“You can’t grow a meadow garden in Australia”, stated an article in Horticulture Week (Rural Press, 1992). Really? I started working with Sydney Botanic Gardens in the same year, and their attempt at growing a meadow garden had been swamped by ryegrass and other annual weeds. Time for a better plan and appropriate plants. There’s nothing like a challenge.
What they were attempting to achieve was a recreation of a European meadow. Ryegrass, Lolium perenne, would be a natural component in North Western Europe. But Sydney has a warm temperate climate; its wetter and hotter conditions turned ryegrass into a suffocating blanket that smothered other species, rather than remaining one species amongst others. Worse: this ryegrass thicket had been fed. The best and most diverse European meadows grow on land that has not been fertilised. Many of the desirable, less competitive species had been swamped.
Many of Australia’s introduced weeds were imported when the first Europeans dabbled in gardening, and Sydney Gardens’ ryegrass thicket is what you get when you attempt to recreate Surrey, England, near Surrey Hills, Australia.
So, I had the 750 square metre site slashed down, dug over with a cultivator, and broadcast with rocket and mustard. These annuals grew up and over the ryegrass and smothered the weed problem in one season. That done, they were cut down before they set seed and were composted. The ryegrass dwindled rapidly.
Pictured is the first successful meadow garden, sown in autumn. First to flower in late winter were 2,000 English iris which were inter-sown with heartsease; along the footpaths flowered cornflower and field poppy. Next flowered pink corn cockle. White flowering rocket came up through them. Some surviving mustard grew up to produce yellow flowers atop the rocket.
You could step into the living picture I had created using my mind’s eye, drawing inspiration from ‘Path leading through tall grass’, by Renoir (1876). After the gates had closed the gardens to visitors, I took two friends along its winding path into the heart of meadow garden and we had a picnic.
Welcome swallows swooped overhead, feeding on the buzzing cloud of insect life flying above our heads and above the massed flowers, meanwhile Pacific black ducks, which were nested inside, escorted their ducklings back home to safety.
Kids loved it.
In my time at the Gardens, the Meadow Garden was the only flower display to get us a centrefold double page spread in The Sydney Morning Herald.
Another incarnation, featuring autumn sunflowers, drew from landscape paintings by Van Gogh, but the timing of flowering was planned for April and May, a time when Sydney Gardens looked their best and also when sunflowers were less likely to be hit by flooding rain.
So much abundant life just metres from the Cahill Expressway, Macquarie Street and the Mitchell Library.
In 2018, I was delighted to see the Singapore Garden Festival had planted an equatorial meadow garden. Filled with low growing perennials, dragonflies and nectar-feeding birds were using it as crowds wandered past. Another successful version on a theme.
Australian native grasslands are a varied group of ‘meadows’. Before settlement, indigenous grasses dominated many landscapes. Rainfall, topography and climate encouraged some grasslands to form, the Mitchell Grass Downs is a tropical to subtropical example of a grassy/ shrubby landscape in north eastern Australia. Green after good rain, you can understand how graziers got excited seeing what seemed an almost endless supply.
A significant proportion of native grasslands were cultivated by First Australians as cereals. Kangaroo grass was important for food security until settlement altered the balance of an enduring and early example of permaculture.
In 1986, when I was helping to establish Mount Annan Botanic Garden, near Camden, a Bicentenary Project, we began weed and erosion control to help the recovery of the kangaroo grass. It was quite expansive in places. Mt Annan itself is a strategic, remnant of Cumberland Plain vegetation and the location – Yandelora – has strong indigenous cultural associations.
Correctly maintained, native grasses withstand hoofed livestock, which is the opposite of what is taught by convention. Get your stocking levels right, manage the period and intensity of grazing, and you can use livestock to trample weeds without degrading the grasses.
Public meadow gardens are being trialled in Switzerland. Geneva botanic gardens uses sheep in moveable pens to mow, meanwhile in public housing areas of meadow are cut mechanically.
I visited a fifth generation farm in the ACT. Small, fenced paddocks use crash grazing to eat and crush pasture weeds like Paterson’s curse, before they set seed. This allows native weeping meadow grass to outcompete remaining weeds. Adapted to brief showers at any time, this grass grows in response to rain all year round, so there’s fodder and weed control all year round.
Few of Australia’s native grasslands remain in pre-settlement condition. Many are overgrazed, compacted and weedy. Imported agricultural practices and imported, weedy pasture plants from Africa and America have smothered native grasses to the point where grasslands are locally extinct or vulnerable to degradation.
If you want to plant a version of a native grassland in an Australian suburban garden, you can buy seed and sow your own. If you want to plant your own, contact a local specialist grower. Local native plant societies and regional botanic gardens could help you create and manage your meadow as an ecological community.
Brisbane is lucky to have Kumbartcho Sanctuary and Nursery, a community not-for-profit which not only has the right plants, it can also send a consultant to your garden to guide you.
By all means experiment with plants, but if you don’t understand how differently individual species can behave in a foreign climate and soils, the result could be a weed patch like that original meadow garden in Sydney.
Choosing the wrong plants and giving them too much food could well be the reason why Australian Horticulture reported “You can’t grow a meadow garden in Australia”.
You can. Start simple, and try to choose plants that integrate well together.
Enjoy doing the research first and if it’s too difficult, get informed advice.
Jerry Coleby Williams
30th June 2020