Sowing Beauty: A Guide to Designing Meadows

sowing-beauty-cover
Sowing Beauty. Copyright 2017 by James Hitchmough. Published by Timber Press, Portland, OR. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

In Sowing Beauty: Designing Flowering Meadows from Seed, James Hitchmough tells us about what we’ve lost. “Meadow-like vegetation” was once “much more abundant.” He traces its decline to industrial agriculture and development.

Hitchmough saw the design potential of meadow communities early in his career as a horticultural ecologist. He has spent the last few decades studying their characteristics and experimenting with their composition. The resulting knowledge compiled in Sowing Beauty will push meadow design forward.

Planting meadows is a departure from planting gardens. It isn’t planting with particularity; it’s painting with broad strokes. That isn’t to say meadows lack sophistication. Change can be observed in sown communities, and there is “nearly endless variation.” Spontaneity informs meadow communities more than gardens, which partially explains their charisma.

Artistic intention in the design of meadows appears through seed mixes, what you scatter on the soil to materialize a meadow. A good seed mix requires an understanding of how natural meadow communities occur and function. However, seed mixes don’t have to have to be identical to naturally-occurring communities. Hitchmough encourages experimenting with seemingly incongruous seeds to produce novel results.

Southern Hemisphere Garden, London Olympics park / James Hitchmough

“The choice of plants is the central challenge in all planting design,” Hitchmough writes. The planting site must factor heavily into any decisions. Meadows are complex communities, with ground, middle canopy, and upper emergent layers to consider.

Oxford Botanic Garden, UK / James Hitchmough
Meadow garden / James Hitchmough

Management of meadows must also be considered. Cutting helps manage weeds, but the cut material must be removed. Other practices, such as grazing and mowing are more suitable in some climactic zones or scales.

The complexity of meadows offers a lot of opportunities for the meadow designer, but also several possible pitfalls. Sowing Beauty, gracefully, does not deal in vagaries. Need to know a handful of species with high-design potential found within Rocky Mountain steppe communities? That’s on page 77.

The back half of the book is composed of case studies of Hitchmough’s own projects. Each case study is documented with species used, target numbers for seedlings, and the total plants required for each project. The projects discussed range in scale a from a couple hundred feet to over 24 acres (Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London). Each study has a “What Worked and What Didn’t” section, where Hitchmough discusses in detail the successes and failures of the project.

Planting a meadow / James Hitchmough
James Hitchmough at work / James Hitchmough

At one point during the film, I Heart Huckabee’s, the main character, an environmental activist, bemoans the over development of our landscape to the point “you can’t remember what happens when you stand in a meadow at dusk.”

“What happens in the meadow at dusk?,” asks an earnest Jonah Hill.

Some of us might smile at Hill’s ignorance, but too many others can relate. It would be wonderful if the advice and knowledge offered in Sowing Beauty resulted in many more of these endlessly-interesting and beautiful landscapes.

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