Expert tips for designing a meadow
Garden designer James Alexander-Sinclair gives his advice and tips on how to include a meadow in your garden
Everybody loves the romantic idea of a meadow – running freely through long meadow grasses and waving cornfield flora, possibly wearing a loose shift of broderie anglaise, before throwing yourself down in a meadow field and chewing on a grassy stem while watching grasshoppers hop and crickets chirp.
Perhaps in the distance you can see the weary (though ruggedly handsome) farmhand plodding home through the meadow with scythe on shoulder and empty cider flaggon bumping against his moleskinned hip. Sounds marvellous, doesn’t it? However, it is no simple matter to recreate a meadow – it’s a bit like an episode of Game of Thrones. There will be death, love, storms, betrayal, disappointment, triumph, surprise, accidents, reunions and a great deal of sex.
How to design a meadow garden
Meadow gardens need good soil
The first thing to understand with meadows is that good soil is your enemy: for millennia, mankind has been taught to improve the quality of the soil by heaping it with lovingly crafted compost and the combined manures of every available animal – from medieval night soil to mountains of Ecuadorian guano. For wildflowers, the opposite is the case as they thrive in horrible soil – ideally consisting of equal parts old rubble and dust. This is because your enemy is grass, which, given the slightest encouragement, will quickly dominate and smother all those delicate cornfield flowers and all of your dreams will come to nothing more than a tussocky paddock.
How to create a meadow area in a small garden
The smaller the area, the easier it is to achieve your goal: if you are just thinking about converting a front garden into a meadow, it may be sensible to invest in some wildflower turf, which saves a lot of time and effort.
- Meadow turf is a simple way to achieve a meadow, with ranges to suit most conditions. In this case Jenny opted for a shade-tolerant mix from Wildflower Turf that features some 41 species.
- Prepare the ground by digging over the soil, removing any existing vegetation, stones or roots before raking the ground over to create a fine tilth.
- Boost year-round interest by planting a succession of spring bulbs before laying the turf.
- Water with care while the turf establishes. After a couple of weeks it will be drought-tolerant. Too much water will cause the grasses to dominate.
- Cut back in late summer once the plants have shed their seed but before close trees drop their leaves. Take it down to 3-5cm, using a brushcutter.
- Gather up all the cut material, as well as any fallen leaves, to prevent them from enriching the soil,
as meadow plants thrive on poor ground.
- Provide wildlife with an ongoing habitat by cutting half the meadow first and allowing time for it to regrow before cutting the other half.
Meadow garden styles
Not all meadows are wildflower meadows: there are damp fritillary meadows, orchid meadows, simple grassy meadows and surprise meadows – one of my client’s lawns miraculously revealed itself to be a cowslip meadow this spring. You can create an annual meadow very easily – sow the seed in April and by mid June you will have something spectacular that will carry on giving until the autumn.
Meadow garden plants
Another suggestion is to inject essence of meadow into your borders by upping the percentage of ornamental grasses and using herbaceous plants that emulate the wildflower – for example, foxgloves, verbascums, achilleas, veronicastrums, thalictrums or geraniums. Here's our piece on the best plants for a meadow.
A failsafe option, which may not carry the same poetic heft but will still look fabulous, is a spring meadow using bulbs – starting with crocuses and progressing steadily through narcissi, tulips, camassias and alliums. This will get you through from about February until the end of June, which is not bad. After that, you will have to put up with some scruffy grass for a while before knocking it all back in September and starting all over again.
Find a good seed supplier
Once the soil is prepared, find yourself a really good seed merchant and explain your situation exactly – the soil make-up, the pH measure, and the sunshine and moisture levels. A good supplier will advise you on what will actually grow and thrive rather than make you gnash your teeth in frustration. But remember, suppliers aren’t miracle workers; you will still have to do the weeding. If you're looking for a simple way of spreading meadow seeds, don't miss a meadowflower seed mix.
Meadows to visit
Cricklade North Meadow, north Wiltshire. This National Nature Reserve is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and boasts the largest population of snake’s head fritillaries in the UK.
Clattinger Farm Nature Reserve, Wiltshire. This lowland grassland, opened by Prince Charles in 1997, features meadow saffron, tubular water-dropwort, orchids and downy-fruited sedge. The hay is cut after the flowers have seeded.
Runnymede was the site of the signing of the Magna Carta. It is now run by the National Trust and the riverside meadows play host to a wide range of wildflowers.
Useful information on meadows
- Sowing Beauty by James Hitchmough (Timber Press, 2017).
- Making a Wildflower Meadow by Pam Lewis (Frances Lincoln, 2015).
- Meadows at Great Dixter and Beyond by Christopher Lloyd (Pimpernel Press, 2016).
- RHS Companion to Wildlife Gardening by Chris Baines (Frances Lincoln, 2016).
Sowing your own meadow
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