Tag Archives: planting a perennial 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.