How to Plant a Meadow Garden
We’ve always been enchanted by meadow gardens - the wild, spontaneous quality speaks to a sweet nostalgia for childhood summers spent running barefoot through the flowers and grass. Angela Trucks, our exterior design specialist at Westport, feels the same way, telling us that “while each type of garden has its appeal for me, the meadow gives a wistful, sun-filled, insect buzzing kind of feeling.” She’s so taken with meadow gardening that she gave a talk on the topic at our Westport location, and was generous enough to share the highlights with us here. Read on for Angela’s tips on planting a meadow garden yourself.
1. It’s pretty, but not easy. A lush meadow garden may look effortless, but Angela is quick to point out that they’re actually quite labor-intensive and time-consuming, saying “they take years to construct. Even if your proposed meadow will be in a relatively small area, the soil must be totally cleared of all vegetation before installing plants. This task alone can take two years, and is not for the faint-hearted, so the do-it-yourself-er should be an experienced gardener.”
2. Ready for removal? There are a number of methods you can use to prepare an area for a meadow, but no matter which method you use, Angela stresses the importance of completely clearing the area not just of the living vegetation but of any weed seed still in the soil. You need a blank slate!
Scalping: This involves cutting back all vegetation to the ground over the course of a couple of years until it stops growing.
Solarizing: Here, you cover the current garden with black plastic to “burn” the garden - this could be completed in eight weeks if the vegetation is annual, possibly two years if it’s perennial.
Smothering: Using fibers like newspaper, carpet liners, straw, or cooked hay to cover and essentially suffocate the existing vegetation. This method takes about a year.
Herbicides: Used at designers’ discretion, of course, but if the proposed area is very large (i.e. many acres), it might be the most efficacious way to go and shouldn’t affect your meadow once it’s planted.
3. Prepare your soil - or actually - don’t. “As opposed to a perennial bed, meadow soil is not amended to suit the proposed plants. Rather, the plants are selected to suit the soil composition. A soil test is absolutely necessary to understand which plants will thrive in your garden,” Angela advises. Many meadow grasses and flowers actually prefer bad soil, so there's no need to add amendments to your garden.
4. Select your plants. A classic meadow is a combination of grasses and forbs (flowering perennials, annuals or biennials). Whatever you choose, make sure the selections are native (again, the reason for a soil test before you plant anything!). If the area is very large, the designer may opt for plugs, but usually a general broadcast of seeds is the method for planting.
5. Maintain your meadow. Mowing is a necessity to an established meadow, and whether that’s once or twice a year is dependent on the selected plants. Mowing gives all the plants (particularly flowering) an equal opportunity for sunlight, as grasses tend to be more competitive and can eventually crowd out the forbs. Plus, you may want to mow down a pathway or two so you and your garden’s visitors can enjoy the meadow up close.
Angela reminds that “if all this is too much for the average gardener, there are many plants we carry regularly at terrain that can give the perennial border a meadow look. Grasses mixed with echinacea, artemesias, salvias-particularly petrovskias, non-flowering hibiscus, liatris, monarda, gomphrena, and verbena bonariensis can give that same feeling. The key is to include a number of grasses to give that naturalistic, un-contrived feeling.”
It may sound like a daunting task, but Angela maintains the work is worth it. “Take away the boxwood and hydrangea and embrace your wild side. That is the essence of a meadow. After all, no one designs better than nature!”
If you’re interested in a meadow garden (or some variation thereof!), don’t hesitate to visit your local terrain nursery for expert opinions and the necessary tools!