Monday, May 14, 2012

The Meadow Garden

A type of wildlife friendly landscape that is attracting a lot of attention these days is the meadow garden. Even though this style of garden is considered one of the most beneficial it is also the most informal. There are key points one should take into account before jumping in with both feet.

One of the main considerations is maintenance. Unlike other styles of native gardens, the meadow garden requires regular attention during the establishment phase. In order to achieve optimum seed germination, seed to soil contact is very important. This can present a challenge in that most other types of native gardens in California are finished off with a thick layer of mulch or to a lesser degree DG (decomposed granite).

Both of these finish materials provide weed suppression and a thick insulation blanket for moisture retention. This issue is a key challenge with this particular style of landscape. Because seed to soil contact is a critical component, using mulch as a finish option can be tricky.  Additionally, DG typically doesn’t provide the degree of naturally occurring soil nutrients wildflowers prefer without augmentation. What this translates into is regular and copious amounts of hand weeding and supplemental irrigation.

Another key component is seasonal dormancy. To the degree that the meadow garden is informal means that from an aesthetic perspective it may not be an appropriate choice for the front yard of a suburban home. Typically these gardens work well in rear yards where they can be left to the natural ebb and flow of nature's processes. They lend themselves well to areas where wildlife can interact in ways that Mother Nature intended within the wild spaces of rural areas.

The ideal condition for birds, butterflies, and insects is an environment that is allowed to move completely through its natural cycle of decomposition, rebirth and maturity. All of the aforementioned critters prefer 'messy areas' where these natural rhythms are in the process of playing out.

With this said, the first step forward into a meadow garden begins with site prep. In my rear yard for example after deciding to turn off the irrigation, I observed as the old lawn began to slowly deteriorate. Due to household budget constraints and competing visions of how the space would be developed, I decided to move ahead with a meadow garden in the interim until such time as I could develop a formal plan.

Facing the daunting task of turf grass removal, I opted to leave some existing grasses in place; basically the species that survived the new watering regime and that were growing in areas that suited my aesthetic sensibilities. The rest of the areas were raked out to make way for wildflower seeding and native plants indigenous to the wild areas surrounding my neighborhood. I chose as well to include cultivars.

Unlike traditional turf, meadows have many different types of grasses each with varying heights, bloom times and colors. For my meadow I chose several species including Bouteloua gracilis Blue Grama, Deschampsia caespitosa Tufted Hairgrass, Melica imperfecta Coast Range Melic, Muhlenbergia rigens Deergrass, Nassella cernua Nodding Needlegrass,  N. lepida Foothill Needlegrass, N. pulchra Purple Needlegrass, Elymus glaucus Blue Wildrye, Festuca californica, and Festuca rubra ‘Patrick’s Point’. Included as well were some popular grass-like species such as Sisyrinchium bellum Blue-Eyed Grass, Carex pansa California Meadow Sedge, and Carex tumulicola Berkley Sedge.

California state grasslands naturally consist of bunchgrasses spaced apart with open areas between them where annual wildflowers fill in. Additionally, flowering shrubs can be found mixed in and at perimeters. I followed this method when placing woody plants such as Eriogonum, Salvia, Monardella, and other flowering shrubs including  Aster chilensis and Lessingia californica Carmel Aster.

Seeds of wildflowers were then sown including Nemophila menziesii Baby Blue Eyes, Clarkia amoena and C. unguiculata Mountain Garland, Gilia capitata Globe Gilia, Salvia columbariae Chia, Collinsia heterophylla Chinese Houses, Lupinus succulentus, Calandrinia ciliate, Claytonia perfoliata, Layia platyglossa, and two selected forms of Eschscholzia californica California Poppy, 'Carmine King Poppy' and 'White Linen'.

Many of these wildflowers have tall and wiry stems allowing them to seamlessly blend into the surrounding grasses. Of course a select piece of dead wood had to be included as a finishing touch to create additional habitat while simultaneously providing food, shelter, and nesting places for birds and other garden-friendly critters.

With all the aforementioned information taken into account, appropriate site conditions, and if the extra work required doesn’t intimidate you, a meadow garden is a wonderful way to create a small slice of natural heaven right in your own little corner of suburbia.

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