Wildflower Meadows, Pictorial Meadows – who cares?

I went to a fascinating seminar given by Nigel Dunnett last week – he of pictorial meadows. Nigel is one of the leading influencers of landscape design in the UK. His shtick is “naturalistic planting” and – my – he is a very impressive bloke. I first came across him at Chelsea many years ago, and his star has risen steadily ever since. He seeded those amazing annuals at the London Olympics, for example. He’s lovely – a great communicator (as you’d expect from a Prof!) and hugely well informed and trained. A proper botanist. He’s also an enthusiast.

I picked up a lot of practical tips, but the day also provoked some bigger questions. Nigel’s BIG IDEA is creating landscapes that people can immerse themselves in and – consequently – respond to. He feels that we all have a visceral and uplifting response to nature, and flowers in particular. He spends his time trying to trigger that response. Fab. He has a tremendous understanding of his trade, and how to best do this. How we need this kind of reconnection, which can be the gateway to all sorts of other understanding.

I’m interested in how he does this. First of all, he’s a botanist. He draws people in exclusively through flowers – not fauna. He’s really, really good at this. He has a combination of a botanist’s knowledge and a designer’s eye, which means he can effortlessly combine plant combinations from all over the globe.

Regular readers of these pages will know that we try to engage peeps through flora AND their associated fauna. Plant Purging buckthorn and you will get Yellow Brimstones. That kind of thing. Many of our native animal species have intimate and fragile relationships with our native plant species. It turns out too that pollinators generally prefer native flowers for pollen and nectart when given the choice.

As Nigel points out, this distinction between native wildflowers and other flowers shouldn’t be as black and white as it is often portrayed. The world I inhabit splits into two warring camps; at their extremes the native plants from local sites only faction, and at the other whatever it takes to make people happy. I guess commercial pressures accentuate these two views. We promote native plants partly because that’s what we sell. We sell them because we think they are important.

In fact the distinction between “native” and “non-native” is more nuanced. It’s on a sliding scale between what Nigel calls “ecological” planting at one end and “horticultural” at the other. I like this idea. I guess I’m somewhere more towards the “ecological” end than him. In two and a half hours of slides in his presentation the only animals that appeared were dogs and yaks.

He points out – quite rightly – that “ecological” planting has never really caught on, even in today’s enlightened times. “Wildlife gardening” is too often associated with a visually unattractive and untidy mess, which many people don’t like. Sometimes it’s challenging too. Wildflower meadows, for example, many people find difficult. They’re not engaged with the fauna they bring either – or often don’t even notice what turns up. Flowers, that’s the thing; easy quick flowers, in naturalistic drifts.

Nigel promoted this key idea by coining the phrase “pictorial meadows”. I’m still not sure I forgive him. Pictorial Meadows is now a company which spun off from his work at the University of Sheffield.

I do understand his rationale, and I love the marketing idea, but it has created a deal of confusion among the punters, and not to say difficulty for those of us promoting… actual meadows. Meadows are things with grass and perennial wildflowers, in my book. They’re not swathes of non-native and native annual wildflowers on their own, lovely though they may be.

This sort of planting needs the same preparation as meadow establishment, incidentally; low fertility soils cleared of existing weeds and grasses. I guess they need the same kind of levels of management too. They’re definitely more horticultural than ecological, however, and despite his protestations he must know that.

What do I mean by that? Pictorial meadows look fab. They have lots of flowers, lots of colour, and a long flowering window. “Traditional” hay meadows have less colour and need more managing because they include grass. It’s absolutely true that gardeners don’t necessarily want the grass and all the messing around it involves.

Fauna and flora
Nothing to see here…

It’s also true though that a traditional meadow will have more biodiversity than a pictorial meadow. They have perennial grass and wildflower species which allow all sorts of invertebrates to overwinter and fee their larval stages. The grasses don’t just support the obvious species like grasshoppers, they’re also great habitat for voles (and hence owls) and other small mammals and ground nesting birds, for example. It’s this that draws people in as much as the flowers themselves – more so, in my experience.

The meadow seed mixes we sell vary according to the location of their donor site. Not just the soil type but also the area of the country, which will dictate the species mix and which subspecies of plant you will get. Old meadows have evolved naturally over hundreds of years. All quite different to a pictorial meadow.

Pictorial Meadows’ success has annoyed me from a commercial point of view, as you’ll understand. Customers expect something from a meadow I don’t. They’re not attuned to its subtleties and fauna. They don’t see the way that native plants associate and adapt to local conditions. As Nigel says, the pleasure taken from the minutiae of the natural world is no small thing itself.

He also says that traditional meadow making is about restoration rather than creation. I don’t agree. Why not start a traditional meadow, even thought you don’t want any hay? Isn’t it a thing of beauty as well as biodiversity? How can you keep the grass out of it anyway?

This has all troubled me. But I’ve reflected on it, and you know what? Perhaps it matters less than I think.

We need more flowers now, and we need lots of them. We need to get people to reconnect with nature as quickly as possible. Lots of flowers might be a great way to do that, at least initially. Let’s not make perfection the enemy of the good.