[The balance of this post was drafted in October after most of the meadow was planted. The last two months seem to have escaped in a blur of travel and other obligations, but rather than rewrite the post into a more current tense, I have preserved its original context.]

October rumbles and autumn warbles–the organic music of a Saturday at home at Three Oaks. After months of parching weather, rains came earlier this month, a glad tiding for a gardener weary from watering. The yellow-rumped warblers passed through the hedgerow as the weather changed, playfully alighting the branches of the hackberries behind the house. Their ornithological acrobatics seemed ritualistic, a brief stopover for sustenance and rest on an only-just-commenced, neotropical journey. I’m delighted by these natural cadences and rhythms in my new landscape home.

Now that cold weather has settled in, I seem to have found a little more time for reflecting on “the project” this fall. A pair of shoes by the back door is encrusted with brown clay, the rich if not tacky substrate I’ve made a garden in. My notes are hasty inscriptions on the reverse of invoices and box lids. I typed a few into Evernote for each of the posts I imagined while hunched over planting. I have a pile of seed packets to frost sow, the timing for which might come soon enough. October 27 marked our first frost, a few weeks ahead of the last couple of years, but still later than the 20-year average in Des Moines, Iowa.

The next chapter of the Meadow Nord story–actually planting it–will require two posts. Here I have documented the approach, the layout and planting. In the following post, I’ll publish the plant list and my remarks about particular planting choices.

Planting Approach

Only the beginning of the pile of pots in the driveway! Photo by Deb Wiley.

The scale of this project (3,200 square feet) led me to install most plants (78%) as landscape plugs (from 32, 38 or 50-cell trays). For starters, it’s cheaper, but it’s also vastly more practical. For years, research has demonstrated that plants established from landscape plugs reach the same size within a year as plants established from one gallon pots, an insight that would seem to have disruptive potential for the horticulture and landscape industries, if consumer’s value perception followed suite (this study underscores what we might assume: people perceive larger plants to have more value. This pattern is also documented in trees, as well.) Plus, who likes digging big holes? I elected to install some plants at larger sizes (1-gallon or more), particularly slow-growing species like Amsonia and Baptisia that would scarcely have a chance of establishing if installed as plugs. A few slow-growing grasses like Sporobolus heterolepis ‘Tara’ were only available in 1-gallon pots, too. Species that I propagated myself, like my beloved Solidago drummondii (cliff goldenrod), were planted as quarts or 4.5″ diameter pots.

One of the overriding principles of New Naturalism is considering the landscape in ecologically dynamic layers and dimensions, so much so that when composing planting palettes, you have to plant more than 100% of the square footage. At first blush, this might sound confusing or impossible. Square footage is only a two-dimensional consideration of the landscape, which doesn’t account for the inherent complexity or interactions between the matrix, structure and the seasonally charged vignettes that come to make the garden functional and interesting. Traditional design simply chalks up the space between plants as something that “fills in over time,” which isn’t inaccurate but doesn’t define what fills in or how. Weeds or opportunists will happily do the job, while the balance of your intentions struggle to gain a foothold. In reality, a single unit of square footage is the frame for a three-dimensional column of plantable layers–vertical and horizontal–that plants can occupy many times over. These competitive relationships–roots fighting for water and nutrients and leaves shading each other–are the building blocks of sustainable plant communities.

Plugging Away

A man, a spray can and a mission. Photo by Deb Wiley.

Furthermore, embracing plant schemes as matrices as opposed to discrete groupings complicates not only rendering the design but the logistics for installing it. Some designers use map-like grids and organize plant material accordingly. Admittedly, I wish I had, although no strategy is perfect. Most of my plants were on-site when the planting process began, but several key ingredients were backordered for a few weeks, which added additional headaches (nothing unusual, frankly). In the end, my installation process followed my design process, which begins with matrix and structure and concludes with crafting artful vignettes; work first, play later. I walked over ground more times than ideally efficient, but with each pass, the vision for the design became clearer. I edited along the way and shifted course when the circumstances warranted. I couldn’t stop. I wanted to bum a head lamp and plug away, water, pull hose, putz. I’d waited all year for this moment to create something for myself. I selfishly cursed the sunset, even as it cast a strange silver glow over the meadow. I’m grateful for a “village” approach to planting with invaluable assistance from family and friends over the course of two weeks of intense planting.

Friends joined in the planting effort on Labor Day weekend. Photo by Deb Wiley.

Watering in the dark became the ritual to end my day even as the mosquitoes attempted to make dinner of my legs and arms. I purchased a small-scale Rain Bird automatic irrigation system as a means of temporary irrigation during the establishment period, though I continued to hand water areas it didn’t cover. The first few weeks were critical given that we received very little rainfall. This may have been the best $120 I’ve ever spent. The system could be permanent, but rather than trench and deal with water source issues, I rigged up a garden hose from a spigot on the side of the house as the feeder line and set the programming to run twice a day for about an hour. With all that clay soil, I calibrated that regimen to just once per day after a week to avoid inundating and drowning plants.

Within a few weeks, new growth showed on most of the grasses, sedges and forbs. Robins and cedar waxwings played in the soft spray of the irrigation heads each morning, dabbling their wings in the shallow puddles that accumulated on the cardboard scraps that traced the paths during the planting process.