Nature Designs Meadows – We Only Need to Copy

Larry Weaner, Larry Weaner Landscape Associates, argued that a designed meadow will fail unless you keep very closely to how nature herself designs these highly complex, competitive ecosystems. At the ASLA 2012 Annual Meeting in Phoenix, he said in these vital spaces “plants are slugging it out.” All that fierce competition yields endlessly interesting designs that can be augmented by bold flowers that clients prefer.

One central argument Weaner made was to “match the right plant to the habitat.” While adding compost and top soil can enable landscape and ecological designers to “use a wider palette of plants,” these types of rich soils will also invite in weeds. The plants that can tolerate horrible soils may also flop if they are put in rich soils they aren’t used to. They really just need the soils they have evolved to survive in.

With large designed meadows, Weaner also said to consider the impact of micro-habitats. Plants near forests or far, in the shade or sunlight, will respond differently, creating different zones within the fields of grasses and forbs.

To ensure the meadow becomes self-sustaining, stable, and actually functions as a natural system, Weaner said to use plant communities found in nature. He defined a plant community as a “group of plants that grow together and have complementary niches.” He said this is really the only way to go given these plant communities have evolved together over thousands of years and formed relationships that we know almost nothing about. “We know so very little about their interactions.” He added that if the plant communities are incomplete, invasives will get in an alter the system.

Human disturbances of these systems almost give opportunities for plants to enter the designed meadows. Weaner, a sort of plant-world Sherlock Holmes, described how he could tell exactly when a meadow was disturbed because of the presence of Black Eyed Susans, which opportunistically enter the mix when there are disturbances. He explained how those plants would eventually get pushed out of the functioning meadow once it had recovered.

Weaner eloquently spoke of the complex interplay between plants, how early or late stage, 1st, 2nd or 3rd year seedlings all work to create a symphony of plant life. But he was also pragmatic: “You can’t maintain acres of designed meadows if you don’t get the plant communities right.”

Steve Haines, Prairie Moon Nursery, outlined all the work that goes into designed meadow seed mixes. He argued that measuring seed quality per ounce wasn’t a good way to go because seeds obviously differ in size. His spreadsheets showing percentages of seeds that constitute a designed meadow were fascinating artifacts in themselves. Nature quantified.

A landscape architecture firm well-known for its knowledge of plants and work creating grassy native landscapes, Oehme Van Sweden, also presented some of its residential designed meadows. Eric Groft, ASLA, consciously creates transitions within his landscapes from man-made to natural zones, but, of course, he’s also designing the natural zones. In one project for a client along the Chesapeake Bay, Groft described how a coastal farm was totally remade as a meadow. After “wicking out” the residual herbicides and eradicating the “bad” plants, tens of thousands of new meadow plants that like wet conditions were planted. Groft noted that these “landscapes are always changing” so were also designed to evolve.

In another example, Groft walked the crowd through the creation of a meadow in a 100-acre horse farm in upstate New York. The well-off couple wanted different things: the wife, the horse lover, wanted more space for them, while the husband didn’t want to see paddocks all the time, but a more designed landscape. The compromise landscape has rough and manicured lawns, plus a new meadow created by Weaner. It’s a combination of the landscape and meadow worlds.

All speakers argued that creating meadows is both an art and a science, a joining of nature and man. Beyond the artistic considerations, though, meadows also provide rich habitat for bird and plant life, control erosion, and capture stormwater. Recreating these complex systems is clearly worth the time and expense.

Image credit: Oehme Van Sweden

One thought on “Nature Designs Meadows – We Only Need to Copy

  1. RBeckwith 10/03/2012 / 1:00 pm

    With appreciation for Larry Weaner’s insights

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