Perennial meadows offer gardeners the opportunity to reduce the amount of garden maintenance they must undertake while at the same time increasing their garden’s appeal, both visually and for the benefit of nature, wildlife and the environment.
Getting rid of your lawn and replacing it with a perennial meadow that contains plants appropriate to the existing growing conditions will eliminate the need to mow the grass, water the grass and feed the grass; surely these are goals worth striving for?
The principles and practice of creating perennial meadow has been gathered together in the series of posts making up the Meadows 101 section of this blog. Here I want to detail the work schedule of creating and maintaining such an extensive perennial planting scheme. But let’s get one thing clear, there is no such thing as a maintenance free garden. I created such a garden for my mother many years ago. It consisted of raised beds filled with alpine plants situated just outside her windows and the rest of the garden was covered in gravel; it looked like an oversized burial plot.
Step One is the most boring, but also most inescapable task facing you. Any perennial planting deserves a good start in weed free soil. How you achieve this is up to you. Digging out all the roots of perennial weeds is time consuming and very hard work. You cannot rush it and will need to repeat the treatment two or more times before all offending material has been traced and removed. You could cover the area with black plastic sheeting and leave it to cook for a year after which time most weed will have died. I don’t have time for either of these methods and do allow myself to kill the existing vegetation with a systemic weedkiller. Many good gardeners will despise me for this, but I feel that a once only use of such a chemical is an acceptable compromise. The manufacturers of such chemicals claim that they are quickly broken down in the soil, environmentalist are equally adamant that they are not. What I do feel however, is that the chemicals should only be used once and at the minimum concentration necessary.
Step Two involves getting the soil ready to receive the young plants. We do not want to alter the character of the soil, nor do I feel it should be over dug. The aim is to produce a friable substrate in which the plants will quickly establish. A layer of garden compost spread over the surface and lightly forked in is my preferred method, but different soils will need more or less work. What must not happen is that you add excessive amounts of compost containing nitrogen which will promote vigorous growth at the expense of adequate root system development. Perennial meadows use tough species that simply do not need such pampering.
Step Three Planting can take place at any time so long as the soil is workable (winter), and in times of drought (summer) watering can be carried out. Between spring and late summer I will always immediately follow planting by applying a layer of mulch. In autumn and winter I will wait till spring before applying the mulch as it can do more harm than good to the young plants whose root systems have yet to fully mature.
The mulch can be anything you like from wood chips, sterile compost to gravel. The aim is to retain soil moisture in the establishment stage and inhibit the germination of weed seedlings.
Step Four is the point at which perennial meadow gardening becomes easy as from now on maintenance involves removing anything that flops, or breaks and becomes untidy; if it doesn’t then leave it alone and enjoy.
Step Five is the annual tidy-up. In my climate (the Netherlands) the best time for this task is any time in the first three weeks of February. By then the perennials are past their prime, silhouettes are shattered and generally the garden is telling you that it needs your attention. The danger is leaving it too late in a mild year, when your spring flowering bulbs will already be pushing their noses through the soil’s surface.
Many stems will be brittle and can be snapped off with a wave of your arm. Do not waste time taking them to the compost heap, instead, wearing gloves of course, snap them into short lengths and let them fall around the crowns of the still dormant plants. This creates a course mulch which helps protect the soil and will quickly disappear beneath the soon to emerge foliage.
In an established meadow weeding will usually be quickly completed as the dense planting typical of perennial meadow gardening leaves little room for them to become established.
When written down like this the maintenance regime for a low maintenance perennial garden seems anything but that. I cannot deny that the initial preparation work is far from light, but once it is out of the way the year on year maintenance is really quite simple. I started my own garden’s tidy-up this week and within three short, and beautifully sunny, afternoons the job was done. The snowdrops can now be seen in their fully glory, the hellebores are just starting to open their first flowers and I simply cannot wait for the first tulips to arrive.