How to meadowscape in your garden

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Meadowscaping has been seen in residential and commercial landscaping for at least 20 years and though trends usually come and go, this is one I’d like to see stick around.

Meadowscaping is a naturalistically-styled grouping of perennials (and sometimes annuals) consisting mostly of grasses and wildflowers arranged to more-or-less resemble a meadow. It can be sizable, like one would find out in nature, or simply a small area of one’s residential or commercial lot.

Besides being beautiful and restful to look at, meadow plantings provide habitat for insects, birds, and other critters. Meadows can be beneficial to the watershed by filtering stormwater run-off from one’s house and the surrounding hardscape. They can help conserve water, sequester carbon, and depending upon the plants used, they can be suitable for either wet or dry conditions, so meadows can be good for the environment and aesthetically pleasing as well.

Many meadowscape advocates encourage people to convert their entire lawns or yards to meadow plantings. In principle, this sounds great, and I’m all for it. But in many urban and suburban areas meadowscaping is frowned upon. Many homeowner associations don’t allow anything remotely resembling a meadow. In my opinion, the reason is that most people don’t understand the concept and aesthetics of meadows. They may be too used to the landscaping status quo or could be hesitant about change.

Meadowscaping plant selection is extremely important, and often overlooked, which can lead to problems. Unless plant species are carefully chosen, and good design principles are observed, meadows can go through phases where the uninformed may think they are overgrown or dead, certainly not the typical, tidy, residential landscapes people are accustomed to seeing. As with most new things, there can be obstacles to overcome with this landscaping style that is meadowscaping.

Though a meadow garden has a natural look, and is composed of native plants, it should still be considered a garden. This means it will require maintenance. A major reason why meadows do require maintenance is that meadows almost always occur in early stages of what is known as ecological succession. Succession is the natural process of change in plant communities over time. In most places, succession begins with grasses and ends with forests. If a person doesn’t actively maintain their meadowscaped garden, in most cases, it will eventually become a forest.

How one accomplishes meadow maintenance will largely depend upon the plants involved and the lay of the land, as well as neighborhood, city and county codes. Some meadow plants thrive by being burned with fire early each spring, and most neighborhoods likely forbid this practice. Some neighborhoods forbid tall grasses and plants right next to the sidewalk or street. Some homeowner association rules demand mowed lawn over a certain percentage of residential lots. It is good to understand any rules that need to be followed before starting a meadowscape.

To mitigate some of these liability issues, care should be taken to understand:

• Plant species characteristics — this ensures plants are located in appropriate places and that aggressive plants don’t take over;

• Bloom times — this ensures compelling visual interest as well as providing sufficient food for insects when they need it;

• Design strategies that integrate a natural look with a recognizable ornamental landscape — this ensures tidiness and neighborhood acceptance.

If there are no naturalistic plantings nearby, I suggest getting started by orchestrating a meadow planting in a small area of an existing traditional ornamental garden bed rather than converting an entire lawn at the beginning. One might have the goal of converting the whole lawn, but it is often best to take baby steps, then enlarge your small meadow planting over time. Doing this gets neighbors used to the idea that nature is beautiful. And remember, keeping it tidy helps to ensure neighborhood acceptance.

I advocate this strategy to get around neighborhood rules, particularly for larger lots. I like to call it ornamental meadowscaping. A person structures their landscape using traditional design principles with a blend of lawn and ornamental beds, but in the beds, where one would expect to see ornamental plants and a lot of shrubs, install meadow plants instead.

Locate beds that make sense in a typical residential landscape design, keeping some lawn if it is required in the neighborhood. Choose meadow plants with the same design intent as you would employ for a normal ornamental bed, utilizing groupings, drifts and focal points. Be sure there are a few trees and shrubs because people prefer that in most neighborhoods.

Use of this strategy helps get neighbors accustomed with the types of plants seen in natural meadows. Once the smaller ornamental meadow beds are mature and beautiful — and the neighbors are wowed — one can gradually enlarge them, thus reducing the amount of lawn over time.

If a neighborhood really frowns on lawn removal, a bit of lawn may be retained in the form of wide walking paths through the larger ornamental meadow areas. There are some lawn grass blends that are better suited to low-maintenance than others, and that option would be worth looking into if lawn is required. If the goal is to eliminate mowed lawn completely, lawn-grass walking paths can be replaced with mulch, wood chips, pine needles, gravel or pavers. Just take care to employ good design principles to ensure a visually compelling end result.

Creativity can help overcome obstacles. The more people who dabble in small, tasteful, well-tended meadowscapes, the more normal and accepted they may be. Neighborhood, city and county codes may change, and others may become interested and follow suit. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see mini meadows all over the urban and suburban landscape? I surely think so.

To learn more, there is a good resource about meadowscaping called Pacific Northwest Urban Meadowscaping online at wmswcd.org/programs/pacific- northwest-urban-meadowscaping. It is focused on the plants and environment in the area. It has information, plant lists, design tips, and a book available for reading online or for download. For us in the Pacific Northwest, I consider this the go-to resource on meadowscaping.

To see a famous example of urban meadowscaping, check out the High Line garden in New York City online at thehighline.org/gardens. It was designed by the father of meadowscaping, Piet Oudolf.

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