April 17, 2008

Are meadows the hot new landscape trend?

  • Meadow landscapes can reduce maintenance costs, but they require a thorough understanding of how they are created, established and managed.




    Fine textures and endless blankets of billowing seed heads in the sunshine are the romantic visions meadow landscapes create for us. This is why meadow composition has been brought into the realm of landscape architecture. However, the struggle to mimic this ecological system is anything but simple.

    Meadows are becoming one of the more attractive options in the landscape architect’s toolbox for larger planting areas in the urban and suburban core. Interest in meadows generated by big-name projects such as SAM’s Olympic Sculpture Park has spread to industrial, institutional, commercial and residential clients as well. All are aiming to gain from meadow’s reputation as being a beautiful, low-input landscape where soil preparation, fertilizers, irrigation and ongoing maintenance costs are drastically reduced if not eliminated.

    First of all, in this state and in other parts of the country, lowland meadows are not natural features, but remnant landscapes from a time when such areas were highly managed with burning by native peoples for hunting game and foraging nuts and camas root. This type of management kept the encroaching Douglas fir forests at bay and allowed a specific diversity of plants, insects and animals to flourish. With this in mind, to allow success for a native meadow, the goal must be to mimic the management strategies by which these landscapes were created.


    Photos by Richard Hartlage
    Piet Oudolf’s five-acre garden in Holland is a combination of perennials and grasses

    The following are some guidelines our firm uses in developing and implementing meadow designs. We have created meadows for projects on both the East and West coasts through a variety of means including direct seeding, planting plugs or a combination of the two. Regardless of which method is used, there is a critical two- to three-year period in which undesired plants must be removed from the project area to prevent meadow invasion.

    Of the three methods to establish meadow plantings, seeding is the most cost-effective. We start by selecting one or two grass species and then three to four prominent forbs to provide the major plant community. These plants are selected based on proven success in environments with similar soil and climatic conditions.

    We next select eight to 10 “minor” species of grasses and forbs to increase diversity and visual interest.

    In the Northwest, the predominant grass used is Idaho fescue, which is native to the western United States, drought tolerate and highly adaptable. It is easily established by seeding in mid-October to mid-November and later if pre-germinated seeds are used. It is a cool-season grass and grows during our wet seasons, going dormant during our dry summers. With supplemental irrigation, however, it will continue to grow during the summer months.

    As a general rule of thumb we use a combination of 60 percent grass species and 40 percent forbs (non-grass, non-invading perennials) to create a diverse plant community.

    The meadow will take about four years to fully establish into a sustainable low-input system. It is critical during the first two years to weed out undesirable species so they do not predominate as the meadow matures. Clovers are one of the most problematic invaders when establishing a meadow by seed. They are frequently found in commercial seed mixes, are nitrogen fixing, and can quickly establish and out-compete the desired plant species.


    Using plugs is more costly — between $.70 and $1.90 per plug depending on the species. In the Northwest, we generally plant plugs 10 inches on center spacing and, in the Northeast, 18 inches on center. These plantings will establish about 25 percent faster, which is an attractive advantage with impatient clients.

    Plugs will also allow for more accuracy in design and control of the patterns of plants, achieving potentially amazing effects with thoughtful composition. We often lay out the flowering perennials to create waves of colors so there is a visual journey throughout the landscape when plants are in bloom.

    Our most dramatic meadow to date is three acres in Connecticut with plants that are native to the region. The main floral display is coordinated to peak in October with goldenrod as a preamble to the autumn leaf color that the region is known for. The entire three acres was planted with 300,000 plugs and was 80 percent established in 14 months. The client is thrilled with the effect and we are now converting an additional two acres to meadow plantings.

    Using a combination of seeding and plugs offers the best of both techniques. By seeding the predominant species you can infill with plugs for more control of the planting pattern. We lay down the seed in large projects with hopper-mixed seed or by broadcasting each species individually, depending on the budget and the degree of control desired in the planting composition.

    Time, commitment needed

    AHBL designed this three-acre meadow in Connecticut with switchgrass and goldenrod as the predominate plants.

    Even though established meadows are low-input landscape features requiring no fertilizers or irrigation, creating a viable and diverse plant community takes commitment and time. Burning is the most historically correct way to manage these landscapes, but a more practical maintenance regime can be established with mowing and weed removal. This is an important point to make with a client since it is where most plantings fail. Clients believe no maintenance is required and that results in the establishment of weedy species.

    Though the seed mix and construction documents may have been correct, without proper initial weed maintenance, the meadow may not have a chance.

    This brings up another essential step in the production of a self-sustaining meadow: client education.

    The romantic visions described in the beginning of this article are only in the spring and summer in our climate. Without proper education, the client may be horrified when his or her beautiful meadow goes partially dormant, turning olive green and brown from July to October.

    Many clients do not like the idea of their landscape appearing anything less than emerald green and think that these landscapes look “dead” or “weedy.” However, it is only a natural stage in the meadow’s life.

    Irrigation can help sustain the color through dry months but ultimately undermines the success of the meadow as a low-input system. Furthermore, the tendency once the meadow begins to go dormant is to mow the areas. We prefer to mow the meadows once in late winter, leaving all seed heads standing. This allows wildlife to browse for food and provides cover for ground-nesting birds and animals — all essential factors to the meadow’s long-term success.

    It is important that seed heads not be mowed before they shed ripened seeds to replenish the plant community. Again, with selection of architecturally interesting plant species, plants at this stage in their lives will contribute to the landscape appearance.

    A trend from Europe

    The above guidelines apply mainly to native Western Washington meadow landscapes. However, one of trends we see coming from Holland and Germany, and slowly becoming popular in the United States, is the planting of meadows with more durable varieties of commonly available flowering perennials and grasses. These are predominantly non-native plants planted in plug form, and are best suited to high-traffic urban and dense suburban areas where a more refined meadow effect is desired.

    The Dutch designer Piet Oudolf is the most well known proponent of these planting schemes. He has consulted on such highly publicized projects as Millennium Park in Chicago, and Battery and Skyline parks in New York.

    An extensive knowledge of the best-performing varieties of plants is required, since the plants are very dynamic and will most likely generate positive responses from the public when in flower. They do go dormant in the winter, so it is advisable to use strongly sculptural plants that will provide visual interest.

    Clients often fear the plants are labor intensive, but if selected properly, the plants require one mowing in late winter and minimal supplemental irrigation during very hot months in the Pacific Northwest.

    There is no doubt as projects are installed using this planting technique it will become increasing popular in this country as it has in England, Germany and Holland.

    Meadow landscapes can reduce maintenance costs and are beautiful features, but they require a thorough understanding of how they are created, established and managed.

    Emily E. Stachurski and Richard Hartlage design meadows for AHBL landscape architecture clients.

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