“Wow! Moved to tears at the beauty around the river, couldn’t drink it in fast enough! Well done! ❤️” (Thanks, Amanda and Tim.)
I can admit now that the aspect that worried me most about opening the garden after seven years was how people would react to the meadow we are developing where it was formerly all neatly mown parkland. Would others like it as much as we do or would some visitors criticise it for being ‘full of weeds’?
There is no doubt that the meadow harbours many plants that are generally regarded as weeds. Buttercups, dandelions and daisies abound, along with Herb Robert, the interloper Mark refers to as ‘stinking billygoat weed’ and Yorkshire fog grass. We try and keep in check the common, weedy crocosmia (orange montbretia) that washes down to us from upstream every flood. I dig out flowering docks and pull out cleavers and Mark will resort to spray to get the onion weed out before it gets too widespread – it too has washed into our place from upstream. We have a zero tolerance policy on tradescantia. But there are a lot of common weeds in amongst the long grass.
Maybe New Zealand is moving on from its dedication to gardens as an exercise in total control. At its worst, this may be seen in scalping lawns (cutting with the lawnmower set on the lowest level possible), spraying along all path edges with glyphosate and a scorched earth approach. Equally, it may be seen in gardens laid out in straight lines with rows of tidy edging plants or low hedges defining the end of paved areas or mown grass and the start of all garden beds. Certainly, visitors who have looked at the UK, European and American traditions of meadows and long grass could relate to what we are doing, but would New Zealanders understand it, I wondered.
The answer was a resounding yes. The comments we received in person were all very positive and it was the area of the garden that attracted most comment overall. The language in the visitor book kept using words like tranquil, inspiring, magical, relaxing and restful. It may be that anybody who didn’t like the meadow was too polite to say anything but we were only aware of one dissatisfied visitor. An older lady, she asked three of us in turn where the meadow was and insisted that somewhere there was a flat field of flowers. I am sorry we disappointed her but I am also surprised and reassured that there weren’t more people like her.
Maybe the reason our meadow works is in part because the rest of the garden is as close to free of weeds as humanly possible so it doesn’t look as if we are weedy everywhere. We love the softness of it, the more natural feel that comes with keeping a much lighter hand on its maintenance and management. It has certainly reduced the maintenance burden and is more environmentally friendly than keeping it as mown park. But it is the feeling of romance that comes with that softer approach that delights us. The plants that have naturalised within it are seasonal pleasures – from the common yellow primulas and bluebells to the irises, the lysichitons, Mark’s unexpected trilliums, even the white ox-eye daisy that is now settling in. We keep adding a bit more as we find plants that we think will fit the environment without becoming a pest.
It was affirming to have so many visitors who found our meadow just as charming as we do. I hope some will be inspired to find ways to implement this gentler style in their own home spaces. Also, given how wet the ten day festival was, it was reassuring to find that even in such conditions, the meadow can still be a delight and not just acres of unappealing, sodden, rank, long grass. That was a good test for it to pass.
One visitor solved a different problem for me. I was struggling to explain the bee and butterfly garden we refer to as the Iolanthe Garden a few weeks ago, landing eventually on the descriptor of it being a form of freestyle, transitional meadow. “I am English,” this visitor said. “So my favourite part of the whole place was the cottage garden.” It had not occurred to me that what I was planting was a cottage garden but I looked afresh. She was right. The Iolanthe Garden is a cottage garden. I shall describe it as such from now on. It makes simpler sense.