One of my strongest child hood memories was of walking to the Post Office with my mother through the village playing field. The field buzzed with life. Grassy stalks and flowers gently swayed before me, stretching out in all directions on one of those glorious summer days that at times only our distant pasts seem to hold. As I grew older management of the playing field changed and the grass was never allowed to reach more than an inch high. Even as a child this struck me as sad, a missed opportunity. I was left with a lifelong delight in meadows that quickly re connect me with those feelings of warmth and wonder.
It was not that many years ago when the mention of meadows would place you firmly on the fringe. The work of many designers over the years and the success of the Olympic park in 2012 has boosted interest once more and this year we have seen a big increase in interest in meadows as part of the garden design.
Meadows work in many situations; from small urban gardens through to large country estates. A couple of years ago our winning entry for the Jacksons Fencing Show Garden competition was for a design for an environmentally sensitive young couple who had little time for gardening yet enjoyed the outside. The planting was made up of rosa rugosa enclosing the deck and Acer globosum and box rounds to provide a contrasting shape and texture. Rosa rugosa ‘Roseraie de L’Hay’ has a bold pink colour and wonderful fragrance but the more compact R. rugosa ‘Fru Dagmar Hastrup’ is good if space is a premium. The rest of the garden was planted with meadow turf and enhanced for an early show with aquilegia. By mid May the meadow turf is full flow and filling the ‘borders’. The meadow is simply cut in summer making this a very low maintenance scheme and quietly atmospheric design solution.
Wilder spaces, plantings and meadows have often been used throughout garden history to settle properties into their surroundings and to connect to the borrowed landscape. Close to a house familiar garden styles and forms often work well to create spaces within which we live yet can jar against a rural landscape. Meadows and naturalistic plantings act as buffers to ease the transition between house and setting.
Meadows can be established in a number of ways and as in all planting, success depends greatly on the ground preparation. For our clients we strip back the topsoil and use wild flower turf rather than seed or plug plants as we have found this to be the most successful approach. We also use a wildflower turf which is sown with Yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor) which is semi-parasitic on grasses) as this helps establish the meadow. The meadow may need cutting 4 times or so in the first year if the soil is too rich and the grasses dominant. Once the meadow is in balance the yellow rattle is removed before it sets seed. If you are in a very sensitive site an ecological survey can be carried out and wildflower turf developed from particular seed mixes as a special order. Meadow turf is available for full sun and shade.
Maintenance once established is pretty straight forward. An annual cut and a bit of weeding will probably be all that is needed. Cut from July to the end of summer for a spring meadow or late August/September for a summer meadow. Spring meadows are often preferable for family gardens where extended lawn space for play is highly desirable over the summer holiday. Summer and Spring meadow maintenance cuts encourage different plant species. If your lawnmower struggles then a strimmer should make short work of it but make sure you remove the cuttings to keep fertility low. Before you cut take a look and see whether the seed has fallen. Either delay the timing of the cut or leave the cuttings for a few days before clearing them away.
Of course meadows don’t simply have the capacity to distract small children from thoughts of blackjacks and the long walk top the Post Office, they also support insects and butterflies. But that is a topic for another day.
Elks-Smith Garden Design is an award winning garden design practice based on the borders of East Dorset and Hampshire.