Tuesday, 7 February 2012

The Natural Look

The desire to have a little piece of nature gets stronger among garden owners and makers.  I have written before that I think the deep need we seem to have at present for gardens and landscapes that evoke natural plant communities and wild places is in part a guilty response to the horrors that we, as humans, visit on the environment in other arenas.  Such landscapes may be our way of making some small recompense for the over-use of the planet.

An unmanaged meadow

The irony is that to create the multi-flowered pictorial appearance of the modern meadow requires a lot of work and intervention.

The weedy ground in an olive grove

Unimproved agricultural settings can offer a template for these landscapes - the weedy ground in orchards, vineyards and olive groves is almost a matrix through which the trees emerge, but is not necessarily an attractive backdrop in its own right.  However, where plant communities have had time to develop over long periods of time it is possible to see a large variety of plant species in a stable community.

The flowering meadow in a vineyard - late spring

To create a flowering meadow from scratch, with a good percentage of forbs (the flowering plants rather than grasses) requires the soil to be, generally, impoverished.  This can be done over a long period by repeated cutting and removal of grass - the quick solution is to scalp the area, removing topsoil.  In doing so, the grasses are deprived of their required nutrients and the tougher flowering plants have space to grow.  Eventually the initial seeding will settle down to a stable community of flowers within the grass matrix.

Natural plant communities may not be very mixed or attractive

A short-term meadow can be created by ploughing then seeding with a chosen wildflower mix, including grasses.  The meadow will flower impressively in the first year, but after this the number of flowering plants will rapidly decrease as the grasses out-compete them.

A seeded meadow can make a spectacular show in the early years

The team at the University of Sheffield (Nigel Dunnett and James Hitchmough) experimenting with pictorial meadow mixes will have their work tested to destruction this year, with millions of people seeing and experiencing their work at the Olympic Park in the summer.  Their seed combinations are in no way reflective of any particular meadow community - they put together combinations of attractive plants that suit the setting and aspect, and which give a plausibly natural feel when established.  Over several seasons natural selection takes over and some varieties decline in favour of others, but such is the nature of these dynamic plant communities.

Plant communities in a matrix of grass can use ornamental plants when carefully managed

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