Meadows 101 – 1!

Strange how we see things so differently.  After my post a few weeks back about Mien Ruys’ garden, a question arose about meadows – whether we can do them here in Australia, and if so, how.  I just thought the author of the question had taken herself off on a happy, irrelevant meander along a very sinuous psycho-garden path, but when I went back to the pics, saw that there were meadows in there.  I hadn’t even noticed.  What to one person was the whole point of the image was totally overlooked by another.

To make identically the same point again, I once had a client that asked for a garden inspired by Bolobek – a famous old garden here in Mt Macedon, Victoria.  “So you mean, something highly geometric, with long straight vistas and interlocking focal points etc?”, I asked, giving my best shot at summarizing it’s most obvious features.  She looked at me quizzically, and replied “I can’t say I even noticed the geometry at Bolobek!”.

Anyway, I promised I’d address the point of meadows.  I’m not really comfortable with this, as it was never my intention to use these posts for direct transfer of knowledge – I mean, how boring is that?  I was supposed to be the one asking the questions.  But I’ll give it a go.  Actually, lets start with a pic

This was taken at Kew Gardens in May 2008.  You’ve gotta love a Botanic Garden that lets it’s lawns grow shaggy.  And at their very simplest, meadows can be little more than this – unmown grass (yep, I can see the charming white cow parsley in there, but you get the point.  It would still work without it).  What makes unmown grass look deliberate, and starts  to send meadow-messages to the brains of onlookers, is the contrast between unmown, and mown, zones.

It’s incredible how much interest you can add to a big area of roughish grass, just by mowing paths through it.  You save on time, mower fuel, mower maintenance, and gain a grid (see the fabulous mowing at Le Jardin Plume) or virtual labyrinth of paths at the same time.  It’s so win-win.

I’ll chuck another image in beside this, just to show that the cow parsley isn’t a necessary part of what’s going on above.  If you click on this to make it bigger, you’ll see there’s some art-on-sticks in there, and a very few flowers, but the real point is height and textural difference.  Having tried this, I can add that it’s much better if the mown part is always mown short.  If you just mow down already long grass, the paths will be little more than leafless, course stems, and will brown virtually immediately after being cut.

The pic above is the same garden as in the pics in that earlier post (look for the images with the red chairs to identify the location).  The others were taken in early May, and the above in early June.  There’s nothing floral amongst those grasses now – any old patch of dead-ish grass would look as ‘good’.  But there’s a couple of other important things going on.  There’s the very groomed, crisp hedge behind, which is comforting proof that this isn’t just a display of gardener-laziness.  More importantly, it’s provides a perfect counterpoint to the shagginess of the grass, as does that very smart mown edge of green grass along the path.

Looking down on the orchard from the tower at Sissinghurst in May there’s no great density of wildflowers visible.  At this distance it may as well be nothing more than short mown paths through unmown, or at least rarely-mown grass.

Obviously in country gardens in Australia there can be fire issues with long, ripe grasses, so it may all need cutting before mid-summer, but the effect can be fabulous in late winter and spring.  Furthermore, it’s not necessary to leave the longer grass entirely uncut.  I’m often just recommending to my clients that the paths get cut weekly (say), and the rest monthly, or bi-monthly depending on the vigour of its growth.

It really can be that simple – at simplest.  The next level of difficulty involves annual cultivation of the soil.  But I’ll get to that tomorrow, or the next day.

Yikes.  This is all sounding freakishly didactic.

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11 thoughts on “Meadows 101 – 1!

  1. Great post, and great tip about the structure of a hedge or something to act as a foil. Was thinking I had to add an exotic wildflower mix, but maybe will stick to grass so I can mow it down in the peak of summer when bushfires threaten. Am going to read the next one now, but I noticed most looked flat and alas I don’t have much of that. Does it tend too look weedy on a slope? Might study the golf course pics too – great tip from the reader!

    • It’s not so much that it looks weedy on a slope, but the only way it looks really intentional is if the mown paths fully recognise or respond to the contours. One thing’s for sure – you can’t get away with mowing geometric patterns on a slope. The perfect grid at Le Jardin Plume (link in the main text above), for instance, needs dead-flat land

  2. It probably doesn’t belong in this discussion of things meadowy, though at times I fool myself that if I cut a strip of the lawn across the front of my place two settings lower than the rest that I have the same effect, but it is a great relief to have found this website. Having read and reread your book many times and had my most successful gardening moment, captured by pictures of my then 1, or was it 2 year old daughter’s birthday? trying to copy elements of your garden, I know reading the posts I have already missed will be a joy and the future one’s even more so. Today, about an hour before finding this site, I bought a hellebore that I saw at Bunning’s of all places called Penny’s Pink and it ignited something in me that I have let dim for far too long – gardening. Because this hellebore was so strikingly beautiful I decided to google it and just see if there was anything interesting about it on the net. It lead me here. Thank you. Please do not stop writing and inspiring.

    • I’ve yet to lay eyes on ‘Penny’s Pink’, but by all accounts its a fabulous plant, and has a seriously committed breeder behind it.
      And give your mowing idea a go. You’d be mowing it anyway, so why not do it creatively?

  3. I know that Sydney’s Botanic Gardens tried to create a meadow lawn for 2 seasons & gave up. Our warm-climate running grasses (kikuyu, couch & buffalo), just smothered everything and grew taller than most of the meadow flowers, so I think it’s a cool-climate pursuit – or perhaps among clumping kangaroo & wallaby grasses to re-create the beautiful native meadows Cathy mentions.
    Here is another version of creative turf mowing from Bernhard Feistel, a GardenDrum blogger in Norfolk, UK. A turf labyrinth with a reward at the end! http://www.gardendrum.com/2012/05/22/a-turf-labyrinth-a-bearable-version-of-grass-cutting/

  4. When i first came to the Macedon Ranges to live nearly 25 years ago our roadsides all seemed to me to be perfect enchanting meadows. I recall amazing biodiversity. There were Sun Orchids( Thelymitra rubra, ixiodes, and pauciflora), an abundance of Diuris chryseopsis( golden moth orchids), masses of chocolate lilies( Arthropodium strictum) and then late in the season the torches of Bulbines( Bulbine bulbosa ) shone through the grass as it resigned to summer dry.
    Now many people feel the compulsion to mow regularly, maybe forgetting they live in the country. More unfortunately massive works to install a sewage system has irredeemably destroyed the meadows.
    It saddens me to see such unique ecosystems disappearing. it seems to me we are fixated on images of English meadow,( though i admit they are so beautiful ,) without recognising that our own need to be valued and preserved.

    • You’re dead right Cathy. We so need to value and protect our own ‘meadows’ or grassland ecosystems. They may have no relevance to our gardens, being virtually impossible to replicate or even emulate, but that only makes their roadside retention all the more critical.

  5. Now that my daffs are up and, surprisingly, some are already flowering, I guess my driveway is now classified as meadow, because only very limited mowing will be possible for months. As my more ambitious meadow planting has always failed as the grass grows back and takes over, I might follow up with some less ambitious planting like lawn daisies…

    • Yeah, it’s all pretty tricky in the timing here in Australia. The grass growth kicks in early, and threatens every other living thing. I’ve heard of experiments with using super-dilute mixes of Roundup being sprayed onto grass to impede it before the bulbs come through, but it all sounds pretty drastic. Hang on…I’m doing myself out of a post tomorrow.

  6. I recently ventured down to the north east coast of Tassie for a couple of days of R&R, which in my world means playing golf. Barnbougle dunes is heaven on earth for lovers of golf and indeed for fans of meadows. Links golf courses are possibly the best example ever of the effect of discerning/discriminating/discretionary mowing!

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