The Perennial Meadow
I must confess I have always been drawn to the idea that areas of a garden, or landscape, should offer an opportunity to sit enveloped within a sea of colour, scent, texture of foliage and flower. If I was to look to where the inspiration, or indeed notion, of this desire originates it would have to be childhood summers spent running through the wildflower meadows on my grandparent’s farm. I remember as a child dropping to the ground and looking up, all but invisible except to the blue skies overhead masked in the rich scents of wildflowers and grasses alive with the busy buzzing of insects.
The perennial meadow actually came about by accident to begin with, being an area of garden within a much larger project that I undertook at Goyt House, Marple Bridge, Cheshire, for clients Warren & Ruth Dickinson. When I say by accident, they initially contacted me to deal with a very difficult slope to the front of Goyt House. The house itself virtually sits mid-point within its own private little valley sloping down from top to bottom to meet the River Goyt. It also has one of the most spectacular driveways I have yet come across, opening up to somewhat pastoral views across fields of sheep to the peaks beyond. Following a long discussion about the project I had been asked to come and look at, The Front Slope Garden, Warren asked if I would like to see the rest of the gardens which lay to the rear of the house. The first area to the rear, little more than a badly neglected dark and overgrown steep slope which made it feel very uninviting. Up some meandering steps we made our way to the top of the plot and the only reasonably flat part of the site. I asked Warren what the plan was for this area to which he replied, nothing really, as we never come up here. He explained, their son Jacob had used it when younger when his friends were over they would camp out for the night. Now that he had grown up it was not used for anything. My comment at the time was, it seems a terrible waste of a valuable opportunity, as looking just beyond a boundary hedge I glimpsed horses in an adjacent paddock. As my eyes turned they carried across those aforementioned pastoral fields of sheep and on to further views of the distant peaks.
For the next 6 months the top garden, now perennial meadow, was more or less forgotten as we focused on plans and the instillation of the front sloped garden. During that process a conversation ensued about the overgrown and severe mid slope to the back of the house leading to a comment, Ruth would love some colour to look at out through the kitchen window, overlooking as it did directly onto this uninviting area. As we worked on clearing the area we started to find the remnants of what once would have formed stone terraces and it became obvious the site had previously consisted of a set of planned and well maintained gardens, now buried under years of overgrown neglect. In fact, Goyt House, presented me as a designer and plant-a-holic a unique opportunity to create a series of gardens with very separate and distinct aesthetics due to each areas unique aspect within the plot. The front of the house, assuredly contemporary, dictated a fresh and contemporary response. Whereas the back of the house, I’m sure Warren and Ruth will forgive me for the description, is pretty much plain and nondescript. The old steps and bit of terracing in this area of the gardens lent a more traditional feel with York stone threads, gravel paths and jutting pieces of stone.
Meanwhile the top garden, sitting as it did behind screening pine trees and rhododendron, offered a readier connection to a more rural and naturalistic approach. Rather than compromise the rest of the gardens I felt this would enhance and add to the sense of adventure and discovery in the grounds as a whole. As we slogged away on the rear slope, slipping and sliding in mud as we attempted to fashion it into a plant filled haven my thoughts continuously retuned to this unused top space. Dropping hints a few times over the months of the wasted opportunity Warren and Ruth eventually agreed this would be a separate project from the rest and asked what we could do with it? The challenge and brief then set, to create a sea of colour in year one. In designing a planting palette for this area of garden I also wanted to shun any idea of prairie planting. Instead, focusing on the colours and textures more often associated with an English meadow, albeit a perennial alternative. Over the coming weeks I created mood boards of possible plants and shared my vision of using only perennial plants. My plan to form dense planting palettes around a platform, which, although big enough to furnish, would envelope you in a sea of colour with plants tall enough to mimic the notion of being adrift in a tranquil meadow.
Given that the ground had been left pretty much unused for an unknown number of years a few digs and soil testing proved the ground to be in pretty poor condition. In parts it contained little more than a thin layer of soil sitting on a compacted clay base. To minimise further compaction following cultivation, the site was first levelled and cleared of vegetation. The platform and steps were installed prior to the soil being turned over with a digger, then hand dug with the addition of topsoil, peat free compost, bagged spent mushroom compost to improve fertility, along with a top dressing of blood, fish and bone meal. Timber stepping pads rather than a construed path, or boardwalk, allowed me to create the experience of wandering through a field of flower without the need to trample, or damage, the plants. Using a mixture of, Geranium Rozanne (‘Gerwat’) along with, Stachys byzantina ‘Silver Carpet’ framed the stepping pads. This planting combination also visually draws the eye towards the platform whilst at the same time softening the timber work.
To some extent this references and pays homage to the discovery of covered parts of the original gardens lost over time to plants and nature. From here, the idea was provide as much textural context, as colour contrast. It is also an evolutionary colour wheel, starting more or less with the slow opening of Allium aflatunense ‘Purple Sensation’ A wonderful allium that fills the garden with intense early summer colour as a tight ball of purple before opening to a mass of individual pale pinkie spikelets that resemble sparklers. Dotted throughout, tall spires of Digitalis purpurea ‘Alba’ add nodding vertical drifts of pure white hairy racemes that quickly fill with nectar hungry insects all adding a real sense of drama and wild nature. Slowly, lacy fronds of Foeniculum vulgare ‘Purpureum’ and Stipa tenuissima ‘Ponytails’ evoke a softening of this wispy canvas into picture meadow wonder. Colour is further lifted above silvery greens by the addition of the unfurling, Papaver orientale ‘Patty’s Plum’. Another flower of true beauty, as well as a personal favourite, enhanced and lifted skyward by the strong carpet of lower mixed foliage.
The temperature is again notched up as summer progresses with a splash of vibrant red and black of Papaver orientale ‘Beauty of Livermere’ and Achillea ‘Walther Funcke’ graduating to a sea of dusky oranges of Achillea ‘Terracotta’ and Helenium ‘Waltraut’ complimented by caught glimpses of blood red tips of Imperata cylindrica ‘Red Baron’. Following on and keeping the season going soon the cone flower of Echinacea purpurea ‘Ruby Giant’ will peer above the haze adding a new dimension to the evolving picture before cooling down to seasons end with the pure white petals and long lasting flowers of Anemone hybrida ‘Honorine Jobert’. The winter meadow that follows should create a scene no less enticing on a cold clear day with frost covered seed heads and papery brown spent flower stems before all is cut back to ground level in early spring in preparation for next years new growth and a return to high summer colour. In the meantime, here’s to vintage Champagne sparkling in the summer sun in “The Perennial Meadow”.
It’s all about the plants, it always is!
David Keegan 2019 ©
This article first appeared in the August 2019 issue of Pro Landscaper in the UK.