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Ask The Expert: How to Plant a Meadow Garden, with James Hitchmough

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Ask The Expert: How to Plant a Meadow Garden, with James Hitchmough

April 29, 2018

It’s impossible not to be seduced by the drama and scale of meadow and prairie planting and James Hitchmough, a professor at Sheffield University in the UK, has worked on some of the most magical projects. Along with his colleague, Nigel Dunnett, he was in charge of the design and planting of an astounding 100,000 square meters of landscape at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park (site of the London 2012 Olympics).

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He is also a longtime collaborator with Tom Stuart-Smith and worked on the designer’s Hertfordshire prairie, as well as numerous other sites at botanical gardens and public parks in the UK and far beyond. And he has brought that 30 years’ experience into Sowing Beauty: Designing Flowering Meadows from Seed (Timber Press), a book that’s a must-read for anyone contemplating creating a similar landscape.

When we caught up with the author recently, we learned that there are no shortcuts to creating a meadow—but if you’re prepared to follow his guidelines you can create your very own spectacular naturalistic landscape. Here’s how.

Photography courtesy of Timber Press.

Designer Tom Stuart-Smith&#8\2\17;s prairie garden. In Sowing Beauty, &#8\2\20;I’m giving a view from the inside,” says Hitchmough. “It’s aimed at a broad audience, from people that are professionally involved as landscape architects through to ambitious home gardeners.”
Above: Designer Tom Stuart-Smith’s prairie garden. In Sowing Beauty, “I’m giving a view from the inside,” says Hitchmough. “It’s aimed at a broad audience, from people that are professionally involved as landscape architects through to ambitious home gardeners.”

1. Plant a test bed.

Hitchmough tests potential planting designs in beds that can be from one to eight feet square. It allows him to see how plants will work together visually, but just as important, how they will coexist.
Above: Hitchmough tests potential planting designs in beds that can be from one to eight feet square. It allows him to see how plants will work together visually, but just as important, how they will coexist.

Broadly speaking, Hitchmough assesses plants in their natural habitats to work out which plant communities will work together in a planting design. He’s not precious about natives—it’s more about finding plants that will work in harmony in certain conditions.

2. Keep out weeds.

One of the biggest issues for seedlings in a hand-sown scheme will be competition from existing weeds—or even annual weeds that blow into the planting site. “You’ve got to get rid of the competition,” advises Hitchmough. “What you start with you end with—if you have a lot of weeds, they will still be there once you have sown.” He advises spraying with herbicide to kill off existing vegetation (preferably at least twice, four to six weeks apart). If you don’t want to use chemicals, you can cover the site for a year to eradicate weeds.

3. Use a mulching layer of sand.

Once your site is cleared, then a thick layer of sand will also help keep weeds down and give a clear clean base for the seeds to germinate. It’s fairly cheap, readily available, and one of the best mulches for germination. At Tom Stuart-Smith’s prairie garden, they used a 100mm layer of sharp sand. Make sure that the sand you ship in has not been sitting in an exposed site collecting weed seed. On sloping sites, you can also use jute matting (Hitchmough uses Soil Saver matting), which will stop seeds from being moved and help to keep moisture in.

Stipa giganta and wildflowers edge a gravel path in the Merton borders at University of Oxford Botanic Garden.
Above: Stipa giganta and wildflowers edge a gravel path in the Merton borders at University of Oxford Botanic Garden.

4. Sow your area methodically.

Sowing Beauty has lots of images of Hitchmough deftly sowing bucket loads of seeds broadcast over his project sites. It needs to be methodical to ensure that the seeds are evenly distributed over the entire area. He uses damp sawdust as a carrier for seeds which is both light and makes it far easier to see where you have covered the ground. Seed can be surprisingly expensive—especially if you are sowing a large area—and some are tricky to germinate, so for some plants Hitchmough recommends planting nine-centimeter plants (equivalent to plants in four-inch nursery pots in the US) among the sown seed.

5. Don’t forget irrigation.

Seeds need moisture to germinate but they are also extremely vulnerable once they have sprouted. It’s important to irrigate these delicate seedlings every few days to stop them dehydrating, and in dry climates it’s worth watering regularly over their first summer.

Purple asters in bloom.
Above: Purple asters in bloom.

6. Do one simple cut back.

It’s no easy task preparing the area for a hand-sown prairie, but if it’s established well, then the maintenance is much less than for a herbaceous border down the line. Tom Stuart-Smith has even done the math for us, calculating that a meadow requires 10 percent of the time it takes to tend a conventional mixed herbaceous planting. A wildflower meadow—and to anyone in England it’s the rural hay meadow—is always cut in high summer and the seeds in it then disperse in preparation for everything to grow the following year. For many of Hitchmough’s planting designs, plants are cut back to around 20mm-50mm in spring (in a similar way to cutting back borders).

A copy of Sowing Beauty is \$\27.\16 from Amazon.
Above: A copy of Sowing Beauty is $27.16 from Amazon.

7. Choose your seed supplier carefully.

You can buy the same seed five times in one year from the same source and the success of germination will vary enormously. Hitchmough says that seed companies that sell to horticultural nurseries tend to have the highest quality seeds (it would be instantly apparent to professionals if seeds were not good quality). He recommends Jelitto Perennial Seeds, Pictorial Meadows, Emorsgate, and Prairie Moon in the US.

For more ideas for meadow gardens, see:

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