BY DAVID LENNAM | PHOTOS BY JOSHUA LAWRENCE
Meadows are not only beautiful — creating layers of colour and texture that provide year-round interest — they are low maintenance, good for the environment and provide food for the birds and the bees.
There’s an intangible bliss being surrounded by a meadow, as if Wordsworth were whispering rhymes against a backdrop of birdsong, while myriad scents rise from a carpet of wildflowers and grasses. There are few sensory experiences as soothing or desired.
To find a dream house in a meadow is magic. Assembling one around your current home, however, is not only achievable, but equally enchanting. This is how Nadia and David Youngson literally brought the meadow to their five-acre Salt Spring Island property, with the help of Bianca Bodley of BIOPHILIA design collective.
The Youngsons had recently sold another Salt Spring home that was surrounded by high-maintenance English-style gardens. When they moved, and built anew, they wanted something equally lovely, but with far less maintenance.
“Tranquil without being minimalist,” says Nadia. “A lot of interest, but peaceful.”
Bodley, a Victoria landscape designer experienced with meadow gardens, knew the continuing drought conditions on Salt Spring meant planting sustainably, but with a flair offering an ever-changing panorama.
“For me, it’s one of the most beautiful things to look out on. It’s not drawing your eye to one fixed point. It’s like looking at a blurry watercolour, as opposed to something very detailed.”
She understands how a garden can be an extended landscape view, rather than a series of predefined beds.
Beyond the artistic appeal, meadow gardens provide a haven for wildlife, particularly birds and pollinating bees. They’re drought tolerant and don’t require a lot of irrigation.
“In a landscaped garden, you normally have a lot of space between plants,” says Bodley, “but in a meadow you have plants touching. That reduces weeds and the evaporation of water and makes it cooler.”
Additionally, there’s no fertilizer required, as meadows don’t need nutrient-rich soil. There’s an axiom for that: The worse the soil, the better the meadow.
Finally, the meadow garden is relatively inexpensive, compared to the more manicured option.
New trees and shrubs are the major cost. Meadows are more about grasses, wildflowers and native plants.
PLAN BEFORE DIGGING
The Youngsons had constructed a modern farmhouse, and Bodley’s job was to create a meadow that looked like it had always been there.
“It’s always about colour and texture and varying heights and year-round changing interest and also movement,” explains Bodley. “Grasses evoke such a peaceful feeling of constant movement, and the flowers create changing colour interest throughout the year.”
Homeowner and designer bonded over a mutual love of influential Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf, who Nadia says uses bold drifts of perennials and grasses chosen for their structure as much for their colour.
The Youngson’s single-level modern barn-style house has huge panoramic views of the ocean, so the couple didn’t want a lot of trees or large bushes blocking that vista. Nadia describes ocean breezes setting it all in motion: “These beautiful three- or four-foot grasses are waving in the wind.”
Bodley planted a combination of ornamental plants against the house (for year-round colour), then transitioned to meadow, with a majority of native flowers (native daisy, foxglove, poppy, white yarrow, Queen Anne’s lace and lupine) in the sunnier areas, and native plants (sword fern, bear’s breech, salal, Indian plum and Cascade Oregon grape) leading into the surrounding forest.
Grasses, including low maintenance and drought-hardy fescue and short rye, fill out the palette.
“You have to pick the right grasses for a meadow to be successful, and also trim down the grass early in the season to allow for adequate light to germinate the flower seeds. The grasses need to be drought tolerant, low maintenance and to be low growing to allow for light to penetrate the flower seeds.”
And beware there aren’t invasive or choking grasses or flowers, which, cautions Bodley, will take over.
She also warns of spatial considerations when planting a meadow garden, such as engaging focal points when looking out from the home, how you’re going to use the property and travel around it.
“You don’t want to block views and you want to have proper sun exposure.” It’s also important to appreciate how the garden will interact with the land if you’re grading and creating slopes and pockets of flat areas.
She suggests some early steps before putting spade to soil.
• Assess the lighting.
• Examine the soil conditions and whether the site needs some remediation (it will if it’s mostly rocks and clay).
• Determine irrigation to get the meadow established and assess drainage.
• Plan out topography and views.
• Consider desired colours and textures.
• Select non-invasive, low growing and drought-tolerant grasses.
• Select a desired combination of flowers that will provide spring, summer and fall interest.
And don’t be impatient. A meadow garden takes a couple of years to come into its own.
“There’s at least a two-year touch-up program, so you have the right composition and can see if you want to add things. It needs a full season of growth to see what you’ve planted.”
A GROWING TREND
Meadow gardening is on the rise, maybe more in Europe, says Bodley, but it’s securing traction here.
“It is gaining interest for sure, especially given people’s understanding of the importance of creating habitat for birds and pollination for bees, and also the desire to create beautiful, but still sustainable, landscapes that are drought tolerant.”
It was the Romantic poets, whose intention of calling us back to nature, to them that most pure and spiritual force of renewal, inspired an awakening during the late 18th century. The concept of an idyllic pastoral landscape was championed by “Capability” Brown — the Shakespeare of English garden design. Meadow gardening also embraces the Japanese idea of wabi-sabi, encouraging imperfections, asymmetry and incompleteness.
But let’s not get too esoteric here. Meadow gardens are really all about less work, less water, less fuss – and the esthetic of a painting by Monet.