How to sow your own exotic meadow

Garden designer Tom Stuart-Smith teamed up with James Hitchmough – responsible for the wild flower meadows at the 2012 Olympic games – to develop a large area of grass in Tom's own garden in Hertfordshire. Tom already had an intensive one-and-a-half acre garden and did not want to add to the workload, so creating a wild flower meadow, using exotic perennials, seemed a sensible and exciting option.

How did they create the Olympic wildflower meadow?

In June 2010, 1,500 sq m of grass were sprayed off with glyphosate. In October, the area was spread 75mm deep with sand and left fallow over the winter. The sand was deep enough to smother weed seeds coming up from below, but not so deep that seeds sown into it could not get their roots through.

The site was sown in January and the seed – in the main — came up by May. In some areas, where vehicles had caused soil compaction, germination was poor, proving that good drainage is a must. The sand was covered with an organic jute netting which discourages birds from eating the seeds and is a good indicator of where you need to water — the jute is a brighter colour when dry.

Tom's exotic meadow

Tom followed the same method to create his own meadow – and from March until June irrigated the site like crazy to push on germination and root development. However, to extend the flowering season as long as he could, and to learn a new group of plants, Tom chose only exotics, including many prairie plants, with no British natives – a complete departure from the Olympic site.

Sowing the right seeds for your own exotic meadow

The key to any meadow is to avoid planting too many different plants – this detracts from the calming effect of a pattern of continually repeated groups of perhaps only 30 different species. But because there are few, it’s important to choose an exceptional posse of plants.

Your plants should be perennials, which grow easily from seed, and should be upright, neat and tidy without any staking.

Tom aimed for 100 plants per square metre in some places, so a vast amount of seed was needed. It weighed less than a bag of sugar, but Tom used £6,000 worth of seed – still a fraction of the price of putting in ready-grown plants.

Tom says a vital consideration is to have several layers of planting in your overall design. He chose a bunch of low-growing clump-formers (such as the intense blue Scutellaria baicalensis and Dracocephalum rupestre) to form the lower storey, with some statuesque singletons standing tall (such as Eryngium yuccifolium and Liatris aspera). Bold, sculptural leaves are good too: plants such as Silphium laciniatum, the leaves reminiscent of the foliage of a tree peony but more elegant, and Rudbeckia maxima, a giant with lush leaves like huge, brilliant green chicory.

Tom also made sure he had species which would flower from early in the year to very late. The long-flowering Dianthus carthusianorum kicks it all off in early June, with Baptisia australis added as a plug for June and July, on through things such as galtonia, Penstemon barbatus subsp. coccineus and Penstemon cobaea, as well as four types of echinacea (including E. pallida and E. paradoxa) from high summer on through the autumn. For October and November, Tom put in plants such as asters, Rudbeckia fulgida var. deamii and schizostylis, which does well in the damper spots.

Adding variation

Since the initial seeding, Tom has grown many plug plants, of baptisia, berkheya, asclepias, catanache, dierama and amsonia. In some cases the seed is expensive, so plants are best germinated carefully and used to fill gaps. He is also now thinking of adding a few shrubs to break up the flatness of the scheme, with Cotinus obovatus and sassafras going in. He’s toying with adding rhus, too.

Is an exotic meadow right for your garden?

As Tom says, this way of gardening adds a new point on the gradient of naturalism. It is a compromise between letting nature get on with it and a traditional, intensively managed garden. That’s what’s exciting about this type of gardening: an exotic meadow looks fantastic but should, in time, need attention only in February, to clear the debris ahead of the growing year.

This is a planting system ideally suited to large gardens and it’s good for people who want something beautiful to look at but who are not that interested in “gardening”. How it is achieved and managed is scientific in its simplicity (follow the rules at the right time of year), which makes it easy and unscary.

On top of that, there’s the beauty of starting a garden from seed, with something coming from almost nothing. In only its second year, Tom’s meadow is already beautiful and, as you walk through it, the whole feel of the place, the plants and how they’re put together, is exhilaratingly new.

Having tried lots of different annual meadow mixes over the last three years, I – for one – can’t wait to have a go at one made entirely of exotic perennials.

For a step-by-step guide, see how to create a mini wild flower meadow ...