How to grow your own meadow

The Southern California superflower was the ultimate botanical hit for plant geeks and prairie fanatics. In the spring of 2019, after an exceptionally wet winter, the region’s mountains and deserts erupted with wildflower meadows of orange California poppies, purple phacelia and bright blue Chia sage – such a surreal display of nature so vast and so alive that it was visible from space.

Nigel Dunnett, the botanist and University of Sheffield professor behind the 2012 Olympic Park meadows and the ‘pictorial meadow’ concept, was so inspired by the sight that he decided to create a stunning bloom 5,000 miles away at the Tower of London. In June, to celebrate the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, the 13th-century moat will be ablaze with color, as Dunnett and landscape architects Grant Associates transform an area of ​​14,000 m² into fields of flowers. More than 20mn of seeds were sown earlier this spring to create the reverie, which will evolve as the flowers come to life until the end of September. The tower’s superflowering is the first step in a legacy project that will permanently transform the moat into central London’s greatest resource for bees and other pollinators.

An annual mix created by Nigel Dunnett for the London 2012 Olympic Games © Guppyimages/

Coreopsis tinctoria was grown at the Tower of London as part of a superb moat flowering trial last summer

Coreopsis tinctoria was grown at the Tower of London as part of a superb flowering trial in the moat last summer © Historic Royal Palaces

“It’s an art installation as much as a biodiversity project,” says Dunnett, who was also inspired by Claude Monet’s 19th-century impressionist color studies of the River Thames, and used 15 different seed mixes to create flowing color-themed plots that will merge into each other. Blueberries appear in every area, and at some point during the summer when they reach their peak, the effect will be that of a water-filled ditch.

For purists, Dunnett’s pictorial meadows – where bands of non-native and native wildflowers are huddled together – are not real meadows (reserved only for native varieties), but no one has done more than what he needs to popularize the concept. “Some conservationists are very upset when it’s not a direct restoration of something you would find in the countryside.”

Allium “Globemaster” and “Purple Sensation” planted at the Barbican in London © Claire Takacs

Dunnett first started creating grasslands as part of his scientific research (measuring how species grow together, when they bloom, and how to make them work), before becoming interested in the impact they have on the urban regeneration. “A lot of my early work here was in housing estates and along roads. When I saw the reaction to these colorful grasslands, my focus shifted to human response,” he says. “Creating intrigues in unexpected places is a way of becoming aware.”

Interest in grasslands and naturalistic plantings is growing. At seed specialist Emors Gate, which grows 250 species of wildflowers and grasses at two sites in Bath and Norfolk, demand currently exceeds supply. Last fall, with sales up 17% on the previous year, it could not meet all the demands and the owners took up new land to increase capacity. Once established, it will increase production by two-thirds.

Shirley Poppies at Trentham Gardens, Stoke-on-Trent

Shirley Poppies at Trentham Gardens, Stoke-on-Trent

Such initiatives are vital in the UK where more than 97% of wildflower meadows have been lost since the 1930s – an area of ​​around 7.5 million acres. Like other valuable natural habitats around the world, they support a diverse ecosystem of pollinators (1,400 species depend on meadow flowers), invertebrates as well as shrews, voles, field mice and birds, while trapping carbon and helping to reduce flooding. This image resonates worldwide. Less than four percent of the tallgrass prairies that once covered 170 million acres in the United States remain, and it’s a similar story across continental Europe, where the loss of flowering prairies has led to a catastrophic insect decline: in German nature reserves there has been a 75% reduction in flying insect populations over the past quarter century, while the Netherlands has lost half of its butterflies since 1990. More three-quarters of grassland in the EU is in an ‘unfavorable’ conservation status – a generic designation that can mean anything from requiring improvement to total loss.

The meadow gardens at Cambo Estate in Scotland
The meadow gardens at Cambo Estate in Scotland © Claire Takacs

At next month’s Chelsea Flower Show, always a barometer of trends, the appearance of wildlife-friendly native plants rarely seen in capped show gardens is remarkable. Howard and Hugh Miller Alder Hey Urban Foraging Station is a stylized riff on orchards and meadows filled with cow parsley, wild carrots and meadow buttercups among edible grasses. Meanwhile, Juliette Sargeant The new Blue Peter garden: discover the soil has a rooftop meadow adorned with shade-tolerant wildflowers; and The garden of the mind by Andy Sturgeon features expanses of colorful meadow plantings with various yarrow and oxeye daisies. Lulu Urquhart and Adam Hunt An invigorating British landscape is equally scenic: a riparian meadow with diabolic scabious, marsh orchids and Deschampsia cespitosa.

Designer Ula Maria's clients are increasingly asking for wildlife areas

Designer Ula Maria’s clients are increasingly asking for wildlife areas

Ready made wildflower meadow turf rolls at James Hewetson-Brown's Wildflower Turf,

Ready made wildflower meadow turf rolls at James Hewetson-Brown’s Wildflower Turf,

These centerpieces reflect a change that was already happening in real gardens. garden designer Ula Maria, who grew up surrounded by wildflower meadows in her native Lithuania, says her clients are increasingly asking for designated wildlife areas — even, as in one of her recent projects, on a Hoxton rooftop. But what are the benefits? “They look good, smell great and are low maintenance as they only need to be trimmed once a year – plus they help wildlife.” It recognizes therapeutic qualities for humans as well. “There is an innate connection with nature and memory,” she says.

The Prairie Garden designed by Larry Weaner in Lakeville, Connecticut
The Prairie Garden designed by Larry Weaner in Lakeville, Connecticut © Claire Takacs

The game changer in creating home meadows has been the wildflower turf, which comes pre-grown and only needs to be deployed in one patch. This is especially good for rooftop gardens as little soil is needed and there is less weight. Specialist’s James Hewetson-Brown wildflower grass began experimenting with native flower seeds over 20 years ago. “We started with one square meter, which was extraordinarily colorful and attracted many bees and butterflies,” he recalls. Hewetson-Brown has now transformed the family’s turf-only business into wildflower meadow turf. It produces up to 250,000m² per year and has recently taken over another site in Shropshire. “You can see the attraction: it’s like a charitable donation to nature – you’ve done something amazing for biodiversity.”

For some, joy is also found in the back-to-the-wildflower-prairie areas. After attending a study day at Great Dixter in 2013, illustrator Caroline Kent set about renovating the meadow around her Sussex cottage with the help of Peter Baldock, the former head gardener at Pashley Manor, and Joshua Sparkes, who has since reinvigorated the prairies. to Sissinghurst and Forde Abbey. The process involved removing old hedgerows, removing topsoil (wildflower meadows flourish on less fertile soils) and scarifying the entire area before sowing Emorsgate seeds, including yellow rattle ( which weakens grasses to allow wildflowers to flourish) and seedlings (seed-rich cuttings). ) from Great Dixter.

The wildflower meadow at Caroline Kent's Brownes Cottage in Kent

The wildflower meadow at Caroline Kent’s Brownes Cottage in Kent © Mark Winwood

This same ritual was repeated annually; the meadow cut by hand and the seed scattered. “After about three or four years, we saw our first orchids and they multiplied every year,” says Kent. “And now we have a significant number of green-winged orchids, which are even rarer.”

Kent has since added plug plants of shredded blackbird, scabious and campion, as well as primroses and many bulbs, including wild tulips, narcissus, snakehead fritillaries and grape hyacinth. “The meadow looks like one of our greatest accomplishments. It buzzes with life for much of the year and I love seeing the kids chasing bugs and running around the trails,” she says. “I love the balance between wildness and order. It keeps us connected to the seasons and although it’s tiny compared to the grasslands that have been lost in Britain, it’s a small step in the right direction to restore these habitats.

Nigel Dunnett now sees meadows flourishing in built environments. Rooftop meadows are a particular trend (he helped develop the first meadow grass designed specifically for this purpose) but he also sees them growing in more unlikely places. “It’s happening on pavements, streets and car parks,” he says, citing an ongoing project on The Strand in London that will introduce 44 trees and 2,000m² of grassland planting. Just call it the flower power of a new generation.

Chris B. Hall