Tag Archives: wildflower meadows

Meadow, meadow. Three meadow styles.

It was like an Impressionist painting but in real life – a pictorial meadow at Trentham

It is compulsory that every garden in Britain have a meadow. Well, not quite law, perhaps, but certainly lore. We have watched the rise and rise of the meadow on our trips over the past decade. The trend is also evident in many European and North American gardens though it is not a style we have embraced in New Zealand yet. For years, I thought it would not work in our fertile and lush growing conditions. It has taken several visits looking at northern gardens to better understand meadow gardening.

In this country, we do not appear to have progressed past the point where we see ‘meadows’ as dense sowings of annual flowers loosely described as ‘wildflowers’. That is plants like the red corn poppies, cornflowers and cosmos, though they are certainly not wildflowers of New Zealand. But there are different approaches to establishing a meadow.

A perennial meadow, the work of  Professor Nigel Dunnett at Trentham Gardens near Stoke on Trent

If you want to see flowery meads at their prettiest, type in ‘Pictorial Meadows’ on Google or Facebook and prepare to be blown away by the beauty. This is the commercial arm of the work that has been done though the landscape department of the University of Sheffield, spearheaded by Professors Nigel Dunnett and James Hitchmough. It is a whole subsection of the naturalistic gardening movement that is so dominant in Britain and elsewhere today, to the extent that it is now referred to as the ‘Sheffield School’. It has layers of complexity and sophistication that take it way beyond the scattering of a few random seed mixes, predicated instead on sustainable eco systems with a whole swag or research going into their seed selection.

We were delighted by the perennial meadows which were the work of Dunnett at Trentham Gardens near Stoke on Trent, just as we were entranced by the Hitchmough Missouri Meadow at Wisley in its early days. This is wildflower gardening taken to new heights altogether. Their annual meadows are glorious but it is the long term meadows that are environmentally significant. The maturing plantings around Olympic Park in London are an example of those.

Molinia meadow at Bury Court with pink Trifolium incarnatum (Italian clover)

At the other end of the scale are tightly managed meadow gardens. The pre-eminent Dutch designer, Piet Oudolf does some these creations. Beautifully refined meadows of shimmering molinia grass with restrained use of flowering plants. Interestingly, the owner of one of these Oudolf meadows, John Coke of Bury Court, told me that it was the highest maintenance area of his garden, to keep it looking that good. There is a lesson in there somewhere but it looked charmingly simple.

A natural orchard meadow in a private garden in the Cotswolds, designed by leading UK landscaper, Dan Pearson

Maximum brownie points are earned by those folk who encourage natural meadows in their garden. In other words, they stop regular mowing of the grass or cultivating the area and let plants naturalise.  The Royal Horticultural Society does this in large areas now. We particularly noted it at RHS Rosemoor but also in private gardens, often in an orchard area. Over time, there will be an increase in plant diversity in these meadows that evolve with minimal management. It is also the style of meadow that New Zealanders will find most problematic. For we are more likely to judge it as weedy, with rank, overgrown grass.

The problem is that the wildflowers in a natural meadow – be they daisies, dandelions, buttercup or clover in the initial stages – are deemed weeds here whereas they are genuine wild flowers in their home environments. We tend to apply different standards to long grass and wild areas than we apply to gardened areas and ‘proper lawn’, where imported plants are absolutely fine.

Natural meadows have been encouraged in areas which appeared to have been previously mown grass at Rosemoor

What all these meadows have in common is a concern with bio-diversity and ecologically friendly gardening, providing habitat for all manner of living organisms, insects and animals, while looking attractive at the same time. All these meadows are alive with insect life – buzzing with bees and attracting many butterflies along with a wide range of other insects.  The RHS has taken a lead in educating people on the environmental benefits of meadows. Generally, plants as close to their natural form as possible are used (so species rather than overbred hybrids).

A meadow garden is simulating the wild but modifying it to a garden setting. It has some history in English gardening and was espoused by the late Christopher Lloyd at Great Dixter. Fertility is kept low to reduce competition from overly vigorous grasses and it is usual to incorporate yellow rattle, a parasitic plant that weakens the roots of grasses. In autumn, the meadow is mown and left to lie for about ten days, allowing the seed to fall. The area is then raked to keep fertility low and left to come again in spring. There is minimal cultivation, no spraying and extremely low intervention.

Our meadow at home is progressing. In autumn, the long grass was cut with our sickle-bar mower and we had some debate about whether we could just leave the long grass in situ. But there was so much that it resembled hay and, in the end, we raked most of it up once it had dried. It may take effort at the time, but not mowing the area every few weeks certainly reduces the carbon footprint and allows greater diversity in that environment. And we love the look.


This is the article that led to my resignation from The New Zealand Gardener magazine – irreconcilable differences when it came to photo selection. The article will not, therefore, be published in the November issue. 

Trentham Gardens again

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.
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

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.


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.


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.

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.