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.

Sustainable Landscapes For The Future

I had an interesting day at Bristol University last week, learning about “sustainable landscapes for the future”. I still don’t know what “sustainable” means, particularly when used by landscape architects, but I did learn a lot else.

Two of my regular bugbears came up repeatedly during the day. The first is the lack of good quality science relating to the relationships between flora and fauna. As a non-scientist trying to do the right thing I’m finding this increasingly frustrating. The Urban Pollinator Project, run out of Bristol, Leeds, Edinburgh and Reading Universities, should help address at least one element of that. It is looking at pollinator biodiversity in different landscapes. Results are out shortly, and should be fascinating.

The second issue relates to my recent post about the RSPB’s Ad campaign, in a way. Nigel Dunnett, he of pictorial meadows, was one of the speakers. If you get the chance to listen to him lecture do take it. There are things he says I don’t agree with, but his passion and belief in the importance of reconnecting people with nature through flowers is spot on. I also absolutely agree with his view that there is a chasm between ecologists and horticulturists. The wildflower seed market, for example, is pretty much exclusively set up to service landscape restoration projects. Planners award BREEAM ratings for new urban developments if they’re planted with native as opposed to non-native plants. Garden designers won’t use plants native to the UK in formal design. They still plan gardens without thinking about their potential ecological value. Landscape architects seem to do the same with landscapes!

Wildflower roof
Attractive and biodiverse…
People want to live in landscapes which are aesthetically appealing. The knack is combining that with biodiversity, which means they’ll also be engaged with their environment.

What is a Wildflower Meadow?

What is a Wildflower Meadow?

Dear Habitat Aid,

What is a wildflower meadow? Every time I open a magazine and read a feature about wildflower meadows they seem to look very different. Although they look lovely, I don’t recognize many of the wildflowers I see in the pictures either. I want to have a wildflower meadow area in my garden and although I’ve read your other blog about it I’m still confused. Help!

Confused from Chiddingfold
Dear Confused from Chiddingfold
Wildflower meadow, SomersetIt is confusing. It seems to me that in the UK people understand very different things by “wildflower meadow”. At one end of the spectrum ecologists and conservationists call it semi-natural grassland. This is grassland untreated by herbicide and “unimproved” by fertilizers, but which has been altered by human activity like grazing livestock or cutting for hay. It is what you might think of as “traditional wildflower meadow”. There are 5 different types in the UK; limestone grasslands, marshy grasslands, acid grasslands, lowland meadows and pastures, and upland hay meadows. Wildflower meadow, SomersetTheir flora consists of native British grasses and wildflowers, of which they typically have between 15 and 40 species per square metre. These wildflower meadows all look quite different as their plants vary according to their locality. This variation can be very local. These three photos were taken within a month of each other, and Wildflower meadow, Somerset show different areas of the same traditional wildflower meadow around the corner from us in Somerset. It’s grazed by cows, by the way.

We’ve lost 97% of these wildflower meadows as land use has changed. Recently there has been a lot of interest in putting wildflowers back into the landscape, but in a more mannered way. Rather than trying to mimic traditional meadows, some designers are promoting meadows without grass, using native and non-native wildflowers. Nigel Dunnett calls these “pictorial meadows” and they’re very voguish. There were a lot around at the Olympic site, for example. They’re good for bees because they provide season long nectar flow, but they were orginally about visual impact.

What is a wildflower meadow? Cornfield annuals
Cornfield Annuals
People are also unclear about the difference between annuals and perennials. When some folk think of wildflower meadows they think of flowers like poppies and cornflowers – annuals. This is a slightly different thing again as they need a different regime and don’t really constitute a “meadow”. They also have limited biodiversity value themselves, but they’re often good to combine with perennials.

I hope that’s helpful.

Nick Mann
Dear Nick,

Now I’m really confused. What kind of wildflower meadow area do I want in my garden? I want something which will look nice, is easy to manage, and brings bees and butterflies into my garden. Are “pictorial meadows” actually bettter for doing this? Help!

Hi Confused,

Don’t despair! There’s no rule about this – I want you to end up with a wildflower meadow which makes you happy.

Whichever version you go for it’s a myth that they’re difficult to establish or manage. So long as your seeds or plants are sourced from a good supplier and you follow some basic guidelines you’ll find it easy. Remember whichever type of wildflower meadow you go for will require some simple management, although much less than a lawn or border.

What are your priorities? Go for a “traditional” wildflower meadow if any of these apply:

Six Spot Burnet
Moths Like Meadows Too

1. You’re restoring or creating a meadow area in a field or paddock.

2. You want to help preserve local British wildflower populations.

3. You like the unstructured look of it.

4. Improving biodiversity generally is an important aim for you. Designer combinations of non-native and native wildflowers can provide longer nectar and pollen flow for pollinators, but a traditional wildflower meadow will give you more biodiversity generally. Native grasses, for example, provide foodplants for butterfly and moth larvae.*

I should declare my interest; these tend to be the sort of people who are our clients. It’s particularly important if you’re going down this route to source your seeds or plants carefully, by the way. You wouldn’t want to use Slovakian seed to restore a meadow in Slough.

If your aims are different, by all means look at the Pictorial Meadow solution. These can give you a more designer, impressionist look, and have a longer flowering period.

Don’t feel that wildflowers should be restricted to wildflower meadows, by the way. You can use them in formal planting schemes or rubbing shoulders with ornamentals. Contrary to popular belief many of our native wildflowers have long flowering periods and behave beautifully in a garden setting.

Good luck with your wildflower meadow, and if you’ve got any more questions just drop me an email.


*I like the look of our grasses too, and they can be helpful in improving soil structure.

Better Wildflower Seeds

We’re starting a programme of random germination testing of the seeds in our wildflower mixes. So far as I can make out we’ll be the only reseller in the UK doing this. We’re also offering a testing service for our commercial customers buying bespoke mixes. Native Seed Technology in Scotland are doing the scientific stuff for us at their lab in Scotia Seeds.
It’s odd no-one else does it – the service is reasonably priced and freely available. We’re keen to show our seed is top quality as well as coming from the UK; when people buy wildflower seed they should know it’s viable as well as British. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a kitemark assuring them it was? Seed needs to be fresh and properly harvested and stored. It should be easy to grow wildflowers, but poor quality of seed from dodgy suppliers seems to be a recurring problem people have when they try. We want to do everything we can to improve their chances of success and to promote our suppliers.
It might also help consumers to understand that provenance is an issue, which most people don’t get. Last year I was startled to find the RHS cheerfully selling wildflower seeds from France at Wisley, for example – and not just because they weren’t supporting British growers.
You might want a lovely “pictorial meadow” effect in your garden, including all sorts of colourful non-natives. You might not though – in which case you don’t want anything odd cropping up in the mix, particularly if it’s a bully. There are also subtle genetic variations in our own flora which are worth trying to hold on to; a Bulgarian cornflower will be different to one from Berkshire.
If you think you are buying British wildflowers to grow you should be buying British wildflowers which will grow.

When is a Wildflower Meadow not a Wildflower Meadow?

I’ve written before about Nigel Dunnett, whose garden I admired at Chelsea. Nigel came up with the idea of the “pictorial meadow”:

Pictorial Meadows are colour-themed seed mixtures that create beautiful, impressionistic plantings. They were originally developed as a means of introducing cost-effective, simple-to-maintain vegetations for urban public spaces, combining great public appeal with high wildlife value. They are now used in a very wide range of situations, from private gardens through to major public parks.

Pictorial Meadows are designed first and foremost for their visual effect: creating waves of vivid impressionistic colour. They function and work like their natural counterparts, but are not intended to be exact copies of meadows that are found in the wild, and contain native wildflowers, but also non-native and garden plants to enhance the aesthetic appeal. They are therefore intended for use in parks, gardens, urban greenspace, and not for the open countryside.

They’re a great success, and provide nectar and pollen for a wide range of pollinators too. There’s been enormous interest hereabouts in a nice project down the A303 – South Petherton “wildflower meadow” – where a local landowner has brought together a collection of annual wildflowers from across the world to create a lovely kaleidoscope of colour. It’s not as blousy as the “meadows” at Butterfly World (illustrated), but very much in the mode of Pictorial Meadows.

This is not what Nigel Dunnett understands to be a wildflower meadow, though:

Pictorial Meadows create sumptuous visual effects; they are formulated primarily for their harmonious and impressionistic colour associations rather than attempting to copy the species compositions of meadows that might be found in the wild.

A “wild” meadow is what the ecologists would call “unimproved grassland”, which according to the Grasslands Trust is where:

Cover of wildflowers and sedges is generally over 30% excluding White Clover, Creeping Buttercup and injurious weeds. Typically there will be a diverse range of grass species which may include Blue Moor- grass, Crested Hair- grass, Heath- grass, Meadow Oat- grass, Sheep’s Fescue, Tor grass, Upright Brome, Quaking- grass and Yellow Oat- grass as well as the more common grasses of semi improved grassland above.

Is this just a semantic difference? If people are planting attractive flowers which are good for wildlife, isn’t that a good thing? Yes, of course, but they have begun to think that this constitutes a traditional wildflower meadow – or perhaps a wildflower meadow should be full of sunflowers! I’m not sure myself how to label these different styles. Does this confusion matter? Yes it does, as it will mean folk will create and value fields of sunflowers rather than try to make more difficult but much more ecologically important meadows. Contrary to Nigel’s advice, odd manufactured meadows are starting to pop up in the countryside. A proud landowner around the corner showed me a beautiful meadow last year which consisted entirely of North American annuals. Lovely, but really not very helpful. We have already forgotten what our meadows should look like, so sites like that and the one at South Petherton were met with a chorus of approval.

Why are traditional meadows more important than this? Pollinators like bees and butterflies will find an extended supply of pollen and nectar at South Petherton, which is great, but where will these and other insects overwinter? What do the butterfly and moth larvae feed on? What about animals further up the foodchain? Our native fauna have a series of complicated and exclusive long term relationships with our native flora, which means that a diverse wild meadow can support a fantastic number of animal species. Its plants are also an expression of local biodiversity; no site is going to look alike, and even individual species are going to be subtly different.

These native species have increasingly been relegated to “habitat restoration schemes”. Why not include them in people’s gardens to improve the gardener’s own habitat?! Pictorial Meadows are a brilliant practical solution for urban areas where easy establishment and maintenance and quick results are required. Gardeners and small landowners, on the other hand, are (potentially!) more skilled and patient, and appreciative of the more subtle effects of the flora, and of their associated fauna. We must persuade this vast army of the attractions of using native perennials and grasses in both formal and natural planting schemes, alongside non-natives or in “traditional” meadow areas, at the pond edge or by the patio. Let’s liberate our native plants from “wildlife areas” and think about using them as beautiful flowers and grasses in the formal elements of gardens. By clever landscaping we can create areas with very different characteristics on the same site and, consequently, very different and gorgeous looking areas – but that’s another story, and one which we’ll be illustrating at Hookgate Cottage.