May 24th, 2008
Meadow Progession

Zanthan Gardens meadow
2008-04-08. The meadow in full flower. You can’t see the garden for the flowers.

Thanks to my visitors during Spring Fling and the article on garden blogging in the Austin American-Stateman, the image most people have of Zanthan Gardens is the meadow. The meadow defies all rules of garden sense. In a world seeking low-maintenance gardens with year-round interest, the meadow is a high-maintenance garden which has only one good season: from mid-March to mid-May. Although it has some Texas wildflowers in it, it is not primarily a native plant garden. As gardens go, the meadow does not have strong bones. You can barely see the garden for the flowers. There is little ornamentation. And despite photographic evidence to the contrary, there’s no place to sit in it–yet.

As I’ve often said, when it comes to the garden, I’m more of a plant person than a designer. Yet the meadow has both a design and a plan. The design is constrained by shade and one of the reasons I like an garden of annuals is because it’s easy to move the plants around as the light/shade conditions change.

December 18, 2007

Zanthan Gardens meadow

By mid-December I have already been working in the meadow for over a month. First I have to clean out the summer weeds (mostly horseherb) and rake up all the leaves. As self-sown annuals sprout all over the yard, I transplant them in drifts. I make mini-beds in the buffalograss, add sifted compost, and then transplant larkspur, bluebonnets, and cilantro. People might think a wildflower meadow can be made by just broadcasting a few seeds and letting nature take its course but that doesn’t work effectively in a urban space–at least not for me.

I’ve designed the view so that it incorporates, rather than hides, the back yards of my two neighbors. I try to balance the drifts of flowers so that there is a back and forth rhythm–like a series of S-shaped switchbacks, or the flow of a meandering river, or something from Andy Goldsworthy. Trying to get the right balance of color and height blooming together and in succession is the challenge of the meadow garden–what keeps it interesting and fun year after year.

February 4, 2008

Zanthan Gardens meadow

Two months later and I’m still transplanting. The rosettes of the larkspur, bluebonnets, and Engelmann daisies are big enough to mulch around. Because this fall and winter were so dry, I did more mulching of the meadow than I’ve ever done before. I start poppies and cornflowers in seedbeds and then transplant them into the meadow. Cilantro is filling in on its own.

March 5, 2008

Zanthan Gardens meadow

A month later and larkspur is shooting up flower stalks. Bluebonnets are one of the earliest wildflowers to bloom. We had a mild summer in 2007 but a dry, hot fall. Almost all the bluebonnets that made strong plants this year actually sprouted last May and over-summered. The bluebonnets that came up when they’re supposed to in the fall, were small and had few flowers. Usually this time of year, the meadow is a sheet of blue.

Self-sown baby blue eyes and false dayflowers grow up along the back fence with no help from me at all. All I do to help it look more like a garden than a patch of weeds is weed out anything else so that flowers of one type are massed together. Drifts are the key.

April 3, 2008

Zanthan Gardens meadow

All the anticipation is rewarded with a riot of color: blue from the bluebonnets, pink from the pink evening primrose, white from the cilantro, yellow from the Engelmann daisies, maroon from the cornflowers. If I’m lucky, the roses, crinum lilies, and irises are blooming too.

May 12, 2008

Zanthan Gardens meadow

Even in while the garden is in full bloom I’m out “editing” it–pulling out flowers that have gone to seed, dead-heading to prolong the life of others, marking plants I want to save seeds from, and ripping out the ones I don’t so they won’t cross-pollinate. As the season winds up, the yellows take over.

May 15, 2008

Zanthan Gardens meadow

This year, just as I had cleaned out most of the meadow, the top 20 feet of that cedar elm in the middle of these photos fell on the meadow. I’m lucky that it missed the retama (in full bloom with yellow flowers), the sago palm, and the roses and Japanese persimmon (not in this picture). The variegated agave, the Lindheimmer senna (which was just filling out) and the crinum lilies were somewhat crushed but the damage relatively minor.

May 24, 2008

Zanthan Gardens meadow

Cleaning up the fallen tree limb put me a week behind on my tidying and mulching the meadow. A few stray spring flowers continue to bloom. The self-sown cosmos, annual black-eyed Susans, and clammy weed get along without any help from me–which is great because the heat and humidity are oppressive right now.

Extending the Season

I do have strategies for extending the season. I’ve tried planting sunflowers and morning glories but I they get too late a start to bloom well before the heat. I have better luck planting them in the fall.

I’ve had several trees removed so that there is more light in the meadow again. Now I’ll be able to replace several roses I’ve lost. Also I’ve been planting more ornamental grasses, succulents, and perennials (like Lindheimer senna). Pam/Digging has been passing along her sun-loving plants, zexmenia, perennial black-eyed Susans, and purple coneflowers. This year I decided that the hot, sunny meadow might be the best place for some summer vegetables. Peppers are my favorite because the plants are so attractive. But during the suffocating heat of summer, I prefer to keep the planting airy and open; I need room to breathe.

by M Sinclair Stevens

22 Responses to post “Meadow Progession”

  1. From Rachel from Austin:

    What I’m learning, both from you (and the other garden webloggers) and from my own experience so far is that it takes a lot of work to make a garden look effortless. I suppose that should be intuitive for now – certainly, the same is true of sports and art – but there’s an illusion in it all that I think people (who are talented in those areas) are loathe to dispel.

    The appearance of effortlessness–I think that’s a very important concept. I think the meadow is difficult because it tries to mimic the look of nature without reverting to nature. Without hardscape and obvious structure it lacks the normal controls that make a space look like a garden. — mss

  2. From Michelle:

    Excellent post on how to maintain a meadow garden! I have been knocking around the idea of ripping up what is left of the bermuda grass in my front yard and replacing it with Buffalograss and wildflowers. I realize it will be A LOT of work, which is why the idea is still just a dream. But your meadow looks so pretty! It makes me want to go tear out my bermuda grass right this minute!

    There are easier ways to go about it than I’ve chosen. In my neighborhood there are several one-flower massings of wildflowers, for example. My original intention was to have the buffalograss fill in during the summer after the flowers died down. But I’ve lost most of the buffalograss due to creeping shade. — mss

  3. From Gail:

    Your post is wonderfully comprehensive….if I ever decide to add a meadow, I will consider the committment it will take to get it to look as fabulous as yours does.

    Many of my difficulties come from constraints on my site (shade and slope). Choose a flat, sunny spot in a more temperate climate and the process will be easier than I’ve made it. — mss

  4. From Pam/Digging (Austin):

    Great post, especially with the seasonal progression of photos from the same vantage point. I should remember to do that.

    If you look at the meadow gardens at the Wildflower Center, ornamental grasses and agaves are natural companions to spring annuals. They carry a meadow through the summer and fall with minimal effort from the gardener. So good idea!

    I’ve tried many ornamental grasses over the years, killed them all, and am still trying). Until this year, shade has been a big problem in the summer. There is no watering system in the meadow (because the beds are always moving–and I wouldn’t waste water on it during the summer anyway.) Nor is it mulched in the conventional way because then the self-sowers would be smothered with the rest of the weeds. Personally, I don’t think agaves look very meadow-like. I’m not happy with the ones I have and I hate that prickly pear cactus. — mss

  5. From Esther Montgomery, Dorset, England:

    I’m feeling ashamed.

    I’m one of those who thought meadows sort of ‘do themselves’ once you’d got them started.

    I had no idea how much work was involved.

    Ester in the Garden

    A meadow which is a true meadow (out in a treeless field) might be able to do it itself. A true meadow has grass in it and is it mowed. My meadow doesn’t have enough sunlight during the summer to support grass (or summer blooming flowers). It is entirely hand-weeded because there is nothing to mow. It is less a meadow and more a series of beds with wildflowers or cottage garden flowers designed to emulate a meadow. — mss

  6. From Mary Beth @ Cultivating Paradise:

    What a huge effort for such and effortless looking meadow! It is absolutely beautiful and I love seeing the shots of its progression through the spring.

    Thanks. One of these days I’ll do another post about its progression through the years so that I can address all the issues that have come up in the comments here. — mss

  7. From Cinj:

    I wish I would have thought to take all of my pictures from the same general location. I’ve been looking through some of my pictures and debating when I should put up the next installment of extreme makeover garden edition and I just can’t find many pictures that really do it justice.

    I’ve been documenting the garden via this blog for 7 years–so I have a plan. — mss

  8. From Frances:

    Hi MSS, Your meadow was a highlight of the spring fling for me, what good timing, for it must have been at its peak then. Since you have been getting plants from Pam, do you have any of her bulbine? That is my favorite plant that she shows in her photos on her blog. I think roses would be a happy addition to your meadow too, now that you have more sun, and so many wonderful ones to chose from.

    I felt very lucky that the meadow peaked in time for Spring Fling. Many years the larkspur doesn’t open until mid-April. I love bulbine, too, and Pam’s promised me some. Yay! — mss

  9. From Amy:

    I never would have guessed that a meadow garden could be so much work. I was one of those who thought you just scattered some seed packets and were done with it. Boy, was I wrong 🙂 It is very, very beautiful though – certainly worth all the effort.

    I don’t think that a meadow has to be as much work as I’ve made it. Because this meadow lacks grass it is more like a very large collection of small beds (drifts) of flowers. That’s what makes it so labor-intensive–making it look like something it’s not. — mss

  10. From Annie in Austin:

    Walking through your meadow at its peak is a memorable experience, MSS – but it’s too labor-intensive for me to even imagine following in your footsteps.

    The way you painstakingly create the pattern of the meadow, enjoy the result, and then destroy it by pulling up the spent annuals is somehow reminiscent of Buddhist sand mandalas or Navaho sand paintings. Could something like portulaca/moss roses be used to make a midsummer pattern for you while still allowing you to breathe?

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

    You’ve hit upon the other key point. The thing I enjoy most about the meadow is its transformation. I like that it looks brilliant for a moment and then disappears–like fireworks. Your analogy of sand mandalas is very accurate, I think. I don’t want to deal with the meadow during the heat of summer. There are so many other gardens requiring my attention during a time of the year when I don’t even want to be outside. Just keeping the beds free of leaf litter and weeds is more effort than I want to expend on the meadow during the summer. I’m behind now on replanting the rose garden or starting the bog garden and tearing out the nandina to create a new north border. Let the meadow rest. — mss

  11. From Bob Pool:

    Lindheimer senna is used a lot. If you can find it you may want to try Two leafed Senna. It’s more of an orange yellow than true yellow. Mine bloom on and off all summer to frost. It would help extend the color season of your beautiful meadow.

    The Lindheimer senna began blooming yesterday. I like its velvety leaves. I did not think it died down gracefully last year. I may experiment with cutting it back this year. — mss

  12. From Mr. McGregor's Daughter (Chicagoland):

    What an amazing garden, & what an amazing amount of work! I can understand how you enjoy the progression of this garden. It is fascinating just looking at your photos of it. Maybe with more sun you could try the Buffalo Grass again.

  13. From Linda Lehmusvirta Austin Texas:

    Fabulous! I’ve created a semi-meadow in back and it’s encouraging to see others do it. I love the feel of being on a trek through the wilds, even in a backyard. Great job!

    Thanks. — mss

  14. From Linda Lehmusvirta Austin Texas:

    I didn’t know that you could transplant poppies! When you do you start them?

    I’ve read that poppies, larkspur, and bluebonnets are difficult to transplant because of their long taproots but I do it all the time. I transplanted the ones in the photo on Feb 19th and they began blooming in late April/early May. This was really too late. All over Austin they were blooming a month earlier. Next year, I’m going to try them in succession starting earlier. — mss

  15. From linda:

    MSS, I can definitely relate to what you said about being a plant person, not a designer.

    Your meadow is simply beautiful, and I think, beautifully designed.

    Looking at the photos gets me thinking, already, how I’m going to change it up for next year. — mss

  16. From Carol, May Dreams Gardens:

    Very informative post! I really enjoyed seeing the meadow, and though you talked about all the work you did to keep it up, until I read this, I hadn’t realized just how much effort it took.

    Hats off to you, as I know there are no books that tell a gardener how to produce such an effect; this is something you clearly learned through years of doing it.

    More gardeners need to learn that only by observing a space and planting it yourself, for several years, can you make such a garden as we were able to see in April when you invited us over during the Spring Fling.

    Thanks. I think one of the most valuable things about blogging is that it encourages people to document their gardens both in words and photos. I spend a lot of time just walking around looking at my garden. The next trick for me to learn is how to make the patterns more explicit so that other people can see what I see, what I’m trying to do. — mss

  17. From theManicGardener:

    I’m amazed by the work–and the beauty. Thanks.

    My pleasure. Thanks for stopping by. — mss

  18. From Dana Frank:

    The photos are so wonderful, especially for a nongardener like me, just to see how it evolves. Thank you! AND I’m going to point the editor of Austin Monthly Home to this post because what a wonderful article this could make.

    I’m glad you enjoyed it. Next year I hope you get a chance to see the meadow before it all goes to seed. It’s like viewing cherry blossoms. You have to grasp the moment. As Annie reminded me, that’s a great part of the appeal to me. — mss

  19. From rees Cowden:

    Way cool, I’ve always liked those time lapsed photography films. This comes close.
    Crinum lily, roses and cilantro….unusual combination but it sure works.

  20. From vertie:

    I love seeing the progression of the meadow. And now I can’t wait to see how it will change with the newly found sun in the backyard. It’s always something, huh?

  21. From Blackswampgirl Kim:

    I like that idea… keeping things airy and open to help combat the heat of summer. Thanks for the glimpse into the work that goes into your gorgeous meadow, MSS.

  22. From Bonnie:

    So good to hear the effort required to get your meadow as beautiful as it was in spring. It gives hope to the rest of us.