Tag Archives: meadow gardens

A gardening year in retrospect. 2017

Sunset in Camembert. I am not joking . There is a village of that name in Normandy and I took this photo on a day in late June when the temperature hit 40 celsius. We nearly melted. The cheese did melt.

In all my years of garden writing, I am not sure I have ever looked back on a year just past. Looked forward, yes. Often. But reflecting back – not in the written word until now. Has 2017 been particularly distinctive in gardening terms? Not in extreme terms, but it has certainly been a very full gardening year.

The best gardening book of my year, without a doubt, was the collected columns of contemporary English garden writer, Tim Richardson. Titled You Should Have Been Here Last Week, it was full of thoughtful and opinionated gems and is a book that is worth going back to read again. For me, it eclipsed the gentle collection of Dan Pearson’s gardening columns, ‘Natural Selection’ which had its own charm but became a little heavy going after a while. I have not seen any New Zealand gardening books to recommend. But I can whisper that I have at least started work on my own, after a year or two’s procrastination.

New Zealand is left high and dry when it comes to TV gardening too and we keep going back to Monty Don and BBC Gardeners’ World. We were not instant Monty fans but have grown to really enjoy his delight in his own garden and his measured approach. I say that even after discovering he has two paid gardeners to assist behind the scenes. Gardeners’ World has been around since the beginning of time (or 1968, so coming up to 50 years) and still delivers quality gardening advice and insights in a low-key style that we appreciate.

While on media matters, a personal highlight has been getting to know Auckland garden designer and current garden media celeb, Tony Murrell. We have a weekly conversation on his Home and Garden Show on Radio Live but even more extended conversations off air. It is a rare privilege to work with someone who is a complete professional in his public life, full of enthusiasm, ideas and delight which carries over into his life off the airwaves too.

Breakfast in Tivoli. Bought in the local market and taken back to our AirBnB

We live in the country so I like to travel and to seek experiences and ideas beyond our self contained little patch of this world. Mark, not so much. In fact, he only participates in my advance planning in the most desultory of ways. But when I crank him out of the country, he is a marvellous companion who focuses 110% on the experience. Our trip to Italy, Normandy and England this year was a real highlight for us. It was my third trip to Italy, Mark’s second and we both fell in love with the place in a way we have not before. Mark credits AirBnB which put us right in the heart of the old town of Tivoli and gave us a far more personal connection to the locals than staying in a hotel can ever do. And while getting to Sermoneta was a traumatic experience that might have driven less staunch couples to divorce , staying there was a delight. Seeing the incidental wildflowers at Villa Adriana, the wonderful old olive grove and experiencing the classic architectural lines of the golden mean visible there were truly memorable, even in the heat.

Garden highlights were Le Jardin Plume in Normandy, the pond and the simplicity of the plantings in front of the villa at La Torrecchia (which, despite being in Italy, is early Dan Pearson work) and the privilege of being able to explore and experience the famed Ninfa Garden all alone and at our own pace. All confirmed for us that our gardening hearts lie with the gentle naturalism of more contemporary styles that is so evident in the approaches taken by many modern European and British garden designers. We have a long way to go in New Zealand in learning to garden so that we walk more lightly upon this fragile environment of ours and see beauty in Nature and her serendipitous ways.

Wildside Garden – still a major highlight for us second time round

When we reached England, we felt we were on more familiar ground. Because we travel so far and pack a great deal in to what are generally just three week excursions, we don’t often go back to see gardens that we have visited before. But on this occasion, we chose to go back to both Bury Court and Wildside and neither disappointed. These are two of the most exciting private gardens we have visited – gardens which delight at the time, stay in the memory and are a rich source of inspiration for how we garden at home. On this trip, we were also privileged to see a private garden that is the work of Dan Pearson and, on the day we visited, as close to a perfect domestic garden as we have ever seen. We can learn from every garden but sometimes it is a revelation to learn from the work of somebody who is at the top of their field right now.

The unexpected highlight of the English section was looking at the work coming out from Sheffield University landscape department and Nigel Dunnett in particular which we saw at the Barbican, at Olympic Park and at Trentham Court. Do a net search on Pictorial Meadows if you want to see more of the commercial work coming out of Sheffield. It is glorious.

The Sheffield style is at the extreme end of naturalistic gardening with lower inputs, low intervention, working in cooperation with the environment and ensuring that plantings enhance eco systems rather than imposing them upon the natural environment. But they generally lack strong design elements which are what give definition and longevity in a gardening environment.

Our meadow where we have reached some level of sustainability and consistency

At home, we have been focused on bringing together elements of the new naturalism style, meadows, sustainable practice and soft-edged romanticism that appeal to us but within a stronger design framework and working in an established garden with a fair swag of notable, long-term trees. Our meadow is progressing beyond the experimental stage as we have refined the low-input techniques we use to manage it and it is a real joy to us. The next step is to look for plants that will enrich the diversity and add visual interest beyond the spring peak. Mark finds the addition of larger flowered, dominant perennials or annuals out of step with the natural look so we are assessing resilient small-flowered options that we can naturalise without creating an environmental disaster of weed potential.

Not our garden. I have this filed under ‘meadow mistakes’ – using an overbred hybrid in a natural setting

Mark’s gardening efforts this year have been dominated by food production and seeing to what point he can keep us self-sufficient in a vegetable-rich diet. It takes a lot of time, effort, skill and space to be this productive and even then the grains and tropical fruits remain on the shopping list. We could, I guess, go without the tropical fruits but we are not that purist.

I have never grown a vegetable in my life and have no plans to start. But I have had a great deal of active pleasure, starting the plantings in our newest garden area which we currently call the Court Garden – on account of the large green space in the middle of the design which currently looks like a somewhat unkempt tennis court but is destined to become a meadow through the seasons in the style of Nigel Dunnett’s Sheffield School plantings. This is former nursery, maybe an acre or more in area.

Mark recently described this new garden area to a neighbour as our last lunge – a major development that we need to do before we get any older and the hard physical labour gets beyond us. In a mature garden, even a very large one such as we have, it is a different experience to be faced with bare space, full sun and open conditions. Years have gone into its planning and it will still take more for it reach the glory we plan. We have also factored in how we integrate this new and different area into the established garden we already have.

One of the double borders in our new area in its first spring

The court garden, started from a blank canvas

It is a development that we simply could not have done without the accumulated experience we have gained through our gardening lives. It also draws heavily on the inspiration and observations from our gardening travels. And it is possible because of the expertise gained in years of nursery work and Mark’s foresight in setting aside plants and growing them on in field conditions so that we could bring in the framework trees and shrubs as an advanced grade without having to spend money on buying them. We could not have afforded to do it if we had to buy the plants because it takes a lot to furnish a space as large as this.

I have loved developing parts of this area this year and seeing it start to come together as it grows. Mark, too, has been delighted by my efforts because he had not found the time or motivation to start the detailed filling in of spaces himself. I am delighted that he is delighted with my efforts because, in gardening terms, I will always defer to him as the senior partner here.  Will there be an end result? There will come a point when we feel ready to show this new garden to other people but gardening to us is always an active process with no plans for an end result. If we found no pleasure in the process, we would lose interest very quickly.

Finally, on a practical level, I recently raved about my new mini cultivator. It is terrific and I use it often. We have never gone in for all the whistles and bells of garden implements so we are VERY late to the scene with the Niwashi weeder which was a Christmas gift to me. And now, all I can say is, how did I manage so long without one?

About a meadow. An update.

The new meadow look in our park - long grass and mown paths

The new meadow look in our park – long grass and mown paths

Wildflower meadows sound so delightfully romantic and evocative. And they can be in practice, but there is not just one way of achieving this.

When we talk about ‘wildflowers’ in New Zealand gardening, we are not talking about our own native wildflowers. They are native to somewhere but not here. Most people think of mixes of cornflowers, simple poppies, nigella, cosmos, maybe Queen Anne’s lace and the like. What are sold as wildflowers here are generally a mix of flowering annuals, though not the highly-bred ones that are used for potted colour and bedding plants. You can call it gardening because it is generally necessary to cultivate the soil, eliminate at least some of weed regrowth which will swamp the chosen annuals, plant the seeds and water them in. Merely broadcasting them on poor ground is rarely successful. These sowings of mixed annuals are usually disappointing in the second year because the influx of weeds and grass will swamp out most of the plants that have managed to seed down and the effect is very different. So it is gardening with annual flowering plants in its simplest form with next to no hard landscaping. It is also best suited to drier climates without the strong grass growth we get here and not prone to torrential downpours which will flatten these gentle, elongated plants. Charming though areas of mixed annuals sown in this way can be, it is not for us. And I would describe it as gardening with annuals, not a wildflower meadow or a wildflower garden.

Lots of Primula helodoxa in our meadow at this time of year

Lots of Primula helodoxa in our meadow at this time of year

Our interest starts with meadows now. This presupposes a heavy presence of grass and many plants that are deemed weeds in more cultivated areas. Why meadows? Four reasons:

  • Meadows make a hugely greater contribution to natural ecosystems than mown grass. They provide food for bees, butterflies and other insects while offering cover to the smaller creatures of the natural world.
  • We are seriously discussing and experimenting with techniques of lower input gardening where possible. Mark has become increasingly concerned at our heavy reliance on the internal combustion engine to maintain our garden – the lawnmower, weed-eater, leaf blower, hedge trimmer, rotary hoe and more. We have already phased out most spraying and fertiliser use – preferring to use our own compost – so the run-off from our property will be neither toxic nor high in nitrogen. Next up was to consider ways to significantly reduce our usage of petrol powered engines.
  • We are mindful that we have a large garden managed by just three of us. Because we have no plans to retire off the property, we need to ensure that we can maintain the garden to the standard we want into the future as we age. This is another reason for finding ways that are more sustainable in the long term.
  • We like the simplicity of meadows, the romanticism and the natural feel. We wanted to see if we could manage it in our garden.
Higo iris and primula are looking pretty this week

Higo iris and primula are looking pretty this week

We closed the garden to the public three years ago and immediately started experimenting in the area we call the park. With its variable terrain and a stream flowing through, this area was originally planted by Mark’s father, solely in trees and shrubs, and it covers about 4 acres. A small flock of sheep kept the grass down and most weeds at bay. When we bought the Rolls Royce of lawnmowers (a Walker mower) that could cope with all the steep slopes, we banished the sheep, removed the fencing and started mowing the park on a regular basis. The areas that couldn’t be mown were kept down with the weed-eater. Finally, Mark could start some underplanting.

img_3130Now we have long grass with mown paths through it. After three years, there is increasing diversity in the plants moving in. Many are commonly seen as weeds and the whole debate about weeds needs more attention another time. Not just buttercups, daisies and dandelions, though we have those in abundance. We also have Herb Robert moving in (Geranium robertianum), clover pink and clover white, foxgloves, self-heal (Prunella vulgaris), Mark’s stinking billy-goat weed (a stachys), montbretia and more. I am not keen on the docks or thistles, so I try and dig those out. Mark is particularly pleased that we had a lot more brown top in the existing grass mix than he had thought because it has beautiful silky seedheads that wave in the lightest of breezes.

To these ‘volunteers’ (or genuine wildflowers that have made their way of their own accord), we add our own enhancements – primulas beside the stream, along with a range of other marginal plants and irises. Even sarracenia and a few orchids (the dactylorhiza orchids work though most of the disas died out). The Higo iris are coming into bloom and what a delight they are. In autumn and spring we have bulbs and we no longer have to worry about mowing off the foliage too early.

The placing of mown paths throughout has been successful, giving a contrast between the walking areas and the natural meadow, though it helps to have Mark’s good visual instinct to get the form of the paths sorted from early on so that they meander gracefully. At my request, these were widened to be two mower widths across – a single width looked a bit mean and perfunctory.

The Walker mower

The Walker mower

New sickle bar mower

New sickle bar mower

We mow everything once a year in autumn and I have to admit this involved the purchase of a new internal combustion engine – the sickle bar mower. The lovely ride-on Walker was never designed for the mowing of the meadow, being better on grass that is kept consistently shorter. The sickle bar emulates the motion of an old-fashioned sickle and is designed to cope with this sort of situation. We do not follow the British wisdom of removing all the hay to keep fertility low. It is not practical in our situation and our meadow is a year-round affair because of our mild climate where plants keep growing even through winter.

Going into our fourth year, we are saying ‘so far, so good’. It is not for everyone, but we love the look. If we are still continuing the park as a managed meadow in another five years, we will then be willing to announce that it has been successful for us. The mid-term report is that we have achieved a meadow and it is certainly meeting our four reasons for starting the experiment.

A treasured memory - our second daughter in a dry climate flowery meadow in the Nelson area around 1994

A treasured memory – our second daughter in a dry climate flowery field in the Nelson area around 1994

Postscript: Ken Thompson in The Sceptical Gardener writes about real meadows and I quote just a brief excerpt there: “it actually is a meadow in the sense of an area of perennial grass and wildflowers, managed by annual cutting.” He goes on to discuss what he calls the ‘annual meadow’ – drifts of annuals. “The problem is that ‘annual meadows’, whatever they are, are not meadows; they don’t look like meadows, and nor are they managed by meadows.”

He draws on a British garden writer and TV presenter about poppies. “Nigel Colborn reports that a visitor to his garden asked why his meadow had not wild poppies in it. Nigel had to explain, kindly and tactfully I’m sure, that no meadow since the dawn of time has had poppies in it, and that poppies belong in cornfields.”

Thompson also has an interesting chapter about the common lore that wildflowers do better in areas of low fertility. This is a book to put on Christmas present lists, as I said in my review earlier.

The Meadow

Still in its first season, this sown meadow features daisies, corn poppies and the naturally occurring Yorkshire fog

Still in its first season, this sown meadow features daisies, corn poppies and the naturally occurring Yorkshire fog

Meadow gardens sound so very romantic yet are not often seen in this country whereas they are de rigueur in Britain, to the extent that I make jokes that it is clearly the law to have one. But not all meadow gardens are the same by any manner of means.
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1) The field sown with wildflower mix is probably what is most commonly referred to as a meadow in this country. These of course are not our native wildflowers – far from it – but the reference is usually to the inclusion of varieties closest to the wild species and consequently smaller and simpler blooms than seen in garden hybrids. The problem in our climate is that favourable growing conditions can make for leggy plants that will be flattened by both heavy rain or wind. It was heavy rain that flattened this wildflower mix at Wisley.

Missouri Meadow June 2014

Missouri Meadow June 2014

As we saw it in June 2009

As we saw it in June 2009

2) We were entranced in 2009 by the new Missouri meadow garden at Wisley, designed by Professor James Hitchmough from the University of Sheffield. This style is now often referred to as being of the Sheffield School of planting design with its focus on ecology and sustainability. Five years later, it has developed into a huge perennial bed and much of the original detail has gone. It is still most attractive and low maintenance but it has lost the meadow feel. I have not seen prairies but I doubt that it is a prairie reinterpretation either.

June 2014 at the Old Vicarage in Norfolk

June 2014 at the Old Vicarage in Norfolk

Same month, back in 2009

Same month, back in 2009

3) The wildflower meadow at the Old Vicarage Garden in Norfolk was delightful in its flowering simplicity in 2009. This is it at the same time of the year in 2014 although the flowering appeared to be delayed this year. The yellow corn marigold and grasses have swamped out most other plants. The owner told us he keeps trying to get the corn poppies re-established but without great success. Meadows evolve over time. To constantly spray off and resow in flowers, as sometimes recommended in New Zealand, does not give you a meadow. It gives you a garden of annuals.

Pensthorpe in the north of Norfolk

Pensthorpe in the north of Norfolk

4) Maximum ecological brownie points are earned by those who have the patience to allow a natural meadow to develop with no over-sowing or management of plant content. What is present has arrived naturally and is allowed to stay. No sprays are used and no stock grazes the area. However, most meadows will be cut sometime in late August, left to lie for two weeks to allow seed to fall out and then the hay raked off, to prevent a build up of fertility.

Pettifers Garden near Stratford on Avon

Pettifers Garden near Stratford on Avon

5) Dry grass has charm. This is a bulb meadow being allowed to dry off naturally – quite possibly bluebells, daffodils and snowdrops in spring. Those are allium seed heads showing which are just passing over, heading into early summer. In our more fertile conditions with higher rainfall, we are more likely to get less attractive rank, wet, green growth heavily infested with what we call weeds. Maybe it is time to reconsider our classification and attitude to many such weeds.

yellow rattle (2)

6) Yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor) is an integral part of English meadows. It is a parasitic plant that weakens grass growth and allows other plants to establish with reduced competition, increasing the diversity. Obviously we do not need this plant to escape into our farming pastures and I do not even know if it is in New Zealand. We have seen something similar growing wild on our road verge and will be having a closer look this summer. We think it may be a broomrape rather than a Rhinanthus.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

Meadows, prairies and wildflower gardens

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We gave our eldest a particularly good book on American wildflower and prairie gardens for Christmas and her eyes lit up. It seemed a moment of triumph in parenting which I have not seen recorded before – the age when children of gardening parents are delighted to be given such a gift. There was a touch of envy from us. It was a lovely book but also a gardening genre which is largely beyond our reach.

Prairie gardens and meadow gardens are not compatible with good dairy country so this garden style is likely to be unattainable for a fair swag of readers too, but it doesn’t mean we can’t admire it elsewhere. Dairy country by definition has high fertility and good rainfall along with temperatures that are mild enough to grow grass strongly all year round. That is not prairie territory.

Our eldest lives in Canberra which offers perfect conditions. It has low rainfall, low fertility and is very cold and dry in winter (which stops pretty much all plant growth) and very hot and dry in summer. Pasture grasses and weeds will not overtake the chosen plants. Annuals and perennials will not romp away with lush growth that gets flattened here by frequent heavy downpours. Instead, plants will hang in and grow slowly, tenaciously putting down roots in search of elusive moisture and sustenance and flower stems will be much shorter and sturdier. Prairie conditions, in fact. So it is perfectly realistic to think that one can create a garden sward of tough perennials and ornamental grasses which will sway in the wind and put up a succession of blooms over a period of several months.

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Essentially a meadow garden is made up of wild flowers as close to their natural form as possible, often natives. This means shunning modern, sometimes over-bred hybrids which tend to go for much larger flowers and compact, bushy growth. A meadow garden is simulating the wild but modifying it to a garden setting. There is a long tradition in English gardening and the routines are well known. It relies on low fertility to keep down competing grasses and the parasitic plant referred to as Yellow Rattle is often introduced because it weakens the roots of grasses.

At the end of the season in autumn, the meadow is mown and left to lie for a week or maybe two. This allows the seed to fall out of the spent plants. After 10 days, the mown area is raked free of the cut vegetation to keep fertility low. The area is then left to come again the following spring.

Can you imagine doing that in dairy country? It will not work.

076The advice I saw in a NZ magazine, which I will not name here, to sow your wildflower garden into an area which you have cultivated and fed to the max with proprietary fertilisers and then to sow again in mid season if it starts to pass over is not a wildflower garden at all. It is simply mixed annuals.

Introduce grasses to the mix along with at least some North American native flowers and your meadow garden becomes a prairie garden, more or less. Cone flowers (echinacea), ox-eye daisies (Heliopsis helianthoides), monardas, Californian poppies (properly called eschsholtzias but I have to check the spelling every time) – North America is rich in wildflowers. The prairie garden has been embraced by contemporary European and UK gardens and designers and I can see why. Clumps of grasses are deathly dull when planted in groups or when mass planted to achieve the motorway embankment look, but take on huge charm in the company of a wide range of flowering plants, both perennials and annuals.

What characterises both meadow and prairie gardens is an absence of woody plants, an absence of layers (plants tend to be of a similar, low height), a higher tolerance of weeds and seasonality – in winter there is no garden at all to speak of. It is a much more relaxed style, hugely different to how many of us choose to garden. It can also be environmentally sound, especially in harsh climates, because it provides food for birds and insects while anchoring the soil in windy conditions with no fertiliser inputs or spraying.

In season, such gardens are infinitely charming in all their manifestations. It has a lot to do with the simplicity and the relaxed style. We are still wondering whether we can manage something similar here in a new garden we have planned but we are fighting nature and will have to choose plants carefully as well as overcoming our ingrained antipathy to weeds and a belief that gardens should look good for all twelve months of the year.

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Earlier last month, I visited a field of bearded iris in flower. I don’t want to overstate the case. It was a nursery (http://www.theirisboutique.co.nz/) growing the iris rhizomes in rows in a field and there were a fair number weeds, to the embarrassment of the owner. It was also an absolute delight which made me smile.

It is the simplicity of an expanse of flowers in a field situation which appeals. Gardens do not have to be heavily designed and intensively maintained with high quality permanent plantings of trees and shrubs to make one’s heart sing.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

Summer meadow gardens (and why they don't work here)

Enchanted by the native orchids growing wild at The Garden House in Devon

Enchanted by the native orchids growing wild at The Garden House in Devon

Surely the two most romantic sounding gardening styles are meadow gardens and woodland gardening. Woodlands will have to wait because summer is for meadow gardens, though not without difficulty in our climate.

Meadow gardens are based on the attempt to re-create and manage the wildflower meadows and we don’t have these in abundance in this country. Generally, one seems to go to Western Australia to catch the blooming of the wildflowers and that, I am told, can be a hit and miss affair. Timing is critical and some seasons are much better than others. In New Zealand we have natural alpine meadows (the Mount Cook lily, gentians and the like) but in such difficult, inaccessible and vulnerable environments that they do not lend themselves to garden tourism. Countries with naturally occurring wildflower meadows share several things in common – a much harsher, drier climate, and a lack of intensive, pastoral farming. Intensive dairying and wildflower meadows are an oxymoron. And most such areas will have an abundance of annual native flowers which leap into growth en masse, usually triggered by seasonal rains. Our native flora is unique and fascinating but not rich in pretty flowers of the field. So, by definition, wildflowers in this country tend to be invasive weeds. The lupins of Central Otago and the perennial sweet peas of Marlborough are a case in point. As indeed are gorse, broom, Kelly thistles and ragwort, all of which can have a blooming season which is showy. Not for us, thank you, and more than one New Zealander has been shocked to see gorse used as a garden plant in the UK.

Simple flowers like this white cosmos look best in meadow-style gardening

Simple flowers like this white cosmos look best in meadow-style gardening

All our garden plants, of course, originated somewhere so plants such as the species cyclamen, the deciduous ground orchids like dactylorhiza and anacamptis, even the Black-eyed Susans, echinacea and cosmos are native wildflowers somewhere. Just not here. I have never seen the North American prairie gardens, nor the wildflowers of South Africa but it was exciting (believe it or not) to see the ground orchids that we treasure as choice garden plants growing wild in England and in Italy.

Having decided that naturalised wildflowers in this country are more often noxious weeds, how about the controlled alternative of the managed meadow garden? Bad news. All the characteristics which make Taranaki prime dairy country mitigate against meadow gardens. Our grasses grow too well, our soils are too fertile, on top of that we fertilise too heavily, our rains come too readily all year round and our temperatures are too even. The grasses will swamp out all but the most aggressive of the wildflowers. Gardeners right on the coast in the north and in the drier south in the Hawera to Waverley stretch may have more success because their conditions are a little harsher. But it is not just conditions that one needs to get right. Meadow gardens require a bit of an attitude shift, we now realise, and it is a theme that we keep returning to in discussions here. Weeds. Meadow gardens require a high tolerance level for weeds and that is a problem for most New Zealanders. We have an ingrained antipathy to them. The worst crime an open garden can commit is to have weeds. Whether this is a reflection of our farming background, of the DOC position (our weeds are all introduced plants) backed up by our local councils, our high tolerance level for the use of chemicals in gardening and agriculture (and indeed in conservation), or an innate value placed on tidy suburbia, we do not like weeds. Because meadow gardens rely on letting plants grow naturally, you can’t control weeds. Once you start intensive control and management, your meadow garden becomes a cottage garden, and that is a different kettle of fish altogether.

We may need to reconsider our antipathy to weeds. Mark recalls the late Peter Winter, one of our leading environmentalists locally, commenting that the riparian plantings being fostered so actively by our regional council and indeed by Fonterra, are a positive move but that we will have to accept that a certain amount of weed growth is inevitable. The riparian plantings are the ribbons of mixed plants being established along all waterways, fenced off from stock. Done properly, they will filter run-off from farm land and reduce the amount of nutrient being washed into waterways. But they are not going to be a healthy environment if farmers expect to keep them weed free which, for the vast majority, will mean the repeated use of chemical weed killers.

A field of flowers in its first season

A field of flowers in its first season

But back to meadow gardens. It is the very simplicity of the meadow garden that lends it so much charm but it takes a little more skill than just standing and broadcasting a meadow mix of seeds in early spring. Amongst other things, the birds will pick off a fair portion of the seed and the germinating plants unless you take precautions. Then there are strategies for managing a succession of flowers through the seasons from spring to autumn and to ensuring that the garden lasts for more than one year. If you are willing to kill out all the grasses and competing plants before you sow a very generous amount of seed, you can manage a field of flowers in the first year. By the second year, the grasses will have crept back and the weeds will also be germinating and seeding. Weaker performers in the mix will have been beaten out by the competition. It will be more akin to the wildflower environment and it will have rank and unkempt times of the year.

If you want to try a meadow, pick an area which is in full sun and with poor soil. Don’t feed it at all. You want the plants to flower and seed, not to make a lot of leafy growth so they need to be on the stressed side. At the end of the season, you mow the meadow (one man went to mow, went to mow the meadow…) and leave it all lying on the ground for two weeks to allow the seed to fall out. Then you rake it all up because you don’t want to fertilise the ground by letting the clippings rot down. And you live with the weeds which will also be colonizing the area. The meadow should come back into growth when triggered by seasonal change. That is the theory of it, more or less.

We would love to grow a meadow garden but each time we look at it again, we figure the climate and conditions which make it possible for us to grow lush and verdant gardens mitigate against the meadow concept. It is why we continue to work on naturalising selected plants in designated areas instead. It is not at all the same thing, but it is what we can manage here.

English Summer Gardens – Part 3

We went to England to look at summer gardens which are all about flowers, particularly perennials and annuals. We didn’t expect to see so many meadow gardens and nor did we have the perspective of the summer garden as a continuum.

At one end, we saw natural wildflower fields, grazed by sheep and not managed as gardens at all. There are two key aspects to understanding British meadows. One is that many of our weeds in this country are in fact wildflowers in their home environment. So what might be seen as a rank, unloved and weedy infestation of dandelions, stinging nettle, daisies, convolvulus and blackberry is an entirely appropriate and acceptable meadow garden in its natural setting. Add in other elements such as cowslips and wild orchids (dactylorhizas and anacamptis pyramidalus) and you have something altogether delightful. The second aspect is that wild flowers thrive in a climate that is cold enough to stop all growth in winter and dry enough to stunt most growth in summer. These are hardly typical Taranaki conditions.

Inch along the continuum and you discover managed meadow gardens which were integral to most of the large gardens we visited. The late Christopher Lloyd of Great Dixter was an influential figure in popularising and enriching the meadow garden genre by encouraging a wider range of wild flowers to naturalise. The general rule of thumb for managing meadow gardens is to cut the meadow down in August (the equivalent of February or March in our hemisphere) and to leave it lying for about three weeks. This allows the seed to distribute. The hay is then raked off the meadow in order to keep the fertility low. If the soil is too rich, the growth becomes rampant and grasses will dominate. The existence of a parasitic annual referred to as Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus major) helps to keep the grasses weakened.

Meadow gardens appeal to the romantic and naturalistic instinct cherished by the English. It is not seen at all as scruffy or unkempt and it is fine to have a designated meadow area as your main point of entry to the garden. The naturalism is often combined effectively with that most prim and proper of all gardening techniques – topiary. Great Dixter does it – the large clipped yew shapes created by Lloyd Senior now stand in the midst of an informal meadow. At Helmingham Hall in East Anglia, an undulating wave of pathway is cut through meadow grasses which surround large clipped yew domes.

I don’t see many New Zealand gardeners managing this meadow genre. Our soil fertility is too high, our grasses grow too strongly and will choke out most competition, our torrential rains will flatten meadows even in summer and if the rain doesn’t do it first, then winds will. Our nitrogen levels are too high. And we tend to be a bit anally retentive and suburban, dedicated to manicured lawns and edges, let alone to glyphosate, to tolerate the casual live and let live philosophy of the meadow.

Take another step along the continuum and there is the completely contrived and totally enchanting field of flowers (without grasses). We saw this done at East Ruston Old Vicarage Garden where the field of yellow daisies had hints of blue cornflowers and red soldier poppies and it was so perfect that it took our breath away. If you start with bare earth, in the first season there are no competing grasses or weeds so all that is seen are the desired annuals. By the second season, competing plants mean that you are closer to the managed meadow situation.

Contrived but charming field of flowers at East Ruston Old Vicarage

Contrived but charming field of flowers at East Ruston Old Vicarage

We are now moving into a style of gardening which has a debt to the North American prairies and the prairie meadow style reaches a pinnacle at Wisley Gardens where Professor James Hitchmough from the University of Sheffield is responsible for one of the most delightful meadow gardens of perennial flowers that you will ever see. Apparently the inspiration was Missouri meadows but the execution of the vision was achieved with gardening skills. The brief included a requirement that this garden be easily managed by Wisley staff so it went in to an area which had been cleared of weeds and grasses and probably also cleared of much of its topsoil. A rope mesh mat was laid, allowing the plants to stay anchored and a carefully chosen palette of about ten plants from seed mixed with sawdust was sown to create a sea of perennial flowers. There wasn’t a lot of foliage evident and the plants were tough performers which thrived in hard, dry conditions. It was magic. It was also in its second season already and there was no evidence of weed or grass contamination although it must be said this is managed with some ongoing minor intervention.

The Missouri meadow garden at Wisley

The Missouri meadow garden at Wisley

Move along the continuum further and you get to the classic cottage garden style which the English made their own. Cottage gardening is an indulgence of self seeded annuals and perennials, usually combined with roses, along with other shrubs and climbers such as clematis. The effect is a riot of colour and flowers with nothing so contrived as colour toned borders or stage managed plant combinations. Plants should look as if they are growing naturally where the seed falls and hard landscaping takes a back seat in this informal, romantic look. Readers who know the Armstrong’s garden in Waitara will have seen a rare local example of this gardening genre. If you have yet to visit, go and see it this Rhododendron Festival. Alathea Armstrong has it peaking to perfection for that week and it is very pretty, albeit labour intensive.

But take another step along and you come to what I call the managed cottage garden look which I associate with English gardeners such as Rosemary Verey and Penelope Hobhouse. The romantic naturalism is now combined with hard landscaping, form and formality. It is much more controlled, as can be seen in the Hobhouse Country Garden at Wisley. Colour toning becomes a major factor. Deadheading becomes intensive in order to prolong the display. Planning for successional flowering from spring to autumn is important. Constant management means spent plants are cut back and holes are plugged by bringing in fresh potted colour from out the back somewhere. Weed management becomes more critical. Many of the plants need staking. We talked to Lady Xa Tollemarche at Helmingham Hall about her borders and she manages to keep them at a peak for several months. The English do this classic garden style so well but it is not for the home gardener who sees spending every spare minute in the garden as a form of slavery. Easy care and low maintenance, I think not.

The classic Hobhouse country garden at Wisley

The classic Hobhouse country garden at Wisley

We are, dear Reader, only half way along the continuum. How silly of me to think I could summarise all we saw and talked about in 1200 words. We need to pause in the middle before moving on next instalment through the mixed border a la Christopher Lloyd, the sweeps of herbaceous colour softening formal landscaping in the style made famous by the Lutyens-Jekyll partnership, moving through the classic and intensive long borders to the recent work of Piet Oudolf and Tom Stuart Smith and onwards to the modern minimalism of mass planting. There is still quite some distance to go and any number of points where thinking gardeners can hop off the continuum, comfortable that they have found the point that best suits their situation.