Meadows - Part the Final

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 (above).

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 (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.


  1. So is there a minimum scale for a meadow? Could I convert the small suburban lawn? Or would it just look like I’ve gone a bit mad and left everything to go to seed.. I might throw some poppy & cornflower seeds around in the gravel verge outside our house and see how they go!. I’ve been scraping out some weeds to try and rescue some jonquil bulbs the neighbour has chucked out of his garden and since our ‘tree’ is the only one in the street without some natty bulb planting underneath I could re-claim some garden cred by having a blast of colour later in the year when their trees look like nothing much… (garden envy or one-upmanship rears it’s ugly head!)

    1. Yep, I reckon there is a minimum scale for a meadow. There’s got to be enough of it for the idea to ‘read’. Also, they’re no good for kids. You simply can’t walk or play on them, or the effect is ruined immediately. As for the gravel verge, give it a go. But you’ll have to pull them out the moment they’re done or they’ll do nothing for your garden cred.

  2. Just found your web site via Ross Gardens, I live in Bowral NSW and I have naturalised fritillaries. It took 8 years. I started by planting them in three different parts of the garden to see which they liked best, and found a bare patch on a slight slope under a very old crab apple was the preferred site, so I dug the others up and replanted them, then just left them alone. I don’t feed or water them, and they share the space with lily-of-the-valley, wild violets and a single white hellebore. Its my favourite part of the acre I spend half my life working on.

    1. SO good to know that its possible here. Can I come and hang out under your old crabapple, some September?

    2. Hi Jane just trying some meadow stuff in Bowral and wonder what f you have any suggestions. I was going to just naturalise my fescue lawns first?

  3. Hi,
    I am currently studying landscape architecture at RMIT where I am looking at designing a meadow using Birrarung Marr for the site. I was wondering if you have any ideas for types of fine leaved grasses, native or readily available exotic species, that I could use?

  4. Hi, just stumbled upon your blog – very interesting, and loved the photos of Great Dixter – I’ve always wanted to visit there !
    Just wondering if you knew of any suppliers who sell Yellow Rattle ? ( I’m in the Southern Highlands, NSW. ) and have a large meadow to seed – was hoping to “employ” the Yellow Rattle to help with this !
    Thanks. 🙂

    1. Hi Sue
      I’ve never known yellow rattle to be available in Australia. That doesn’t mean that it’s not here, but if it wasn’t imported years ago, I think it would be very, very unlikely to be allowed to be imported now, given that it’s a parasitic species.
      Wish I could try it myself.
      There’s a book called ‘On the Wild Side’ by Keith Wiley that discussion the use of glyphosate (Roundup) at extremely dilute levels as a suppressant of overly vigorous grasses in meadow environments. KW was experimenting with it as commercial suppressants are hugely expensive. Please note that I’m not advocating the use of glyphosate for this purpose, but it makes for interesting alternative approaches to dealing with vigour reduction of competitive species.

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