Grass Alternative – The Medieval Mead

DainielBooneHomestead

Grass that is left to grow.

What do you think of when you think of Medieval gardens c. 1500? What about Medieval lawns?

I am guessing you would say herb gardens, but at that time, every plant was considered a herb with a purpose. They could be vegetable gardens, medicinal gardens, orchards, or pleasaunces which were pleasure gardens, with variation on these gardens of enjoyment also. There was much symbolism in these early gardens which was reflected in the plants selected and used.

Lawns were meadows, but some with an unusual twist.

They were grass-like gardens treated as a flowery mead planted with low growing wild flowers. Many had turf seats built against an enclosure wall with flowers planted in the grass. Somewhat like below even though it is without the wall from Medieval times.

Un-mowed-grass-1

Meadow area from not mowing the grass, wildflowers start to populate.

A mead is what we might term a lawn since it was used in similar fashion to what we have today.

People of the time used it for its sheer beauty, for play and for taking a stroll. Many a mead was structured and walled in. Built structures formed the enclosure, but so did hedging plants. I really don’t have examples of an actual flower mead, but it is easy to imagine by use of the plants selected, plus you can click the link below for one similar in the UK.

Primrose-in-Grass

Turf grass path cut through uncut grass starred with planted wildflowers.

So how does one go about having a mead instead of turf grass? In medieval times, the person would go find a wild meadow of flowers of his choosing and cut thick sod squares. We know of meads because of their prominence in art of the time. Below is a well-known image from Wikipedia. It shows a fantasy rendition of what a mead was like in Medieval times.

640px-The_Unicorn_in_Captivity_-_Google_Art_Project

Today it would be illegal to go to a private or public property and cut sod from a wild meadow, but it is possible to create one with low growing plants.

WaterWheel

Perennials and bulbs in uncut grass.

The easiest way is just let the turf lawn go, allowing dandelion, clover, bindweed, violets, and any number of other weed plants invade the turf like shown below. But not many would want this look because it is not consistent throughout the year.

TilledField

Instead, the turf would have to be removed first because most introduced garden plants could not thrive in a mat of turf grass long term. Some people will broadcast small bulbs or corms into a lawn for a spring show, but that creates a problem with having to cut the lawn grasses before the bulb plants die back.

But can you imagine a lawn that has plants of your choosing that you did not have to mow almost ever? Like below, the mead-like grassy area is surrounded by turf grass. See all the grass growing between the garden plants? An image above with primrose is also planted in a grassy area. A mowed turf-grass path passes through. Again, this is a look that is difficult to maintain year after year, but looks great.

Planted-Grass

Perennials specially selected to grow in amongst the meadow.

Plants that would be suitable for making a mead…

Choose low-growing herbs, perennials and bulbs, and even some low growing grasses. Both fragrant and flowering, the herbs could be used with short, dense ground-cover perennials for a summer into fall show.

Some contemporary plants to consider, depending on height of the mead:

  • Snowdrops many varieties under 12″.
  • Sedum spurium ‘John Creech’  1/4″ Summer. S. cauticola grows 2″ tall.
  • Lily of the Valley 8″ -12″. Can spread.
  • Dianthus  8″ spring.
  • Species Daffodil – N. pseudonarcissus minimus or N. triandrus Many under 12″, some only 4″ high.
  • Crocus 6-8″ Early spring.
  • Columbine native varieties are shorter.
  • Pasque Flower 8-10″ early summer.
  • Carnation 12″ summer.
  • Muscari 8″ spring. Can spread.
  • Sage Some under 12″.
  • Lavender Some under 18″.
  • Anemone 6-8″ spring.
  • Thrift 6″ summer.
  • Feverfew Some 12″ summer. Will self-seed.
  • Woolly yarrow 6-8″ early/mid/late summer.
Orange-Poppies

Poppies seeded on a grassy hillside.

If you want a carpet effect with plants that spread:

  • Creeping phlox 6″ Late spring, gets a bit frisky.
  • Thyme Many varieties under 12″ Mother-of-Thyme in back garden. Does get aggressive.
  • Mints ( very aggressive) or Catmint.
  • Ajuga ‘Chocolate Chip’ 5″ spring.
  • Artemisia 10″ summer.
  • Iberis 7″ Late spring/Early summer.
  • Dicentra ‘Ivory Hearts’ 12″ late spring and again late summer.
  • Evening primrose 12″ summer – Very aggressive, but long-blooming.
  • Forget-me-nots 6-12″ spring.
  • English daisies 6-8″ Late spring again late fall. I use these in pots.
  • Campanula ‘Blue Chips’ 10″ summer to mid fall.
  • Gentian 24″ tall – Mid-summer/early fall.
  • Wild strawberries prostrate, can be aggressive.
  • Johnny-jump-ups 6″ spring.
  • Monarda ‘Petite Wonder’ 10″ Mid-late summer.
  • Snow in Summer 6″-12″ summer.
  • Sandwort 5″ Early summer.
  • Sweet Violets 4″ spring.
  • Poppy ‘Summer Breeze’ 12″ summer.
  • Pulmonaria ‘Mrs. Moon’ 12″ early to mid-spring.
  • Perennial Geranium Many varieties under 12″.
  • Coreopsis ‘Elfin Gold’ 10″ late spring/summer/fall.
  • Sweet woodruff  6″ spring. Can get frisky.
  • Veronica prostrata ‘Nestor’ 6″  ‘Heavenly Blue’ 4″ summer.
  • Periwinkle (very aggressive) ground cover.
  • Platycodon 6″ summer.
Grasses-Snow-in-Summer

A dry garden at Chanticleer with Mediterranean plants, many low-growing like could be used in a mead.

Of course a well-drained site with six hours of sun is the best for most plants suggested. Having a lawn like this is NOT maintenance free or even a very practical lawn solution, but it would be different and very pretty.

Here is why a perennial mead is work…

  1. Keeping more aggressive plants from pushing out the delicate ones.
  2. Generally getting rid of seedlings and other volunteers where they need removal.
  3. Cutting back spent stems in the fall and early spring.
  4. Mulching at least until the garden fills in thickly.
  5. Protecting the edge of the mead from creeping turf grass or gravel if used.

M-8All the plants have somewhat varied needs, but keeping those having similar conditions makes the job easier. This “lawn” would need to be weeded to keep out plants one does not want. Cranesbill and columbine would have to be watched so as not to be swallowed up by more vigorous growers. Select the Mediterranean plants and a dry garden like on this incline and you might reduce some of the added work. Some plants are steppables too.

M-2Also working in a space like this would take some care not to trample the delicate plants. That is one reason parterres work so well for herbs, but just imagine a fenced and bordered 20 to 50 foot square patch of lawn like this bordered by a traditional lawn! Even the example above? These are generally not traditional planting beds because plant height is limited.

Bedding-Out

The image above shows lots of work with very low growing plants, but bedding out is not what they did in the Medieval Ages. It was not until the Victorian Age where plants took on a whole new way in which to use them. I will have a post on that coming up. Ironically though, the Victorians also had casual gardens, but most only think of great imposing lawns and stiff formal beds bedded out with  thousands of tender plants.

Un-mowed-Grass

Uncut grass with opportunistic plants is the least work and most environmentally sound, but it starts reverting almost immediately.

You could add annuals too like:

  • Blue sage 10-12″.
  • Marigold 6-8″.
  • Lobelia 4-6″.
  • Ageratum 6-8″.
  • Alyssum 4″.
  • Lobularia 4″.
  • Lantana 12″.
  • Verbena 8″.
  • Trailing verbena 16″
  • Pansies and Johnny Jump Ups – 8-10″.

Ground cover plants in my garden…

I use a lot of these plants to create a colorful carpet for the taller bulb plants mainly in spring before the summer perennials kick in. Others fill in between during summer or are edging plants. My garden is not a meadow, but has many plants that tightly fill the space. You will see that coming up.

Images in this post are mostly places where grass was allowed to mix with the plants and some plants are taller than listed. I scaled the plants down more to what might have been there in Medieval times.

The plants I noted in orange are in my garden. I use many of the other annuals listed some years. These plants are ones I did not list in the post Think Before You Meadow. I am sure you can add many plants to this list, but planting in groups of three would be a good start to carpet your space.

M-5

Very much like a mead, with a traveler strolling through. I think i would not select the prickly pear though, but the grasses make a nice addition.

To see where a doctoral student at the University of Reading actually did this with some of the plants I listed, visit their site. He also gives a history on lawns through the ages.

There is always unique ways designers deal with having lawns if a client wants to see some green grass, and I discuss that in a future post. We continue our Medieval theme and get inspiration from where you would least expect it, but first some spring blooming plants carpeting my garden.

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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: http://gardenwalkgardentalk.com
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27 Responses to Grass Alternative – The Medieval Mead

  1. Such a beautiful article you wrote. Just gorgeous.

  2. alesiablogs says:

    Interesting information, but I do most like the idea of a garden being “casual”

  3. Fascinating Donna…lots of ideas and indeed lots of work. i would love to let my lawn grow long, but my town would fine us…so i grow early bulbs, violets, clover and dandelion in ours much to the chagrin of our neighbors.

    • We cannot let grass grow over 4″ here either. So far there has been no problem filling the front garden with plants. I even had tomatoes and peppers in there two years ago. I am sure if they were noticed, they would have either been stolen or cited.

  4. Shirley says:

    Mead is the best word to define the direction we have taken with the native buffalo grass patch inherited with our house. The most amazing tiny wildflowers have found a home there. Mowing? No, I pull the thugs and leave the rest based on advice from our city’s park naturalist whose walks and talks I regularly attend.

  5. These are some great examples, Donna. It’s nice that you included examples that are easy and some that are a little more complicated. We kind of do this up at our cottage. We’ve let most of the back revert to wildflowers, shrubs, and trees, and we mow a path around a fire ring and back by the side of the transitional area. It’s fascinating to see which wildflowers thrive. Last summer, we had 100s of Monarda punctata, and they were covered with pollinators of all types. It was wonderful to see. 🙂

    • None are complicated other than spreading too easily in some cases. English Daisy is an example and is considered a weed in Ontario. Post on English Daisy
      I use them in pots, but not in the garden. Maybe they will make it to the garden one day. It is nice you have the space to keep part of your property natural.

  6. debsgarden says:

    Truly inspirational! I think a mead would need to be carefully sited. It would look out of place in front of a suburban home surrounded by similar houses all in a row with their neatly mowed lawns. But, oh! To see a flower covered mead, washed in light, as one emerges from the woodlands! I also think it looks wonderful as in your third picture, with a mown path so one can walk through without trampling it.

    • It really does need a more rural siting to be aesthetically placed well, but most of those images are from estate gardens with multimillion dollar mansions, yet many, many acres large. I designed one property of a home of that value and it has a mile long driveway with meadows on both sides. The home cannot be seen from the road and all one sees is the wildflower meadows. I would post it, but I had one client complain so I no longer post any.

      In the City of Buffalo there are two gardeners with tiny homes that have a front garden with long grass and flowers added and both have been taken to court by neighbors. Funny considering hundreds and hundreds of gardeners in Buffalo have no grass, properties completely covered in plants and that is OK.

  7. you’ve presented some lovely options; it would be great if more people selected plant materials that thrived on the local climate options.

    noting that several varieties of desmodium thrived in the long rain-absent dry seasons in tropical america, i pull out all other grasses and broad leaves and allow the desmodium to spread naturally. it takes a while but it is pretty and very low maintenance.

    http://biogeodb.stri.si.edu/bioinformatics/dfm/metas/view/27870

    z

  8. I got a question on Quora about grass alternatives, and I shared this post.

    • Thank you. As you know, the flowers in long grass is not to conducive to city living. People complain, but filled garden spaces is a different story. It is neater, but I enjoy seeing it both ways.

  9. Fascinating, fascinating bit of information, lots of wonderful ideas.

  10. Maintaining a large area as a mead would mean constant vigilance also to keep trees and shrubs from getting a foothold.

  11. What a fabulous post!!! It has inspired me to go a little further with what I already do with my lawn. I let it get long in the spring and mow it only after the wildflowers (weeds to some) are done blooming. Maybe I should mark out an area and not mow it all to see what would happen.

  12. So grasses like prairie dropseed, little bluestem, and the shorter Pennisetums would work with this approach?

    • I suppose Prairie dropseed and shorter pennisetum would be a fine choice, but it might look better in a grass garden. I have Elijah Blue fescue in my garden and being so small would make a great addition to a mead. Black Mondo grass is another low-growing color and textured grass that would be great.

  13. Gosh, what a fabulous post! It’s got me all dreamy. I don’t quite have the space to create this in my own garden but it’s wonderful to get lost in your images for a few moments.

  14. Laurin Lindsey says:

    This is a wonderful post that really stimulates my imagination. I have been reading it over and over, leaving it open in my browser and not wanting to close it. Now I have saved it as a resource. Thank you for taking the time to put so much great information in one place. Happy Gardening!

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