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