For a long time, “meadow” was a term that irritated me. Designers and horticulturists lob it around with careless literary application, describing everything from the colossal tallgrass prairie to a weedy patch of hayfield that looks poetically charming when the alfalfa comes into flower. The word meadow lacks an empirical definition–it’s more or less a colloquialism. But the idea of a meadow has had a profound impact on contemporary horticulture in the last two decades and continues to inspire eclectic, hybrid arrangements of plants that simulate the essence of wildness. For that alone, I adopt and accept its usage.
The notion of a front yard meadow has been variously characterized as brave and defiant in the course of garden literature in the last 100 years. It shakes the traditional, Jeffersonian norm of the front yard as a conformative tableau. Yet, I wasn’t striving for heroism as much as I was channeling the sentiments shared in a 2006 lecture by Liz Primeau, the author of Front Yard Gardens: Growing More Than Grass. Primeau, the founding editor of the recently shuttered Canadian Gardening magazine, spoke at the first Perennial Plant Association Symposium I attended and inspired an audience of growers, designers and students to think about the opportunities lying fallow in front yards around the world. Primeau advocated that front yards were doormats to our lives, a statement about who we are and how we welcome others into our home. Why settle for the sterility of turf and hedge when you could offer your neighborhood something beautiful? It’s a noble, but self-serving gesture. With only a little more than a half-acre to plant, I wanted to find creative ways to plant every square inch. If I inspired someone in the process, fantastic. But I needed to plant, to push the boundaries and say a little something about the ethics of my land.
When I made the offer on this house back in April, I had an immediate urge to set pencil to paper and draw. I had waited for this moment for nearly a year, looking at dozens of properties in search of the right canvas on which to plant: I mostly was searching for a garden and a place to sleep.
I doodled. I calculated. I actually drafted the first half of this plan in a few nights of insomnia by aid of scotch and Samuel Barber symphonies. But I didn’t touch it as the closing dragged longer into the summer. For a few nights at the end of August, I set out to complete it, even as the spreadsheets and the plant orders were long finished. I needed to. I’ve never had much talent in drafting or rendering, but I’m inspired by the pursuit even if my results look hieroglyphical at best. I convinced myself of the value in committing to a draft, even if it ultimately proved iterative.
My friend and colleague Thomas Rainer of Phyto Studio raised a question in conversation recently that illustrates the possibilities of what a meadow can be. He asked if my garden would feature only native plants in attempt to authenticate a certain wild ecology or if it would blend horticultural varieties, hybrids and contemporary ideas into a matrix that merely functioned in a wild sense. The answer is that my Meadow Nord (an amalgamation of Swedish which simply means “meadow north,” referring to the fact that my front yard project is on the north side of the house) is a horticultural construction, but with great consideration and planning for the communities of plants that form the matrix of the overall design.
Throughout this process I gave myself one rule, which I vowed to break with impunity if they didn’t satisfy the project’s natural direction. There are no rules in gardening that can’t be broken, consequences be damned. The Golden Rule: plant at least 75% of the meadow to things you haven’t planted before.
The Matrix by Design
I broke The Golden Rule quickly. The actual plant list (stay tuned) is about 50:50, in part the result of availability. Once settled on the concept and the flow for how I wanted to move through the space, I began considering the plants I needed to accomplish my goals. It probably goes without saying that I’m passionate about the ingredients, the essence of my last book Plants With Style. Much as I outline in the chapters of that book, my route to constructing a successful garden recipe begins with a careful consideration of the environment and its native ecology (even if that ecology isn’t entirely relevant in a human-dominated space). My property resides squarely in the savanna archetype, that ecologically fleeting, temporal transition between grassland and woodland. A meadow in the clearing makes good sense. But building a garden from that foundation requires a consideration of structure, the seasonal change in a landscape, its experiential moments and the unique elements that personalize a garden. Each of these components is plant-driven.
I began with the matrix, the functional layer of plants, that will come to support the integrity and sustainability of the overall design. The matrix accounts for 45% of the total planting composition. This weft of sedges, short grasses, rhizomatous and rosette-forming perennials will help to establish a continuum of green mulch that will suppress weeds, capture rainfall and do the bulk of the ecological work of the system. The (woody) structural layer accounts for only 7% of the planting composition, consistent with a savanna archetype that’s largely dominated by herbaceous perennials. Most of these shrubs have low-growing, sprawling habits. I weighed not using them at all, but I think shrubs are a missing component in contemporary New Naturalism designs. This is less an experiment in aesthetics (we have several gardens at Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden that utilize shrubs in these contexts), but more of how manage them in a dynamic, systematic planting in a home landscape. My vision (read: hopeful intent) is that they won’t too quickly outgrow their station or overwhelm their neighbors, but rather ultimately add a four-season framework to the planting scheme.