The gardened meadow

Dame Miriam Rothschild believes that a meadow only really comes into “being” when its about 15 years old… and even then it is not really “established”. Strictly speaking, meadows are areas of land that are man-managed, but, have their own unique grassland ecosystems.

My ‘meadows’ are not farmed, grazed, or large fields of land, so, I have to manage them differently and in many ways they function differently… These are extended areas of the garden and I am learning as I go how to create and maintain small areas of wildflowers and long grass within a garden. And, because they are part of a garden, they need to be decorative and sit within that setting while still being a meadow rather than a flower border.

The ‘Railway Meadow’ is about 100 metres by about 12 metres and is now in its third year…. It is cut at the end of August/September and all the hay is cleared and piled on the railway bank for the animals (mostly badgers) to use as nesting material.

The ‘Walnut Meadow’ is a bit of long grass and flowering lawn. This area is close to the house and I wanted to make sure that it looked like a deliberate feature rather than a bit of unmown lawn…It has nearly 1,000 bulbs planted within it so that it always has some colour.

I sowed this area and the ‘Chalk Bank’ behind in October last year. The topsoil and the turf were scraped off and the subsoil was then raked and sown with a meadow mix for chalk soil and cornfield annuals (as a nurse crop).

The greatest difficulty I have found with my meadows are perennial weeds. There is a pernicious perennial weed bank at the farm. Bramble, Bindweed, Hogweed, Thistle, Rosebay Willow Herb and Hemlock come back and back and back. Having stripped and disturbed the soil we have brought these weeds back to the surface and it has been back breaking work weeding them out of large tracts of land. Meadows are perceived to be ‘low maintenance’, but, I can assure you that this year we have worked harder on the meadows than anywhere else. My hope is that once the perennial grasses and flowers are established the weeding will reduce to spot weeding.

Are these meadows or pale imitations of them? Gardening really is the subtle chemistry of nature and man’s management of it.

Got the Blues

Oh Boy! May has come and the garden and countryside is full of blue. I stopped the car and photographed the bluebells in the hazel coppice and beech wood nearby.

What the photograph can’t capture is the serene stillness in woods like this…. The dense woodland completely encloses you: no noises from outside intrude…. A shriek of a disturbed blackbird… Then a return to stillness and a deep peace.

It isn’t just the silence that’s compelling; it’s the smell too. A light floral musk that mixes with the damp-moss smell of the wood.

I planted 3,000 bluebells (Hyacinthoides Non-Scripta) in my garden last November… Now they’ve come up… A lot of them look Spanish or hybridised. (Spanish bluebells are paler, do not droop or nod and have little scent). Our English bluebells are threatened by habitat destruction, illegal collection, the Muntjac deer and the rise of the Spanish Bluebell: an invasive species that hybridises easily with our native variety.

So it looks as though I am going to have to do a lot of digging 🙁

Still, there are lots of other blues in the garden to marvel at. The Camassia Leichtlinii in the Walnut meadow are out – putting on a wonderful show.

The Camassia is related to the Asparagus family and comes from the American prairies. Apparently it was a food source for many of the native peoples in the US and Canada. I was worried about putting it in the garden, thinking that the badgers/ squirrels/ deers might dig it up and eat it… But so far…. *Fingers crossed*.

Pentaglottis sempervirens, May 2016.

This is Alkanet – the other blue in the garden. This was here when we arrived at the farm, there is no point in trying to get rid of it, – I suspect that this is indigenous to this place… There is so much of it it’s probably a keystone species! I keep it in check by strim-ing it before it goes to seed… it’s a bit like Rosebay Willowherb… A beautiful thug.

My Manifesto: Poor soil is Manna from Heaven

My Uncle is a botanist and a brilliant old-school gardener. When he saw the land we had bought he was incredulous: “You can’t grow anything on this!”

The soil isn’t really soil at all – its mostly stone with a sandy loam in between the rocks and it varies greatly across the site – heavy ballast on top of the railway line and imported seams of clay that once held the water within the canal. The soil’s PH is 7.5-8 (alkaline) and it has virtually no nitrogen content at all, but, it seems to be ok in terms of magnesium and potassium.

Lets make no bones about it: despite the rural idyllic setting this site is an old polluted industrial wasteland and a brown field. This is exactly the type of place I wanted to garden.

Wildflowers and meadows are notoriously difficult to grow in gardens – they are highly specialised to grow in ‘stress’ environments – they don’t like nutrient-rich garden soil. If my garden was going to offer nectar and food resources and create habitats for wildlife then it needed to have native wildflower species. This rock and concrete rubble stripped of topsoil is an opportunity to garden those plants that normally will not be cultivated.

Orthodox gardeners long for rich friable loam and customary wisdom has it that you need to ‘improve’ your soil by digging and cultivating and adding to it in order to grow a beautiful garden. PANTS TO CONVENTION…Work with what you have got.

The reasons for this are twofold:

Topsoil is under threat.

It can take about 1,000 years to make just a couple of centimetres. Our modern building and agricultural methods are abusing the topsoil of our planet. Over the last 150 years half of our planet’s topsoil has been lost. This erosion goes beyond the loss of fertile land, it has led to pollution, flooding, and the increased use of unsustainable fertilisers and herbicides on our land. If I was to “buy in” topsoil from somewhere else I would be depriving another area of land for my gratification. And what about all those gardeners who garden urban plots of rubble and waste? Or, the gardeners of new homes on brown field sites? Is it really sustainable to keep on bringing in soil from elsewhere into developments like this? Shouldn’t we be asking town planners and architects and designers to be thinking about the sustainability of the landscape around these buildings AS MUCH AS the buildings themselves?

Good Design makes a positive of the peculiarities and difficulties it doesn’t seek to quash them.

I am a designer and I seek the aesthetic, BUT, I don’t seek it over and above other considerations. For too long our ‘Chelsea’ garden designers have put the visual above the ecological and the sustainable. A good designer should be doing both: not only is it possible it is VITAL if we are to have a future as a nation of gardeners.

So in my gardening revolution I would urge you all to rip out those herbaceous borders and ditch the manicured lawns. These are not the future…. Be groundbreaking…. Count your success in how many bees visit your garden and how many birds nest, rather than what specimens you grow and your ‘infinity pool’.

Ground cover

The meadow has its first flowers of 2016 and is beginning to come into being. Bugle, Ground Ivy and Dead Nettle are romping through: clinging on under the trees and overhanging the railway walls. Ground Ivy is particularly mesmerising at dusk/ low light levels – it seems to have an ultraviolet glow about it . Perhaps this is a deliberate attraction for the bees (who see UV): certainly the bumblebees flock to it. This morning there were all sorts of varieties. I counted at least 5 – but I am still not sure which ones they were.

Ground Ivy (Glechoma Hederacea) along with Bugle (Ajuga Reptans) are such beautiful ground cover plants. They are both part of the mint and deadnettle family – having aromatic foliage and stems and the distinctive labia petals. When you look closely at it you can see the similarity to Mint, Staychs and Nepeta.

All are easy to divide and multiply… And because they grow by sending out runners as soon as you have a few (as long as you have planted them in the right place) you will very quickly gain a carpet.

Both were here when we arrived at the Farm – clinging on to the remnants of the railway wall and growing underneath the Lombardy poplar…. But since I’ve sown and ‘managed’ the meadow the ivy has spread through the grass and provides brilliant ground cover on the ‘edges’ of the garden: blending one area with another.

These are native plants found in grassland, scrub and woodland clearings and (as with most plants) look their best when they are grown where they are meant to grow- under deciduous trees and over steep slopes, rockeries and retaining walls. Let it get into your lawn or ‘wilder area’ and then mow it away in the areas that you don’t want it…. After all what is better than the buzz of bees in springtime?