It’s not every day that you get asked to look after a project that aims to convert around 186,000m² (46 acres) of Essex countryside into picturesque flowering perennial meadows but nevertheless, this is happening at RHS Garden Hyde Hall and it is a exciting task to be involved with.
The first phase of the project, now in its second year, is approximately 7,000m² (1.7 acres). It is really starting to look good. There are plants from areas around the world including African grasslands, North American prairies and Eurasian steppes. Being a perennial meadow, it is filled with plants that you will recognise from your own gardens, including asters, gazanias, echinaceas, panicums, rudbeckias, euphorbias and kniphofias.
There are many different ways to create meadows but the Big Sky Meadow was created with the help and guidance of Professor James Hitchmough from Sheffield University. James (along with Nigel Dunnett) were Planting Design and Horticultural Consultants on the Olympic Park, and James has also helped install the perennial meadows at RHS Garden Wisley. His method is tried and tested on a large scale, which was perfect for what we were attempting to do at Hyde Hall.
Making a meadow
Creating the meadow firstly involved removing perennial weeds and grasses. The area was then mulched with more than 1,100 tonnes of sharp sand to a depth of 70–100mm (3-4in) to help suppress weeds and provide a good environment for germination.
The seed was sown in January 2015 but this can really be done at any time between October and the end of January. As the seed volume is minuscule, we mixed it with sawdust first to enable us to spread this evenly over the whole area. It was then coarsely raked in by hand with wide landscape rakes and finally, the whole area was covered with a jute erosion mat. This mat rots after a year or two, but it helps protect the seed bed from erosion and provides a good environment for germination.
In the first year, irrigation is of vital importance to help get the seedlings off to a good start. We installed a system of sprinklers across the site, which we used in dry spells; mainly through the critical period of March – June. It was important to get this balance right, as too little irrigation and the seedlings would obviously die, but too much irrigation would lead to anaerobic conditions (lack of oxygen in the soil), as well as encouraging weed seeds to germinate.
The project has not been without its fair share of problems, weeding is obviously one of them, but the biggest issues have in fact been due to the topography of the land (i.e. the slope that the meadow has been built on). Rain water during winter created gulleys through parts of the site. This has obviously meant sand and seed has been washed away and also the weed seed bank underneath exposed! Wet conditions at the bottom of the slope have meant poor germination, so this year we have raised 5,500 plug plants in our nursery to help fill some gaps.
It has certainly been a huge challenge for the team to implement something of this scale in the garden. We have learnt a lot from the experience, which we will carry through into the next phase, but for me, the hard work is really paying dividends now.
Although we achieved this on a large scale, this method can easily be applied to small areas in your own garden with minimal effort and cost. Once established, these meadows are low maintenance and create a visual and sensory experience like nothing else, with a vast array of colours, textures and also fantastic benefits for wildlife.
If you can’t create this at home, I encourage you to come and enjoy a relaxing stroll through this new and unique habitat this summer and experience Hyde Hall’s big open skies and far-reaching views.
Read more on planting your own meadow
Get more information about maintaining a meadow