I’m having a ‘meadow’ moment. Actually, not so much a moment as a sustained yen for my very own ‘pictorial meadow’ – the term first coined by professors Nigel Dunnett and James Hitchmough of Sheffield University to distinguish their intensely colourful, painterly flower meadows from the more conventional native wildflower kind.
It all started a few years ago, with those brilliantly pictorial annual flower meadows the two men created for London’s Olympic Park, all grown from a carefully calibrated mix of seed direct-sown on site. The meadows’ intense, impressionistic beauty combined with their joyful air of naturalism utterly transfixed visitors to the Olympic grounds.
More recently, I’ve started spotting ‘urban meadows’, as they’re also known, much closer to home: on roundabouts and shopping precincts where they’re such a bright, pollinator-friendly alternative to the usual stodgy mix of glum shrubs; in private gardens where gardeners are using them as a high-octane alternative to traditional native wildflower meadows; and increasingly in public parks and gardens, where they are radically transforming the way we interact with nature.
One example is Ashtown’s Victorian walled kitchen garden in the Phoenix Park, where this spring OPW gardener Brian Quinn direct-sowed a vivid, bee-friendly pictorial annual meadow mix called ‘Throw to Grow Bee Mix’, sourced from Moles Seeds (molesseeds.co.uk). Another is Airfield Gardens in Dundrum, Co Dublin, where head gardeners Colm O’ Driscoll and Kitty Scully sowed a range of annual meadow mixes this spring in the ornamental garden and the new kitchen garden.
Of the three Airfield pictorial meadows, the one winning the hearts of visitors is an artful combination of several annual seed mixes – ‘Miel’, ‘Rainbow Annuals’ and ‘Jour de Fete’– all designed by the French seed company, Euroflor (Irish gardeners can source Euroflor’s range of meadow mixes online through UK-based Rigby & Taylor’s website, rigbytaylor.com).
Presently occupying Airfield’s old orchard, this annual flower meadow is a sea of jewel-like flowers that wraps itself around the trunks of the garden’s old apple trees. In fact, so enticing is the sight of its vast drifts of scarlet field poppies, cornflowers in various shades of dusty pink, blue and plum, candy-pink cosmos, viper’s bugloss, borage, clarkia, godetia, rudbeckia and golden eschscholtzia, that the Airfield gardeners had to hastily ask Newgrange Willow Design (newgrangewillowdesign.com) to install a handsome low hazel fence to discourage enthusiastic visitors from wading in to take photos. And it’s not just humans who are being seduced; Airfield’s pictorial annual meadows are also nectar-rich havens for the pollinating insects visiting them in their droves. As the flowers fade, the resulting seed-heads will also provide food for garden birds.
Just like the meadows that Hitchmough and Dunnett created for the Olympic Park and are now creating in sites across the UK, Airfield’s pictorial annual meadows are significantly different to conventional wildflower meadows, in their cultural requirements and appearance.
Traditional wildflower meadows typically require a soil low in nutrients and rely on the use of native species with a high preponderance of grasses.
Pictorial meadows, on the other hand, will grow in a wide range of soils and use a mix of native and non-native flowering plants (but usually no grasses) chosen for their aesthetic qualities as well as their willingness to grow cheek-by-jowl, in a naturalistic way stylistically suggestive of the growth habit of conventional meadows.
Compared with traditional wildflower meadows, the species in pictorial meadow mixes are also typically far more floriferous and intensely colourful with a longer flowering season.
Intriguingly, research suggests that pictorial meadows are even more supportive of pollinating insect populations than their traditional counterparts.
By their very nature, annual pictorial meadows such as Airfield’s flower for just one season, and will need to be resown each year (typically in late spring) into uncompacted, lightly-raked, bare soil that’s been completely cleared of annual and perennial weeds. Even so, independent studies have found that they’re more economical and less labour intensive than traditional lawns or bedding displays.
But for gardeners who prefer something more permanent, there’s also a great range of pictorial perennial meadow mixes available, seed of which can be direct-sown from now until October, or next spring. For example, Pictorial Meadows (pictorialmeadows.co.uk) supplies an excellent range of nine perennial meadow mixes, designed in a variety of colour combinations and to suit a range of growing conditions. Some, such as ‘Woodland Edge’, will peak in spring, while others such as ‘Golden Summer’ peak in late summer/autumn.
Euroflor also supply an excellent range of predominantly perennial pictorial meadow mixes such as ‘Rainbow Perennials’, as well as some that are a blend of annual, biennial and perennial species.
But whichever mix you decide on, it’s vital to take the time to prepare the soil well. One useful, organically-friendly method that I’ll be using – after clearing the ground of weeds and then shallowly raking it – is to cover the soil with black plastic sheeting for several months. Any weeds that do germinate will then die due to lack of light, depleting the soil’s natural seed bank, and leaving the way clear for the meadow seed mix to germinate without too much competition.
All going according to plan, by next summer I’ll have a pictorial mini-meadow that provides food for the soul as well as a rich feast for visiting pollinators.