How did I wind up doing this? Three posts to answer a single question that should, by rights, require a book-length answer.
But having checked out two simple paths to that meadow look, I can’t put off any longer the toughest one, and that’s a mixed meadow containing grasses, perennials and bulbs. Stuff like this, at Great Dixter
Apologies for the dodgy sky colouring. This is a scan from a 20-year-old print. I’ve been back loads of times since shooting digital, but never at this time of year.
You can see the bulbs – in the foreground is the white (and beautifully scented) pheasant’s eye narcissus (Narcissus poeticus) and nearly-navy Camassia quamash. As for perennials, there’s the yellow buttercup (Ranunculus sp.), and white cow parsley (Anthruscus sylvestris). In reality there’s a whole heap of other stuff in there, but a pic on this scale can’t show it.
Earlier in the season there’s snakeshead fritillaries (see right). I tell you – it just makes me ache to look at them, I want ‘em so bad. (At the back is Lady’s smock (Cardamine pratensis)
But the real point – the take-home-message – is that success with this sort of planting is all dependant upon controlling the natural dominance of the grasses. In any reasonably fertile soil, grasses will outcompete all else. The bulbs and perennials won’t stand a chance.
At Great Dixter, everything possible is done to make sure that the nutrition level of the soil is kept very low indeed. It sounds counterintuitive, I know. But if they even thought of feeding those meadows, the botanical diversity would take a sudden dive. Even when the grass is cut in late summer, it is all picked up and taken away, in order to make sure that the decomposing stubble doesn’t raise nutrient levels.
In the home garden, the simplest approach is to start where grass is naturally thin such as under a deciduous tree, where simple lack of sunshine reduces the vigour of the grasses.
There’s a couple of ways this situation can be forced if your soil is too high in nutrient (which it is likely to be, even in Australia). I haven’t attempted any myself, and all sound pretty drastic.. You can grow an extremely hungry crop (like maize) for a year or two to strip the soil of nutrient. Or you can strip a layer of top-soil away, and then plant your meadow in the subsoil. Or you can spray with extremely dilute glyphosate in the autumn, to simply reduce the vigour of the grasses. I don’t like the sound of any of them, but I include them to reinforce the point that low fertility, or at least low grass-action is what you have to orchestrate before planting the bulb or perennial content.
Where they’re wanting to establish new meadows where once was lawn at Dixter, they deliberately introduce yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor), a parasitic annual plant that reduces the vigour of the grasses.
I threw this pic in just to show that more diversity isn’t necessarily better. There’s only cow parsley and pheasant’s eye narcissus there, but it’s an altogether magical combo – a haze of white floating over the bolder bulbs.
And just to show that it is possible to achieve in Australia – this is one of the meadows at CloudeHill, in the Dandenongs, just out of Melbourne.