogether. Their annual meadows are glorious but it is the long term meadows that are environmentally significant. The maturing plantings around Olympic Park in London are an example of those.

Molinia meadow at Bury Court with pink Trifolium incarnatum (Italian clover)

At the other end of the scale are tightly managed meadow gardens. The pre-eminent Dutch designer, Piet Oudolf does some these creations. Beautifully refined meadows of shimmering molinia grass with restrained use of flowering plants. Interestingly, the owner of one of these Oudolf meadows, John Coke of Bury Court, told me that it was the highest maintenance area of his garden, to keep it looking that good. There is a lesson in there somewhere but it looked charmingly simple.

A natural orchard meadow in a private garden in the Cotswolds, designed by leading UK landscaper, Dan Pearson

Maximum brownie points are earned by those folk who encourage natural meadows in their garden. In other words, they stop regular mowing of the grass or cultivating the area and let plants naturalise.  The Royal Horticultural Society does this in large areas now. We particularly noted it at RHS Rosemoor but also in private gardens, often in an orchard area. Over time, there will be an increase in plant diversity in these meadows that evolve with minimal management. It is also the style of meadow that New Zealanders will find most problematic. For we are more likely to judge it as weedy, with rank, overgrown grass.

The problem is that the wildflowers in a natural meadow – be they daisies, dandelions, buttercup or clover in the initial stages – are deemed weeds here whereas they are genuine wild flowers in their home environments. We tend to apply different standards to long grass and wild areas than we apply to gardened areas and ‘proper lawn’, where imported plants are absolutely fine.

Natural meadows have been encouraged in areas which appeared to have been previously mown grass at Rosemoor

What all these meadows have in common is a concern with bio-diversity and ecologically friendly gardening, providing habitat for all manner of living organisms, insects and animals, while looking attractive at the same time. All these meadows are alive with insect life – buzzing with bees and attracting many butterflies along with a wide range of other insects.  The RHS has taken a lead in educating people on the environmental benefits of meadows. Generally, plants as close to their natural form as possible are used (so species rather than overbred hybrids).

A meadow garden is simulating the wild but modifying it to a garden setting. It has some history in English gardening and was espoused by the late Christopher Lloyd at Great Dixter. Fertility is kept low to reduce competition from overly vigorous grasses and it is usual to incorporate yellow rattle, a parasitic plant that weakens the roots of grasses. In autumn, the meadow is mown and left to lie for about ten days, allowing the seed to fall. The area is then raked to keep fertility low and left to come again in spring. There is minimal cultivation, no spraying and extremely low intervention.

Our meadow at home is progressing. In autumn, the long grass was cut with our sickle-bar mower and we had some debate about whether we could just leave the long grass in situ. But there was so much that it resembled hay and, in the end, we raked most of it up once it had dried. It may take effort at the time, but not mowing the area every few weeks certainly reduces the carbon footprint and allows greater diversity in that environment. And we love the look.


This is the article that led to my resignation from The New Zealand Gardener magazine – irreconcilable differences when it came to photo selection. The article will not, therefore, be published in the November issue. 

Trentham Gardens again

20 thoughts on “Meadow, meadow. Three meadow styles.

  1. Philippa Foes-Lamb

    Hi honey, am I allowed to say ”more fool them!!”… This is wonderful and the photographs are so beautiful! I loved reading this! I get great joy from the slope down to our pond when the lawn is a bit long and it is smothered with daisy and buttercup flowers! The same applies to our paddock as we head into summer! It always seems a shame to mow it! I’m going to suggest John mows a few ”paths” through our paddock to see how it looks. Here we do have to be mindful of having too much long dry grass in summer so it may be a spring project for next year!

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Oh thank you, Philippa. Your encouragement is much appreciated. Maybe suggest to John he now triple width paths and call them fire breaks?

  2. Lois E Broom

    I have always enjoyed having an area somewhere I call the fairies garden, an area I try to let grow as it wishes, to a certain extent, even on a quarter acre plot, and now and then throw in an odd selection of flowers seeds which can choose whether to grow or not. But with the house I am in now there is an area of lawn that had already decided it was going to be a bulb lawn and over the years they have multiplied until starting in early Spring it is an unfolding carpet of colour. It starts with daffodils which is slowly overtaken into dark gold freesias, then come the blue of the dutch iris, the orange of the sparaxis and finally the deep solid purples of a bulb that is similar to a sparaxis. They are just finishing now and I admit the lawn looks a mess as the long grass takes over and it wont be until late November when I’ll return it to some sort of lawn again.

  3. Maureen Sudlow

    I love meadows, but so often some of the imported grasses take over here in New Zealand and smother the flowers. I was interested in your comment about yellow rattle. Love your articles, and hope one day to see your garden.

  4. kathyhg7

    This is interesting to me, as late spring I let my orchard grass go and don’t mow it again till the end of summer/ early autumn. For two reasons – I get sick of mowing and I like the wild look, or I think I do. Our garden is an established one but when we moved to it we planted fruit trees in what was then an open lawn area. I think the longer grass helps differentiate the different areas. Even when I mow it I have it at a higher level than the lawn grass around the perimeter of it. But (sigh) it does have a lush, weedy look to it at times. I don’t mind dandelions and clover and other flowering weeds, though maybe not the thistles. I am possibly partly embarrassed about it and a bit unsure if I am doing the right thing…am I letting bad weeds get away with it? How much should I interfere?

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      And there you capture exactly the issues we need to work out in NZ – how much to leave and what to remove. Mark dislikes a plant he calls the stinking Billy goat weed – it may be a salvia. I don’t want thistles, we have a dangerous looking carex I dig out and I am not so keen on flowering docks. It is all trial and error as we learn to manage it in our climate. You are absolutely right about varying the mowers height to differentiate different areas – a simple and very effective technique.

  5. Russ Harp

    I’m so sad that you have resigned from the magazine, you’re one of my must reads along with our residency Kapiti gardener. I’m attempting to do a little version of a meadow In my orchard area too.. I’m originally from Stoke too so have loved your posts about Trentham Gardens as I virtually grew up there.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      You are very kind, Russ. What is interesting about Trentham is a remarkably high level of *community ownership* dating down many decades, even though it has always been privately owned.

  6. Diana Studer

    the nearest we come to ‘meadow’ are neighbours who are willing to allow tiny pink Oxalis to flourish in their lawn.
    Your last picture is utter perfection, and I look forward to seeing the Olympic Park meadows again.

  7. Rosemary Steele

    Your leaving the NZG is their loss: however provided you keep up this column those who appreciate you will still get the “good stuff”. NZG has, in my opinion become really dumbed down recently. I wonder if here in NZ we should look at the plants that have survived in old abandoned house sites and use them if we are going to create meadows. I garden right next to an old house site and there are Eucomis Marvel of Peru and an old fashioned calla growing happily despite 25 years of grazing by stock. Similarly, you often see snowflakes, belladonnas, montbretia, sparaxis, bluebells and of course daffodils. So many grasses here are really invasive or blanket everything (like Yorkshire fog!) and I suspect that using rattle (to semi-parasitise it) is the way to go to reduce their vigour.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      I don’t even know if yellow rattle is in the country. And if it isn’t, I doubt our farming sector wants it introduced. But that is an interesting idea to look to what has survived on abandoned house sites.

  8. Mark Hubbard

    It’s a pity about the NZ Gardener. We still get to read you here, so fine for your blog following, but always a shame to lose a source of income.

    I love these meadows. Never had a place big enough to even moot this as an option. Closest I came was when I turned an unused vege garden in Geraldine to a cottage garden – I love cottage gardens – which was ultimately unsuccessful as by third year I’d lost 90% of the diversity I started out with as the fittest flowers for the region conquered all others. Takes a lot of time, local knowledge, and effort to get that natural, no-effort-required look.

    Hope you find another paid outlet for your work soon.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      That is true – that in a laissez faire regime, the diversity can diminish over time and the stronger growing thugs dominate. I expect in another 15 years or so of trial and error, we will have got grips with these issues.
      Thanks for your other comments. It is a bit galling when one has written something and sent it in with photos, ready to go, and they decide not to use it – not for quality issues but editorial whim. Better off out of there. Best gig I had was with Waikato Times – lousy pay but fantastic editor who gave me the freedom to do what I wanted within agreed parameters and who defended my work. But these things come and go.

  9. Wynne Price

    Thank you for your ongoing notes about the development of your Taranaki meadow. We had all the big overgrown self-sow trees removed from the steep west facing slope of our section a few years back – on the basis that as we get older we will not be able to maintain the area. What a wonderful difference it has made! More sun in to the house (kitchen and study). We can see the clouds, the small planes, and the sunrise in the east now, as well as the weather sweeping in from the south and north. We sowed the area with rye grass, which looks wonderful when the wind blows across it. And the birds! We have many more tui racing across our section now that they have an unhindered flight path down to the feeders. We had a Rosella visiting last summer as well as two welcome swallows – attracted by the open clay bank where we planted pimeleas. Whether we can call a steep rye grass bank a meadow is debatable, but we are very happy with it.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Shimmering rye grass can indeed be a beauteous sight without the addition of a whole lot of extras. I think it was rye grass I photographed at Hatfield House in London.

  10. Robyn Wix

    Hi Abbie,
    I just want to thank you for recommending Dan Pearson’ “Natural Selection, A year in the garden”.
    I’ve had to wait such a long time to get it through the library but it is such a delightful read I think I’ll go and buy myself a copy as I’m sure it’s a book you come back to time and time again.
    His delight in the subject matter and beautifully descriptive writing makes me realise that such a lot of our lives are on auto-pilot. To stop and view the small joyous things around us brings us back into balance to rejoice the beauty of each season.

    Would love to know if you’ve ever been to the Millenium Garden Show in Hokkaido?
    Thanks again Robyn

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Robyn, I am so glad you have enjoyed reading it. It is certainly a book with its own gentle pace and an amazing eye for detail. I have not been to Japan but I would like to go. I have always been a little anxious about travelling there independently – there are easier countries to travel in as a stranger than Japan, I think.

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