We have spent a fair amount of time and energy examining meadow gardens and wildflower gardening over the years. It is not something we want to embark on lightly. With our growing conditions, the potential for unleashing a weedy mess is high. But crunch time is coming. What to do with the central court in our new garden? We do not want an actual tennis court. Nor do we want more lawn. We want something naturalistic, ecologically sound, relatively low maintenance and preferably wildly romantic.
Last year, I was still thinking of meadow-style and saved seeds of various large biennials and annuals that we could possibly use – Verbascum creticum, white foxgloves, nigella, even the red poppy. It takes A LOT of seed to sow an area as large as this and it was going to be expensive if we had to buy small packets to make up the chosen mix.
Flagged that plan. I may try it further out in the garden but in a smaller area. In the future. Maybe. This central court is too prominent and too large to experiment with random ‘wildflowers’ (not wild in NZ of course). It HAS to work rather than be experimental and to work in the longer term without creating a maintenance headache.
While I would love to try the perennial meadow style pioneered by Nigel Dunnett and the Sheffield Movement (Pictorial Meadows) that so entranced us at Trentham last year, I also know our limits. That work is the result of years of experimentation, learning and analysis by the protagonists and the plant selections are what works in the UK. We would be starting from scratch to find what works well and how to manage it in our very different climate and growing conditions. It may also look rather flat and contrived in a tightly contained garden rather than linking to the wider landscape with natural landform.
This court area is about 15 metres wide and at least 30 metres long. It is a rectangular, formal shape bounded by a low brick retaining wall (still under construction) and the long sides defined by formal plantings of Fairy Magnolia White (to be pleached in due course and clipped hedges of Camellia Fairy Blush. The steps still await construction, as do the large pergolas Mark really (really, really) wants at each end. It is flanked on one side by the new grass garden and on the other by the equally new lily border and the caterpillar garden, all of which I have written about in the last year.
The solution lay in what I have referred to as the grass garden. It isn’t really the grass garden that I envisaged at the start. It isn’t even the summer garden we initially called it, though it looks good in summer. It also looks good in spring, different but equally pleasing in autumn and has enough interest to carry it through winter. Basically, it is more an example twin herbaceous borders in a modern style, showing influences from a number of contemporary designers with some debt to Beth Chatto’s dry garden. I add Chatto, because we eventually worked out that one of the aspects that makes her dry garden so charming is that each plant stands in its own space, not jostling for room and melding into its neighbours as in classic herbaceous plantings where one aim is to have no ground space visible. It is that individual space that not only gives a very different feel – lighter, more spacious, when done with skill – but also makes maintenance far easier.
There is a school of thought that digging and dividing perennial plants is an unnecessary activity, devised by those who like to make work. And that may be true in some climates and some styles of gardening – an extension of the no-dig garden philosophy, even. One thing I have learned from experience is that if you dig and divide often, it is not a big task to be feared. It is digging over-large plants in hard, compacted soils that is difficult and heavy work. I had to get Lloyd (who does the heavy work here) to dig out the enormous Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’ clump that I then cut up with an old hand saw to get about a dozen sizeable pieces. I wasn’t sure how they would respond to such rough treatment but they thrived and looked good all year. They are still standing, erect and pale and have not been beaten down or fallen apart in heavy rain and wind, as well-established clumps often do.
This week, I plan to dig and divide all the clumps of large grasses that I planted at this time last year. I shall report further if it turns out to be harder than I expect it to be, but the ground is still well cultivated and friable and I am not anticipating a killer task. I have promised some divisions to a colleague but there will be A LOT of miscanthus, Stipa gigantea and Calamgrostris ‘Karl Foerster’, along with our native Anemanthele lessoniana, toetoe (now an austroderia but formerly known as a cortaderia) and a large but graceful brown tussock that we have yet to find the name of. And there is the solution for the new court garden.
It is to be the new grass garden, drawing on lessons learned from both Piet Oudolf and Christopher Bradley-Hole. In that large, geometric area, confined by a hard-edged boundary, I envisage an immersive experience – wandering informal paths through plantings that are shoulder high (at least when in flower), predominantly grasses. Waves of grasses (the Oudolf influence) in a limited selection. With just a few tall Verbascum creticum and foxgloves in white and pale apricot (we have both a-plenty) and maybe Ammi majus and some white daisy type plant which I have yet to find. But the big grasses will be the feature. So more ‘New Perennials’, or modern prairie on steroids than meadow.
It will take a year or two to build up enough plants to fill the area. But now that I have a plan, I am impatient to get started. The first task will be to clear the area of grass and weeds and then rotary hoe it. It will happen. It just won’t be instant.
Postscript: I have zero intention of lifting these grasses in the court garden every year. They will be planted and left, with maybe a cut around the outside from time to time to reduce the spread.