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A well-designed meadow will still look good, and offer texture and color, even in the fall (pictured here) and winter.
On a wet, overcast day in late October three years ago, volunteers planted a meadow garden in a retirement community near where I live in western Massachusetts. Using trowels and digging knives, they planted live perennial plugs into moist soil with the color and texture of a fluffy chocolate cake.
Seaside goldenrod can bloom late into the season.
Prior to the planting I’d worked closely with the residents to develop a custom list of nineteen meadow species suitable for the site. The community has a strong ecological focus, and the project’s goal was to attract and support pollinators of all kinds. It was also critical that the end result be very beautiful, as well as low-maintenance, in hopes of winning over residents skeptical that such lofty goals could be met. Meeting that bar called for a meadow garden—a small meadow planted with live plants, rather than seed. Perennial meadow seed usually takes a few years to fully establish but meadow gardens begin to dazzle in their first season. This meadow garden also had to be completed on a tight budget. To make that work, we decided to eliminate any labor costs.
Volunteers planting wild flower and grass plugs.
I laid out the plants and the residents followed up behind to plant them. I prefer planting this way because it allows for accuracy and the chance to make on-the-ground adjustments. The only question was whether it was something the retirees would be up for. Bending over doesn’t get any easier over time, and certainly not for a labor force in its seventies and eighties.So how did it all go? Beautifully. The 15, or so, volunteers planted more than 750 perennial plugs in a single day. In fact, by lunchtime, most of the perennials were in the ground. It helped that the soil was loose and already free of weeds, which made quick work possible. The results were almost immediate. Many of the species flowered within their first season. Now, three years later, the garden offers rich textures, colors, and food for pollinators throughout the growing season. Visiting the garden in late October it is still surprisingly colorful, with asters and goldenrod in full bloom.
In late July, during its third full season, the meadow has matured into a garden rich with color.
It’s such a pleasure to watch a meadow garden like this fill out and thrive. It requires almost no maintenance other than some cursory weeding and cutting it back in the spring. But one of my favorite things about it is that it provides interest and habitat well into winter.
Blue wood asters blooming in late October, three years after the planting.
The grass I used, switchgrass, tends to stay upright late into the winter months, providing a beautiful tawny color in the sunlight. And this garden attracts life even on a winter day. If you stick around and look closely between the husks of last summer’s growth, you’ll see overwintering birds picking seeds out of seed heads and searching plant stalks for insect eggs. If you stand close enough you can hear them rustling and scratching around in the remaining vegetation, a reminder of the amount of bounty that such a small space can support.
Switchgrass showing off in late day light. Grasses like this continue to offer this beautiful interplay with sunlight well into winter.
Owen Wormser was born and raised in rural Maine. He earned a degree in landscape architecture and quickly learned to use regenerative, low-maintenance practices in designing and building landscapes. Based in Western Massachusetts, his company, Abound Design, provides design, consulting, and installation services.In Lawns Into Meadows, landscape designer Owen Wormser makes a case for the power and generosity of meadows. In a world where lawns have wreaked havoc on our natural ecosystems, meadows offer a compelling solution: They establish wildlife and pollinator habitats. They’re low-maintenance and low-cost. They have a built-in resilience that helps them weather climate extremes, and they can draw down and store far more carbon dioxide than any manicured lawn. It is garden landscaping that is beautiful, all year round.Owen describes how to plant an organic meadow garden or traditional meadow that’s right for your site, whether it’s a yard, community garden, or tired city lot. He shares advice on preparing your plot, coming up with the right design, and planting—all without using synthetic chemicals. He passes along tips on building support in neighborhoods where a tidy lawn is the standard. Owen also profiles twenty-one starter grasses and wildflowers for beginning meadow builders, and offers guidance on how to grow each one.
Lawns Into Meadows is part of Stone Pier Press’s Citizen Gardening series, which teaches readers how to grow food and garden in ways that are good for the planet.
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