Think Before You Meadow

Front garden 8-11-14

Front garden 8-11-14

Meadows are a desired garden type for those with anti-lawn sentiments and concern for diminishing pollinators. Large garden beds filled with perennials have been popular as well.

Front garden

Front garden

I mentioned in yesterday’s post how a new wave of gardening is on the horizon. Unfortunately what started as a way to bring wildlife to the home garden, is slowly shifting into low gear if not jamming into reverse.

It is becoming all about garden maintenance and when making gardens, seriously thinking about long-term care. What can you handle? Health issues may surface preventing tending so many gardens.

Yes, those lawns are starting to reappear and if not lawns, lots of gravel, rocks, concrete, paving and decking over entire properties. This is happening more and more. My own garden has quite a bit of modular hardscape materials in paths, walls, driveway, and entertaining areas. I could not handle all the gardens if I did not have all this hardscaping. Also in my garden there are quite a few shrubs and trees.

June 5, 2011

June 5, 2011

I cannot even imagine being those folks that dug up acres of garden space, even though I have designed such properties, all of which have teams of paid gardeners.

I think one has to consider that a small garden well maintained is much more beautiful than a large garden insufficiently or inadequately cared for.

For all those that look at turf grass as labor intensive and time-consuming, it just gets mowed. I have very little to mow, and enjoy not having to weed, feed and water it like I would do for the perennials. Cutting back on perennial bed work does not mean only using native plants. Many non-native plants are better behaved garden partners.


Most gardeners actually enjoy tasks like pruning, deadheading, hand-watering, weeding, and inspecting the plants daily. Any reason to be in a garden is fine with gardeners.  But as gardeners age, these activities start feeling a lot more like work, with aches and pains to show for it.

Popular as meadow gardening is, even tiny ones in a city or suburb have slowly been losing their appeal. While city “meadows” function less like a natural meadow, they make gardeners feel good about providing for wildlife, but it is not maintenance free.

Around a home, natural looking meadows can be unsightly some of the season, and much more work than many can undertake. Nature doesn’t work in terms of meadows in all places either. You just might start appreciating the ornamental merits of weeds if you can’t keep up with managing your meadow.

An authentic meadow has a good ratio of flowers to grasses, a forest it adjoins with understory plants making a pleasing transition. Most of us don’t have that amount of space, plus you have to adopt a certain amount of wildness for a meadow like that. Meadow making is actually the restoration of an entire ecosystem, but this is a garden, not a restoration.

Meadows need continual effort because some plants will try to over-run the garden while others tend to die out. Late-summer drought is the nemesis of a vibrant flower-filled meadow. Plants go dormant and you are either watering constantly or willing to deal with a browning dormancy period.

Since most of us are opposed to a garden of brown, shriveled plants, an easier path is to use native and nonnative plants to create the look of a meadow, which is what I have done in my own garden, a garden transitions color over the seasons.

Rudbeckia, coneflowers, baptisia, phlox, goldenrod, coreopsis, aster, and milkweed, can be mixed with grasses for the meadow effect, but think how aggressively these plants perform. It is best to allow them room to roam. Of course, a tiny city garden is not a meadow, but it can have planting characteristics that are beneficial for the wildlife it attracts.

Plants in my city front/side gardens that might be considered (native or non-native) prairie or meadow-like plants:

  • Agastache (Will spread)
  • Amsonia (Will spread)
  • Aster (Both spreads and will die out over time)
  • Butterfly weed (Seeds itself easily)
  • Carex (removed 2012 – too aggressive)
  • Coneflowers (May die out or get diseased)
  • Coreopsis (Zageb stays containable, other varieties seed easily)
  • Festuca glauca (Very well behaved)
  • Goldenrod (removed 2014 – too aggressive)
  • Leucanthemum x superbum ‘Becky’ (Spreads easily and not native)
  • Miscanthus sinensis ‘Zebrinus’ (Forms large, hard to remove clumps)
  • Monarda ‘Raspberry Wine’  (Will spread aggressively, two of the shorter cultivars , ‘Marshall’s Delight’, ‘Pardon My Pink’ behave)
  • Nepeta (Walker’s Low attracts cats)
  • Pennisetum setaceum (annual)
  • Penstemon (Needs constant culling, seeds all over)
  • Phlox (Needs constant culling)
  • Rudbeckia (Hard to keep contained)
  • Salvia (Will brown out, must be cut back for later season bloom)
  • Scabiosa ‘Butterfly Blue’ (Will brown out, must be cut back for later season bloom)
  • Sunflowers (Will seed everywhere if allowed)
  • Tradescantia (removed 2013 – too aggressive)
  • Verbena (seeds)
  • Yarrow (Looks rangy as the season goes on)

Plants I have to keep the color through the seasons:

  • Allium (Multiplies, and that is a good thing)
  • Caryopteris (Bees love this non-native)
  • Daylilies (Needs dividing often)
  • Delphinium (Seeds itself, but well-behaved)
  • Foxglove ( Self-seeds but not excessively)
  • Hibiscus (Never overtook its boundaries)
  • Hydrangea (Pee Gee- nice late-flowering plant)
  • Iris (Gets a bit frisky in the garden but a very worthy plant)
  • Iberis (Spreads)
  • Lilies (Multiplies, but it is a good thing)
  • Perovskia ( Bees love this non-native)
  • Poppies (Dies out over time, some seed)
  • Primrose (Very aggressive, spreads by runners)
  • Myosotis (Seeds itself all over, easy to remove though)
  • Roses (Ground cover, but gets three-feet high)
  • Various annuals (All selected for wildlife)
  • Tulips – (Species tulips for early show)

Primrose-Catnip Primrose

Hard to believe all that fits in my small garden plus the trees and shrubs, but there is even more that you might spot in the images – plus the back gardens where I did not even list the plants. My garden is always undergoing change because I get a lot of plants from my job. A few years are needed to mature on some of the plants installed. Some of the plants will be culled to have larger groups of fewer varieties, but to keep season long color, many of the non-native plants will stay.


Even small city “meadows” are an enormous amount of work if you want to maintain some order. I can’t tell you how many people think it is a lazy gardener’s garden, yet it is anything but. If you are an aging gardener, making bed after bed of continually flowering plants is going to be more work than you might imagine. And don’t think native plants are little work. They are by far the most work to keep them from choking each other out. Just read my list above.

About Garden Walk Garden Talk

I love to photograph, paint, draw, design, garden, travel the world, and pass on a few tips and ideas that I learned through experience as a Master Gardener and architect. I am highly trained in my field and enjoy my work each and every day. I garden in Niagara Falls, NY in zone 6-B. Find me at:
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23 Responses to Think Before You Meadow

  1. bittster says:

    Your beautiful pictures are really not doing a good job convincing me not to plant more perennial beds! In fact I might see if I can find where I left the shovel and consider opening up another bed 🙂
    I think people sometimes let their plants tell them what to do, by that I mean divide me now, deadhead me now, let me rest now…. I’m a little more ruthless. In years of drought I just mow the whole sad looking meadow down and enjoy a nice short (sorta brown) lawn area. I know people will say leave the seedheads for birds and leave the milkweed for monarchs, but I can’t worry about every little plant which might die and every mouse nest which might get mulched. Nature’s got a bloody side too, and I want my yard to please my own sensibilities. Plus a nice quick power mowing frees me up for the rest of the weekend and I avoid the ‘too much work’ syndrome.
    I’ve always thought that more mature gardens often have much more hardscape. I always admire the stone walks, walls and terraces of those old European gardens. So much easier to maintain than hedges and turf.

  2. Hi Donna,
    I agree entirely about how our aging process should bring consideration of the long-term consequences. Two other considerations:
    1. Circumstances change: while we may be physically able to continue to garden, external situations that are outside our control may make gardening work more challenging. What would happen, for example, if your spouse requires more care than previously, or your priorities change because of competing areas (I’m also a writer).

    2. The next owner: we are increasingly living in a transient society where that beautiful home and garden are now envisioned to be owned or maintained by someone else. If the landscape work is too complicated, I have seen where that can significantly inhibit the sale of the property. Today’s buyers are often interested in easy maintenance rather than lovely gardens. When we design gardens, the street appeal should say, “That is lovely but also easy to maintain.” That may mean more interesting shrubbery and ground covers with fewer flowers.

    In my case, when I decided to retire from the Gethsemane Prayer Garden, I left a huge maintenance effort for the church that they are not well prepared to handle. My wife and I have also left that church. Time will tell what will happen to that garden but I am certain they are struggling with that issue.

  3. This is great advice. And the idea that sometimes less is more is very true!

  4. fantastic photos, my parents are discovering that the maximum look in their garden is now too much for them at 70 & 75. My mum is scaling back with her planting and is given plants away to the neighbours by the wheel barrow full, but after all those years of a full garden she feels it looks empty and bare

  5. Many years ago I dreamed of designing and caring for my own gardens, but other wonderful life events got in the way, and I never pursued much more than a few garden plots in the yard when my kids were growing up. I am in awe of the beauty of your gardens and other gardens you show on your blog. It always brightens my day to soak up the images~!

  6. Loretta says:

    How gorgeous is your urban garden, I just cannot say enough. What a timely post too! I like all your list of invasive vs. non-invasive perennials, there’s just so much to take into consideration isn’t there? I am continually adding more perennials each year, but I’m content with this small garden that we have now after moving to the city. I’ll have to bookmark this and visit this post again and again, thanks!

  7. I think my approach to the garden is similar to yours. I don’t have a meadow or a prairie, but I have a sort of cottage garden that evokes a prairie. (Way too many flowers to be a realistic prairie, for one thing.) We grow many of the same plants. Beautiful photos, as usual!

  8. There is never a maintenance free garden. Any garden needs some work. I remember my mother getting up at 5 AM to work on her gardens – both vegetable and flower before going to work. It was constant work, but worth it.

  9. Trapeze artists make what they do look easy. Meadow gardens look easy, too. Thanks for reminding us that they’re not care free.

  10. I find very little gardening is easy or maintenance free unless you just have a few shrubs and mulch like my neighbors….but I do agree meadows are not for those that want a lazy garden…I have written about my meadow and warned folks it takes lots of work to keep out the aggressive invaders from non-native thistle and teasel which will take over in about 2-3 years. I am lucky that my meadow does fit your description…it is at the back of my property, and borders woods so it makes a great transition from my garden and fence to the woods. I am also lucky as my mostly native meadow is virtual maintenance free as far as cutting or removal (which there is little of) and no watering ever needed….it flowers all season once mid-spring starts. I do cheat and added daffs for early color in early spring.

  11. debsgarden says:

    Your garden is wonderful,so full of color! You mention some important points. I love those idealized meadows, but that is not practical for me. People always are aghast at the size of my garden and declare how much work it must be. Then I point out that most of the color comes from flowering shrubs and trees, which are much less work than flowers. They also cover a lot more space, which is important in my large area. I have some sort of tree or shrub flowering from spring to fall. I also get a lot of color from foliage. Of course, I do have a few perennials and some annuals. It all works together. When we are too old to care for it, we will move, hire help, or else let the woodlands revert to a more natural state, which would still be quite lovely, I think.

  12. Annette says:

    Oh, these wonderful, inspiring pics, Donna, I’m drooling!!! I’m not a friend of English lawns, think they’re crazy and far from sustainable. My ‘lawn’ consists of wildflowers and lots of weeds and some grass but it looks great and makes me and the critters happy. As for meadows – they’re best when they come naturally as on our land, we’re so grateful for that, and they’re in perfect balance, much more so then when you sow one and have to manage it yourself. As for old age and what we can manage then – we cross the bridge when we reach it. In my experience gardeners keep a lot fitter than those that spend their time on the shopping mall. Vive le jardinage 🙂

  13. This is great to have all these recommended plants for a suburban meadow gardens. Good points about the work of a meadow “garden.” With our suburban main garden at home, we were fortunate that the original owners did a fabulous job of landscaping. Unfortunately, they included many non-native, invasive shrubs that we’re trying to replace over time. But for the most part, they did a fabulous job and retained the native ephemerals and native trees, and included some beneficial and beautiful non-native and native perennials. At our cottage, we’ve gone au naturale–we mow a small path, and the rest has gone wild. There are many natural meadows filled with native wildflowers. It’s a magical place, but not something that would work in the suburbs. 😉

  14. TheDigger says:

    Absolutely beautiful! I have a few of those plants that you listed already, but I’ve added a few more to the wish list now.

  15. I found it interesting that you highlighted the important fact of garden maintenance and health issues. I’ve been focusing on this for quite awhile now. I have severe osteoporosis, but I’m very fortunate in that my husband helps me quite a bit with gardening chores. But I’m also thinking in ways that I want to cut back on maintenance in the future. I’ve decided that I don’t need anymore gardens than what I have now as a start. We do have a lot of ground covers. I like the idea that was mentioned in the comments of the flowering trees and shrubs and we do have several of them, too. But I have to avoid planting shrubs of any kind close to the house. Living in the northeast with our large amount of snowfall, snow sliding off our roof damages any shrubs in those positions. I have found that if I stick with perennials under the eaves that works best with no damage to any plantings. Thanks for sharing this important and informative post.

  16. Indie says:

    I have a detention pond out back that I consider to be my ‘meadow’. Thankfully since it is way out back, I don’t feel like it has to look good all the time, and am quite happy with all the grasses and random flowers that grow back there, as long as they aren’t invasives. Keeping up a garden to look like a ‘flower meadow’ that is in flower all the time seems very labor intensive. Yours looks so very beautiful though!

  17. AWESOME post and beautiful photos as usual!

  18. The issue of maintenance has been on my mind a lot. I think my garden is too big and sometimes it is a struggle to keep up with it all. I find myself thinking about ways to simplify things and rule out any new ideas that may be additional labor.

  19. P.S. I forgot to say how much I like your header today.

  20. Annie says:

    The lucky folks who toured your gardens must have been in awe. When you said, “Meadows need continual effort…,” that’s what my eyes were telling me about your lush, colorful meadow. It is absolute perfection!

  21. alesiablogs says:

    I have been weeding and weeding this morning. I think your post encourages that out of me! I love the fresh smells of mother earth. If only my back would allow me to be more consistent to be in this world on my knees more as it may humble me more. It is still good to take my chairs out and just enjoy the day. I yearn for the sun on my face and the look of a beautiful garden. AT least I got one of those today..The garden will need more tending, but its nice to look at yours.

  22. Rituparna S.P. says:

    colors of nature …beautiful

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