Meadows mean different things to different people. What I mostly find is that folk think you buy a meadow-in-a can product at the local hardware store, toss it on some tilled land, and, poof, you have a meadow – what is so hard about that?
- One of the biggest problems is the seeds in the mix. Typically, these are reliable annuals that are almost guaranteed to grow and make everyone happy for a short while in the first year and are disappointing if non-existent the second year.
- Another problem is tilling. Soil is a tricky thing. It doesn’t look like much; after all it’s just dirt, right? But invisible to us in that top layer of dirt is an intricate network of roots, fungi, organisms, bugs, chemicals and structures that makes the soil healthy, rich, and ready to help plants grow. Tilling wrecks that structure and invites opportunistic weed seeds to sprout and spread before the tender annuals have a chance. Those weeds take up the space, sun and water resources that the annuals and perennials require. They also cause you, the planter, to work extra hard weeding the easy-grow meadow.
- Another issue with those seed mixes is that they don’t often look like the meadow of your mind’s eye. Meadows designed by nature are full of diversity in color, height, density and structure. They can be sweeping grassy places dotted with clumps of flowers and a few small woody plants or maybe intensively planted fields of flowers mixed with grasses and woody plants or even a forgotten field filled with roadside plants. Those are the meadows that we see when we say ‘meadow.’ The ‘meadow-in-a-can’ is lots of mixed-up flowers with no easy way for the eye to discern patterns.
- I had worked with several meadows for clients, as well as one of my own, so I had a good understanding of the time required to establish a meadow, the basics of soil prep and of the design elements. My proclivity is to over-think an issue, so I felt compelled to research further to see how to succeed with a quickie, test meadow.
First, I developed a vision sketch for the overall property to see how the meadow would fit into the property as a whole. Based on that I developed some preliminary thoughts about plants, trees and seeds. The test-meadow idea relied heavily on letting what was on the hill grow and then supplementing it with seeds. The biggest stumbling block was the highly compacted construction road that ran up the east side of the meadow area.
This research took me to the Morris Arboretum’s Landscape Design Symposium where I attended some of the most inspiring landscape lectures and case studies about the meadows at Lurie Garden in Chicago, the High Line in NYC, Freshkills Park in Staten Island, and stormwater meadows in Lancaster, PA. It was inspiring and instructive.
While there I had a long discussion with Claudia West of North Creek Nurseries about her experiences with meadow prep. She was pessimistic about the quickie plan; meadows, she said, take time, care and complete planning. That much I knew; a good strong, well- planned meadow takes upwards of three years to establish. The main goals of the quickie meadow were:
- to get to know the field better and see what might grow from the existing seed bank;
- to see what would grow in the compacted driveway soil; and
- and to create a beautiful vista with minimal effort and cost.
West was optimistic about the construction road and suggested the following course of action:
- remove the high concentrations of rocks that were used to surface the road;
- leave many of the smaller embedded rocks so as not to disturb the soil too much; and
- then decompact the soil by lifting it with a large soil or air spade. A huge soil spade; all I could imagine was a shovel that the Jolly Green Giant might use…
When I got back home I pored over a bunch of books including: Piet Oudolf’s, Planting a New Perspective and Planting the Natural Garden; Claudia West’s, Planting in a Post Wild World; and Roy Diblik’s The Know Maintenance Perennial Garden. I also reread Doug Tallamy’s, Bringing Nature Home and hauled Rick Darke’s grass reference books off the shelf.
I also ran a Google search and was intrigued by the President’s Pollinator Project and what that meant for butterflies, bees and other pollinators. Armed with all of this, I tossed around ideas with lots of friends and acquaintances who are gardeners, landscape architects, architects, nursery folk, and a few farmers (trying to find a soil spade was a challenge; in fact I never did find one). Finally, I felt almost prepared.
In February, I developed a complete landscape plan for the property. This included a detailed multi-year meadow plan and a preliminary budget for trees, plant plugs and seeds. I also developed a budget for the first-year test meadow that included seeds and some plant plugs. As I discussed the plan with the family it became clear that the trees were the most important because they would anchor the rest of the design and would take the longest to establish. They were also the most expensive. To make a big impact we decided to order the largest trees possible. This meant that the Year 1 budget was almost completely gobbled up right from the get go by the trees and a creative solution needed to be developed to make the meadow happen.
Assuming construction of the cottage would be complete by the end of February, the work of restoring the construction road could begin in early March, so we decided on the following course of action:
- Concentrate flowering plants near the house
- Allow the field to grow with no added plants, take advantage of the natural soil seed bank, and see what was actually out there. I knew there were at least two clumps of Milkweed and figured that there were probably many more native plants that had never been able to grow because of the mowing regime.
- Partially overseed the field with an appropriate native grass seed mix to support the natural seedbank.
- Restore the construction road by removing the large paving rocks and decompacting the soil.
- Seed the construction road with an appropriate native grass and meadow flower mix on the bare, clay soil and supplement the seed with some native plant plugs
- Specify and order trees of substantial size
- Over the course of the first growing season, take a continuous inventory of the plants that sprout and adjust what plants would need to be ordered to achieve the long-term plan.
- After the Year 1 inventory, re-develop a detailed planting scheme for the long-term vision of the meadow that could be implemented starting in Year 2.
- Lay out mown paths within the field to make the meadow easy to enjoy (and maintain).
While developing the detailed plan, I realized that we had many more goals for the meadow than just as a pretty place to look at and enjoy. We had the opportunity to create a habitat for birds, small and large animals and many, many insects and pollinators. The meadow could also be part of something larger: the national effort to encourage pollinators by providing, “habitat, forage and migratory way stations for Monarch butterflies, other native pollinators, and honey bees.” Presidential Memorandum — Creating a Federal Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators.
The Monarch population is dwindling for a number of reasons but a key reason is loss of habitat. The sole food source for the larval stage of Monarch is Milkweed. With this in mind we added the additional goals of protecting and encouraging Milkweed, planting only native species, and being mindful of succession planting so that food sources were available for the larvae and butterflies throughout the growing season.
March: Forest, Trees and Worry
March came and went and the cottage construction was not complete. The construction road was still full of construction material, rocks, and debris plus it was as hard as a rock. Some little tufts of grass grew in spots but otherwise it was distressing. The field, on the other hand, was waking up from winter. Using the overwintered Milkweed stalks as markers, we developed a preliminary mown path layout. The intent was to draw the eye from the main house and the cottage up into the field and to skirt the clumps – protecting them and making them easy to enjoy. In all, nine paths were cut-in: one straight up from the main house, one along the creek at the base of the hill, one along the top, one on either side of the hill going up and the other four curving through the meadow to encourage meandering. A key factor for success in this effort was an enthusiastic and dependable mowing team. Our team is both but they were not convinced about letting the grass grow; it took a lot of conversation in English, Spanish and Spanglish, but we got there.
March was also a time to trim the forest back to create a neater backdrop for the meadow and make room for the new trees. All but three of the trees were installed in March. The others were banked into a nursery of sorts for later installation in the construction road. They were carefully placed and staked – just in time for several major wind storms! Worry, worry, worry!
Another worry with the planting of trees in spring is how to get them established through summer and how to keep them watered on top of the hill. There is no irrigation system and the property is dependent upon a well. The area had experienced droughts for the prior three years and there was a real concern that, if taxed, the well could be exhausted. I worked with the plumber to develop a way to water on top on the hill. We tried hauling water from the stream up to the trees with the tractor and a trailer, running yards and yards of hose from the well to the top of the hill, and finally, placing water boxes along the top path and filling them with a combination of rain, stream, and well-water. This last method was the most satisfactory and will be continued for the foreseeable future.