Top tips on creating your own meadow - let your imagination run wild
PUBLISHED: 11:54 10 September 2014 | UPDATED: 11:54 10 September 2014
Meadows are, by their very nature, untamed and unsystematic - and they’re the latest fad. When re-creating your own just allow your planting and imagination to completely run wild, says Neil Lucas
A summer meadow, when filled with swathes of wild flower, is a truly breathtaking sight, so it’s easy to see why the meadow-style of planting has become so popular. Initially it may be hard to connect this grand scale of landscaping to the average garden, but you can evoke the feel of a meadow in comparatively small spaces. Plus meadow-style planting is high on ‘wow’ factor and short on effort.
This naturalistic style allows us to move away from regimented planting schemes and create a softer more tolerant feel, evoking the way plants are found in the natural world. This in turn allows nature into our gardens and provides food and year-round habitats to an astonishing array of wildlife. It is this naturalistic style we champion at Knoll Gardens.
What is a meadow?
Plants used for a garden meadow may be different from those found in a naturally occurring meadow but it is the effect that counts rather than botanical accuracy with this style of gardening. Essentially they divide into annual meadows and perennial meadows.
Sown from seed, annual meadows are composed primarily of flowers rather than grasses and by definition need to be re-sown every year. Perennial meadows consist of plants that last for longer than one year and often for many years, they also contain a percentage of grass that can vary anywhere from 20% to 80%. You can plant meadows that are entirely grassless but personally I feel they lack the wonderful movement and ‘touchy-feely-ness’ that are unique to the family of grasses.
Both annual and perennial meadows can be sown from seed, and for large areas this is often the most sensible approach. For smaller areas, including most gardens and borders, planting a perennial ‘meadow’ is not only relatively easy but quicker and more controllable. It also increases the range of plants available to include those simply not available from seed, including selected forms (cultivars) that have been specifically trialled for garden use.
Creating your own meadow
First you must work out (roughly) the total planting area in square metres. This will be handy when choosing the number of plants required. At Knoll we offer an online planting guide based on the number of plants needed per square metre. For example if your border is 10 square metres in total and you planted at five plants per metre you need 50 plants for that border. If you planted at three per metre you would only need 30 and so on.
When creating a grassy meadow the percentage of grasses will have a huge effect on the feel of your finished meadow. Anywhere from 20% to 80% is good depending on the effect you are after. So to include 60% of grasses in your 10 square metre border you would need a split of 30 grasses and 20 perennials. We recommend using no more that two species of grass for maximum dramatic effect on a border of this size, say 20 of a shorter grass such as Sporobolus and 10 of a taller one like Pennisetum ‘Fairy Tails’. Bulbs, planted between the grasses and perennials will add glorious early season colour.
Finally consider the pathway through your meadow. In the wild you will seldom see any clearly defined pathway, just tracks or gaps between the plants where people or animals have pushed through. Clearly defined edges, sometimes quite literally set in concrete, can totally destroy the allusion of the natural meadow affect. By all means have a path through the meadow so you can enjoy the plants close up but don’t make it a motorway! A simple gap between the plants will look better and give a greater feeling of space.
Most natural meadows are found in open sunny places so it is important to make sure the site for any new meadow planting has similar conditions. It is however quite possible to have a meadow in some shade but this requires a different plant selection. Preparation is important for long-term success so removing unwanted plants and digging over to remove compaction is essential. This style of gardening needs very little fertiliser but at Knoll we always use a surface mulch after planting such as chipped bark to help keep weeds down and moisture in the ground.
Most grasses and perennials best suited to this form of meadow gardening are deciduous. They will turn some wonderful colours in autumn, look great throughout the winter in their dried state and can be cut down ( then cut into smaller pieces as a surface mulch) in March in readiness for the new season’s growth. As you cut back check for any weeding that might be necessary but otherwise there is very little to do until the same time next year.
Meadow planting requires no staking, no spraying, and no deadheading. It really is a case of ‘more wow less work’.
Top Meadow Style Plants
You can achieve a stunning grassy meadow effect by using grasses as a base layer covering much of the ground, through which other flowering perennials and bulbs will grow. Not only will the grasses contribute beauty and movement in their own right, they will also act as a frame and a foil for a pageant of different flowers that come and go as the seas.
Grasses: Pennisetums are short to medium grasses that bring a relaxed, naturalistic feel to a border – try ‘Fairy Tails’, ‘Shogun’ and the vibrant Pennisetum ‘Red Buttons’ whose bright red button-like flowers seem to float on dainty stems above mounds of green foliage. Also try Deschampsia cespitosa or its wonderful shorter form Deschampsia ‘Goldtau’.
For height go for Panicum virgatum and cultivars or the striking Stipa gigantea ‘Gold Fontaene’ which produces huge clumps of narrow foliage and spike of enormous golden brown upright flowerheads that last well into winter. If it’s a shady spot try Anemanthele lessoniana or the delicate white flowering Luzula nivea an evergreen snowy woodrush that is good ground cover for sun or part shade.
Perennials: Echinaceas look wonderful with grasses. Try Echinacea ‘Vintage Wine’ which is large and richly coloured and stunning in a sunny spot, or the aptly named Verbena ‘Lollipop’. All types of Eupatorium and the taller Sanguisorbas fit the bill for taller perennials whilst Aster divaricatus and geraniums are good in shady spots. Sanguisorba hakusanensis with its stunning pendulous pink catkin-like flowers on upright stems is a high-summer favourite.
About Neil Lucas
Neil is an RHS Council Member and Senior Judge, and holder of ten consecutive Chelsea Flower Show Gold Medals. His first book, Designing with Grasses remains on the bestseller list. Neil’s internationally renowned naturalistic gardening style can be enjoyed to the full at Knoll Gardens, his Wimborne-based four-acre showcase and nursery where he will be planting a New Meadow this autumn to celebrate his 20th anniversary at Knoll. The open sunny site will include a grass base of Fairy Tails, Sporobolus heterolepis and Festuca rubra whilst perennials will feature Camassia bulbs for early interest as well as Dianthus carthusionoruum, Sanguisorba hakusinensis and the tall form of Succisia pratensis.
Where: Knoll Gardens, Hampreston, near Wimborne BH21 7ND
Opening Times: Tuesday to Saturday, 10am – 5pm
More details: knollgardens.co.uk or call 01202 873931
Monique Gudgeon on how to make the most of your garden art
The health, aesthetic and money saving benefits of growing your own vegetables
Rosemary Free from the Bumblebee Conservation Trust on how you can help protect the species