Tag Archives: meadow gardening

Change of plan

Verbascum creticum, a tall, large flowered biennial

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.

Dunnett at Trentham

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.

A blank canvas of about 450 square metres

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.

Each plant in its own space in Beth Chatto’s dry garden

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.

Miscanthus in winter in the new borders

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.

An immersive experience at Bury Court

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.

Ammi majus

 

 

 

 

A modern French garden – Le Jardin Plume

The wave hedges at Le Jardin Plume

The surrounding countryside

Le Jardin Plume is a contemporary French garden located about 30 minutes drive from Rouen. To reach it requires driving through flat agricultural land of that area of Normandy, which fascinated us because such land use does not involve fencing. While this is industrial scale cropping, it has a summer charm that our grazing land lacks. I guess you don’t have to fence when the greatest threat is the naughty prime minister across the Channel.

The garden itself is also flat. Very flat, really. The areas closest to the house and allied buildings are intensively planted in a riot of bright summer blooms and foliage, mostly within the constraints of the tightly clipped hedges. Moving beyond that, on the site of an old apple orchard is the modern take on traditional French parterres. Blocks of grassy meadow are defined by tightly mown lawn walkways on an expansive scale across the seven acres. Le Jardin Plume means the feather garden, as evoked by the waving grasses, especially when they go to flower and seed.

Sharp clipping gives definition and contrast to the looser plantings

The garden relies on sharp, clipped green walls to give it structure and very effective that is, too. The wave hedge certainly seems appropriate to what is a new wave garden. It was as wonderful in life as it is in the photographs. There is very little hard landscaping in permanent materials. Arguably, this adds to the charm because there is a softness and energy to the garden that reflects the use of living materials.

Plumes of veronicastrum

Contained within the wave hedging are graceful, tall perennials like veronicastrum, thalictrum and sanguisorbia along with the invaluable grass, Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foester’. I particularly like the tracery of these tall plants against the sky and the feeling of walking midst soft, perennial plants that are taller than me. That is one of the advantages of a flat garden – easier framing of the view against the sky. In a world where we have seen the production of ever more compact and dwarf bedding plants best suited to floral clocks, these are like the anti-bedding plant brigade of the perennial world.

The parterres of meadow

Out in the meadow ‘parterres’, the plantings are lower and more naturalistic. Some folk don’t like this whole meadow genre but we do. In spring there are bulbs. In summer, the charms lie in the soft movement and the somewhat random detail of additional plants. Added to that, there is another layer of interest in the wildlife. These areas are teeming with butterflies, bees and a host of lesser admired insect life. They are sustainable eco-systems and this planet needs a whole lot of them. In autumn, the grasses turn golden and seed heads will become a feature before being cut down just the once each year, in October.

Our daughter in the transient white garden at Le Jardin Plume

The informal avenue of tall white perennials must be a transient delight but a delight it was. The perennial is Epilobium angustifolium ‘Album’ (also known as Chamaenerion angustifolium) but North Americans may know it better as the white form of fireweed while the British call it rosebay willowherb. Small gardens have to work harder throughout the year, but large gardens can accommodate such short term displays of frivolity, if the gardener so decides.

I don’t know if the owners ever ponder the longer term future of their garden (though I would be surprised if they do not). Le Jardin Plume is, I would suggest a garden of our modern times. But if you look at what makes a garden endure down the generations and into subsequent centuries, it is usually the immutable hard landscaping and the handsome long-term trees, along with a notable history and fine, historic buildings. Le Jardin Plume has none of these and is not a big budget garden. None of this is a criticism in any way. Rather, it is a celebration of what can be achieved with vision, enthusiasm, knowledge and hard work even though it is probably a one or two generation garden at most.

Hand weeding the American grass squares

Maybe it was that we identified with the owners, Patrick and Sylvie Quibel, that made us particularly receptive to this garden. We realised quite early on that we were looking at a private garden created by a couple, managed with minimal assistance (I think there is just the one extra pair of hands and we saw him hand weeding), supported by a small nursery adjacent to the garden. Mme Quibel did not speak English and my spoken French is not up to conversational standards, but I would bet money that their hearts are in the garden and the nursery is just a means to an end. It felt like meeting the French equivalent of ourselves and we identified with their endeavours.

Mme Sylvie Quibel – I wished my French was up to a proper conversation

We could not identify with the heat. It was very hot on the day we visited. From there, we drove to Vimoutiers and by the time we reached there, the thermometer outside the pharmacy read 40 degrees. I can assure you that it never gets anywhere near that hot at home. Even the camembert cheese on our evening platter melted before our very eyes.

How pretty is this? The French do that shabby chic look better than anywhere else I have seen.

I have read reviews of this garden which praise this ground level pool that leads the eye out to the expanse of meadow parterres. We all come with different preconceived ideas and I admit I looked at it, admired the form but was worried by the water quality.