Tag Archives: meadow gardening in NZ

Six years on: meadow update

It is six years to the very day since we closed the garden to the public. And that means it is six years since we started to experiment with turning the park into a meadow. Up until that point, we mowed it all year – no easy task because it is undulating terrain across about four acres filled with specimen trees and shrubs and a stream. The areas that could not be mown – the stream banks and steepest gradients – were kept short with what we call a weedeater in New Zealand but many others know as a strimmer. It seemed important to maintain a similar level of control to that seen in public parks, even though this is a private garden.

Iris sibirica, Primula helodoxa and loads of buttercups

Six years on, how do we feel? We love it. It often makes my heart sing in ways in which the previous tight control of grass growth did not. It is a different mind-set altogether.

How it was, all mown, trimmed and tidy up until six years ago 

and how it looks today

We weren’t at all sure how it was going to work out. This is good dairying country which means we have verdant grass growth all year round, unchecked by summer droughts and winter cold. We have to mow grass twelve months of the year to keep it under control. And decades of gardening predicated on very tight weed control is hard to overcome. The love of meadows is inextricably linked to a higher tolerance for what are commonly called weeds. Buttercups, daisies, dandelions and Yorkshire fog, we have in abundance.

As it was before 

and as it is now. The orange azalea died and we removed the yellow flag irises on the grounds that they are a noxious weed by waterways

We were inspired to experiment with a softer edged, more romantic approach to gardening by our trips to the UK in particular, allied to growing concern that our approach to gardening carried a carbon input that was closer to a heavy hoof-print than a foot-print. We haven’t set about systematically measuring any increase in wildlife but we like to think that the changed approach is far kinder to nature. And as we age, we are also considering the labour input to the garden, given the fact that we have no plans to move off the property to a more suitable retirement home. We’d rather spend our energies on more constructive gardening activities than endlessly beating grass into obedient submission.

It is not a gardening style that will appeal to everybody. It is not neat and tidy. It does not show off man – and woman’s – ability to control nature to make it conform to the tight standards of suburban gardening. Some may look at it and think that it is uncontrolled, allowing the place to ‘go back’, although that is far from the truth. Meadows in the garden need management. It is not a question of just stepping back and letting it go. We still take out certain weeds, we mow paths, we manage the growth by mowing twice a year (in January and July), plant to enhance the richness of the meadow mix, we keep certain plants free from the rampant growth – so we keep an eye on it but with a much lighter hand.

As it was all mown (and scalped in places) with our much loved dog of the day, Zephyr

There is a problem with the frequent floods bringing unwanted weeds down from upstream which can then get established in the long grass before we have even spotted them. The war against wandering jew (Tradescantia fluminensis) and montbretia (Crocosmia x crocosmiiflora) will be without end unless upstream residents eliminate them. I am not keen on the docks and there is a nasty carex I dig out. But that is a smaller price to pay than trying to control every plant escape except paddock grass.

Just two years ago, our son cleared both big ponds of water weeds 

and already, they are back with a vengeance. Time to stop fighting them?

The next issue for us is to decide what to do with the two big ponds Mark put in back in the early 1990s. Our son raked them out last time he was home a couple of years ago but they are now congested with water weeds again. I have gone through every few years and raked the weeds out of the stream but it is heavy work and my back no longer appreciates it. All three of us here nurse our backs and wrists these days. I am now thinking that we live with what nature gives us. The stream flows well all year round so maybe we should just let it determine its own path and allow the ponds to silt up and return to bog or swamp. The irises, lysichitons and primulas are happy in bog conditions so maybe we are better to just concentrate of enriching the natural bog gardens rather than trying to keep a larger body of water visible. The stream is high in nutrients from dairy farm run-off (we can tell this by the particularly bright green shades of the weeds growing beneath the surface, as a water ecologist pointed out to us) so the water weeds will continue to thrive.

In another six years time, we may well have mega bog gardens but time will tell.

Rhododendron Barbara Jury 

Rhododendron nuttallii x sino nuttallii in the park meadow

Planting a perennial meadow

My current project is planting a perennial meadow. Not a wildflower meadow. Much and all as we find annuals like soldier poppies, blue cornflowers and cosmos hugely charming, they are not wildflowers to New Zealand and basically that is gardening with annuals, freshly sowing seed each season. That is not the way we garden.

After six years, the area ‘down below’, as Felix Jury used to call it, is now more meadow than park.

We have turned the park area into what I would call an enhanced meadow, allowing the paddock grasses and self-introductions to grow (the buttercups and daisies currently in flower are very pretty!) and enhancing it by adding other plants like Higo, Louisiana and Siberian irises, primulas, bluebells, narcissi, snowdrops and even trilliums grown amongst the grass.

The area to the right is called the Iolanthe garden, due to the presence of the original plant of Magnolia Iolanthe

I want a summer flowering meadow and for us, that means strong perennials. The Iolanthe garden offered around 600 square metres of chaotic and weedy space. It was the old vegetable garden until the original and splendid plant of Magnolia ‘Iolanthe’ grew so large that it cast too much summer shade. It then became a mishmash, deteriorating to a neglected wilderness beloved by butterflies and bees but not so much by humans. Mark has used it over the years as a trial ground for perennials where it really does sort out the survivors. In a garden the size of ours, buying a 10cm potted perennial and putting it straight into the garden is likely to mean that the poor wee thing will get ignored until it is either dead or romping away and out of control. We need to grow on these plants to trial them in our conditions, to assess their performance and to watch for weed potential as well as building them up to get sufficient numbers to make a statement when planted into the main gardens. But once planted out in the Iolanthe garden, they were never loved or nurtured.

At its best, Mark’s mishmash could look like this but never all of it at the same time and never for very long

The area contains a number of permanent plants and relics from past usage. There are so many citrus trees that it should eventually become a citrus grove but that will take a couple of decades. There is a grove of Daphne bholua at one end, a stand of sugar cane at the other, some mighty big inulas, far too many bluebells and annual forget-me-nots, though they look charming at the moment with the abundant parsley, the one surviving rhubarb plant, way too many self-sown hellebores, my green tea camellias, feijoas, self-sown yams and potatoes and a whole lot more, especially weeds. How to knit all this together into one semi-coherent vision? A casual meadow of perennials is my answer.

It is a big job. The soil, being ex-vegetable garden, is friable and easy to dig and there is a fair amount of perennial material there to lift and divide to get me started. But working amongst existing plants, especially permanent trees and shrubs, is much harder than starting with a blank slate. And the weed issue is major.

I often say that meadow management has a lot to do with your tolerance level for weeds. I know that we may not be able to keep this meadow as free of weeds as we expect to keep the more controlled herbaceous plantings, but I am trying to reduce their impact from the start. I hand weed to clear each area (easier on a sunny day now that we have sufficient heat in the sun to wilt the young weeds quickly so that they will not just grow again) and remove them. I am then planting perennials in random blocks but considered combinations. So, in one block I have put in a yellow variegated agapanthus with a deciduous yellow day lily (hemerocallis) and bluebells. I have just done a block with sedums (flower colour unknown at this stage) with blue perennial lobelia and seed of the white lychnis . Nerine bowdeni has been teamed with the dark pink Japanese anemone, deep burgundy eucomis with yellow crocosmia, Stipa gigantea with pink alstromeria and so on and so forth. All blending on the edges. Then I mulch heavily with the leaf mulch we bought in from the arborist.

A work in progress. It won’t look like a meadow until the plants knit together and the mulch is hidden

Fortunately our weed problems are all annual weeds. There are neither oxalis nor creeping weeds so if I stay vigilant this spring and take the ones that succeed in germinating and getting through the mulch, I am hoping the plants will spread sufficiently to knit together and form a barrier to shade out the weed seeds still in the soil.

That is the plan. I shall report on progress. My mental image is of a sea of flowers from spring to autumn, alive with butterflies and bees. Allowing some annuals and biennials to seed through and the use of assorted bulbs will blur the lines between the different blocks of plants, making it more meadow than perennial garden.  The budget for this newest area is zero dollars. I am simply working with material we already have here. When I think about it, this probably means there will be a lot of pink because that is the one colour I have not used in the other perennial gardens so the leftover plant options I am now using will be dominated by shades of pink.

The caterpillar garden – all blue, white and some purple, taller growing in the centre enclosures and low growing in the outer bays. Photo taken today in early spring. 

The perennial meadow will complete the sequence of summer gardens where we have put the focus on perennials and grasses. Starting from one side, we have the caterpillar garden which looks as if it will hit its stride this year.

The lily border – basically all OTT pink, red and white auratums but I am working on getting some white umbelliferous plants seeding down to extend the flowering. Photo taken last summer. 

The grass garden – mostly tall grassy plants with just the addition of pale apricot and white foxgloves, big salvias, yellow Verbascum creticum and a few other flowers. Photo taken today.

Next the lily border, then the big new grass garden (just coming into growth now after being planted six or eight weeks ago). Then the twin herbaceous borders and finally the perennial meadow – looser, multi coloured and much more casual.

The twin borders have every colour but little white and no pale or mid pink because we are after the brights. Photo taken last summer.

Each garden has been planned to have a different feel to it and, critically, there is little overlap of plants. My aim has been a different plant palette for each area. A few, like Verbena bonariensis and Orlaya grandiflora) are spreading themselves and the foxgloves will, too (no common pink ones allowed!). There are just a few other plants that I have used in two of the gardens but the vast majority of plants are used in one area only. I have never subscribed to that old rule of repeating plants ‘to achieve continuity’ because too often it just makes everything look the same. Also, this is not a place for treasures and special plants. These are bold, showy and vigorous plantings. The treasures belong in the more detailed rockery and woodland areas.

Roll on summer. Though, to be realistic, we should hit peak summer garden next year, not this summer. But at least we will get an indication this December through to April of how it will all come together.

 

 

 

The meadow, as we enter its sixth year

We are now entering our sixth year of managing our park as a meadow. Note the word ‘managing’. This is not just leaving it to its own devices but a much lighter touch than the previous mowing and weed control we used to practice. And in December, as in previous Decembers, my heart just fills with joy at the sight of the Higo iris in bloom. I love all times of the year in the garden – there is always something that delights me – but never more so than the iris meadow in the lead up to Christmas.

We have learned a lot in the five years past and I am sure we will continue learning. I was disconcerted to see cleavers moving in to a couple of areas. I just looked up its botanical name –  Galium aparine, which I have never even heard of before so I assume everybody knows them as cleavers. At least they are an annual weed that can be pulled out.

The tradescantia, pretty enough in flower, but arguably the worst weed of all

More alarming is the incidence of Tradescantia fluminiensis, better known as Wandering Jew. Mark has spent countless hours getting rid of this weed down the years. When we bought the property across the road 25 years ago, we acquired a stand of native tawa (Beilschmiedia tawa for overseas botanists) which was completely carpeted in tradescantia. It was a proud day when Mark announced  he had beaten it with a programme of determined eradication. Alas, he may have beaten it on our properties but every time we get a flood, more washes down from further upstream and every, wretched little bit grows. When we kept the grass short, it was easy to spot and remove immediately but in long grass, it damn well hides until we suddenly find another patch that escaped our notice. This will be an ongoing battle.

Having a stream flowing through brings responsibilities and these are weighing somewhat upon us. We worry that we are likely to be blamed for every escaped ornamental plant that establishes downstream, even if at least some are washed down from further upstream. The shiny leafed angelica, Angelica pachycarpa, somewhat more prized in overseas gardens but seen more as a weed here, has introduced itself from an upstream property.  Don’t believe the website that declares: “This is a bizarre and wonderful species of Angelica from New Zealand, and still fairly new to North American gardens”. It hails from Portugal.

I removed all the flag iris from by the water when I found out what a dangerous weed it is here, capable of forming solid islands of floating vegetation, blocking streams and estuaries.

To be honest, we figure that if the beautiful Higo irises establish themselves downstream, that may not matter. They are no risk that we can see. We worry about the Primula helodoxa, which are enormously rewarding as flowering plants but set prolific amounts of seed. We try and dead head them but there are so many that it is a hit and miss process. We are now thinking we should pull out the ones growing in the stream banks and contain it further back on dry land so the potential to seed down in the water is reduced. I am not getting too obsessed about them though. We have them near where the stream enters our place and while there are a few plants appearing further down (still on our place) it is not such a thick carpet as to shriek ‘noxious weed’. Besides, above our helodoxas, we can see we have seedlings that can only have come down from upstream neighbours.

Wachendorfia thyrsiflora – a triffid

We are, however, worried about the weed potential of Wachendorfia thyrsiflora.  It is very handsome, statuesque, even. There is no doubt about that. But it sets prolific amounts of seed and if you dig the plants out and leave them lying on the ground, they do not die. I discovered this. It is one we think we need to get back from the water. It is one thing managing a triffid of a plant on our place, it is another letting the seed fall into flowing water and potentially establish all the way down to the ocean.

Past experience has taught us that we can not get away with the traditional annual mowing of the meadow, just once a year in autumn. Our grass growth is so rampant that we have to do it twice and it seems that late January (so, mid-summer) and around June (mid-winter) are the optimal times.

Mown paths through the meadow. The clean bark on the right is a crepe myrtle

We have not done much yet to enrich the meadow mix. We are still waiting and watching to see what establishes itself. But Mark mentioned Verbena bonariensis as meadow option. It has light airy growth which would fit the meadow look, flowers for many months and is much loved by the bees. And it is an enthusiastic seeder though it remains to be seen whether it will self-seed in such a competitive environment. And I want more big, white daisies. I am trialling one in another area of the garden to see if it will make a good meadow candidate. I wouldn’t mind if pretty Orlaya grandiflora could get itself established.

Currently, I can be found in the afternoons down by the water, digging out the weedy carex and docks that are shooting up into flower, thinning the primulas and battling the wachendorfias. It is heavy work, sometimes muddy, but the setting is one to gladden my heart.

I have taken to describing our approach to gardening as similar to slow cooking – slow gardening. It is just that we measure it in years, not in hours or overnight.