design with meadow/how to unplow a prairie

Stop children, whats that sound, everybody look what’s going down.       Steven Stills, 1966, Buffalo Springfield

check this guy’s cool post about plowing prairie                        

Okay, so how does a person like me explain how to build a meadow garden in their back yard in an hour?

My challenge last Friday was to describe how best to go about building a meadow. My audience was a group of folks who were interested in horticulture, mostly.

I have designed a few meadow gardens. My favorite meadow isn’t necessarily the most beautiful one, or the biggest one or the most successful one. Its the garden of a friend and her artist husband who understand that their meadow garden is a process. She knows that it takes time to mature.

She is the garden enthusiast in the family. She looks at the one year old meadow as structure for raising wild things: critters and all. She doesn’t pay much attention to the “weeds”. She looks for the good stuff. After all, that’s the point in having a meadow: to enjoy nature’s gifts and to house and feed and enjoy watching and living amongst the wild things. Not every acre of land has to be mowed or paved, you know. She gets it. She doesn’t want to travel to a national forest a hundred miles away to see cool stuff. All she wants to know when I visit is that everything’s okay and that it is progressing as it should. I’m not too sure of what her neighbors think. She’s raised concern once or twice about this but I don’t think she should worry much about it. She lives at the dead-end of a road and its her and her husband’s property, after all. I wonder what the neighbors will think when they light the thing on fire come February. That aught to raise some eyebrows.

Its kind of funny how folks who don’t understand wild stuff bitch about it and want to “clean it up”. It reminds me of the story of when the Algonquin native Americans met the first Europeans, they were disgusted and grossed out by them. The Europeans stunk because the never bathed and they blew their noses into rags and carried them around in their pants pockets. The Algonquins couldn’t believe that people could be such “savages”!

The wife of this meadow-owning couple knows her plants pretty well and she actually wrote a very popular book on wildlife habitat gardening, so my salesmanship was not needed here; just my prairie seed and my prairie-meadow building skills.

She is always looking for the new plants that pop-up from the seed we planted, and gets really excited about many aspects of her garden. That makes me really happy. She looks deeper for the results from the plants. I mean, who would get excited about sawfly larvae eating the leaves of one’s hibiscus? She probably would. She knows that these are savored by the song bird. Who would let Hemp vine grow in abandon? She does. She told me she had a new appreciation for that plant once she realized that it is a host plant for the Little Metal Mark butterfly. Soon after, I took a different look at the Hemp vine in my own yard. I have left it wherever it grows and take in the delicately sweet scent when it blossoms, hoping it might make some butterflies happy.

At the Southern Garden Symposium this past week, I was asked to share some insights into designing a meadow garden. I showed some of my wildscaping work and did the best I could to direct folks to national, regional, and local Holy-Grail destinations.

I spoke of restored forests and prairies at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum’s 100 acre prairie gardens begun in the 1930’s ( I talked about the North Carolina Botanical Garden and the Crosby Arboretum in Mississippi, their interpretive and educational Centers. I talked about how the interpretive Centers are tiny facsimiles of their satellite natural area holdings, which are much-larger, extensive properties and representative of historical ecology. And I mentioned that they manage the interpretive center exhibits much like they do the natural areas. I talked about parts of the Bot Garden in Chapel Hill that are actually representative of the size of the typical back-yard, yet they are burned. This I said, is what is possible.

I talked about fire and how it is necessary if you are going to really give your meadow a fighting chance to survive. I talked about how we starve our landscape by suppressing fire. And how we have ecological amnesia when it come to the natural world. I talked about how all of these premiere botanical destinations are either in the city center or in serious liability situations yet they are burned. The Crosby and the Madison Arbo’s are both over one hundred acres of fire managed grassland just down the road from neighborhoods and interstate highways, yet they torch them annually.

I talked about the New York High Line and how a visionary found him or herself up on this derelict raised rail bed in Manhattan and saw the weedy vegetation that had settled in, via wind, as an inspiration for what master horticulturist Piet Udolf would eventually design into the nation’s most well-know and most popular urban meadow attraction. The design for the plantings along the High Line is based on the color, form, and texture of the American prairie.

I talked a little about seed collecting and plant identification and awareness for invasive plants. That may have been a little boring to some in the audience who were geared more to flowery plants and garden design.

I encouraged folks to learn more by going to these places to see first hand the interpretation of the grasslands, to see design and the natural patterns that occur when landscaping for diversity with wild-seed.

I will include here, some crude drawings that I showed at my Professor-buddy, Jim Foret’s garden group’s talk in the spring to suggest a couple of options when you are thinking of a meadow in the backyard (or in the case of my friend and her artist husband, the front yard). Again, these are a bit rudimentary but the simplicity is, I think, helpful when it comes to conceiving a design for a tiny micro prairie into your backyard. They took about five minutes each to do, so not a lot of emphasis was put on graphics but you get the point.


I like this one. Its a back yard about 50 by 30, with a small deck or patio off the back door. It has a circular walkway or path, through the the native shrub layer and into the meadow. Across the lawn and back again through the path on the other side of the yard that returns you to the deck. The very formal lawn adds organization to the scene and highlights to central area and is comfy on the feet.


Here, the lawn is surrounded by large and small shrubs and very small trees. the lawn encloses and encircles the round-shaped meadow. This design gives a wild feel with lots of dimension and loose, natural design


This one’s a bit futuristic, maybe, but it shows yet another way to think in terms of the lawn making a visual contrast to the focal point-meadow.


This is the most formally arranged design, with paths around and throughout. Much like a parterre garden. the plantings could be mixed and matched or very formally arranged with the meadow, diverse and scruffy.

check out this cool link about the Metal Mark butterfly

good day! enjoy!