Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Growing perennials in grass

A question at a public lecture at the University of Gloucestershire (bet you didn’t know that Glos. had a Uni. …. well you do now!) last night made me think I should write this up from my PhD. A long time ago (late 1990s) I decided I would run a small-scale experiment on growing perennials in rough grass. I wanted to see if it was possible to create a ‘perennial meadow’, where the grass was cut only once a year. Around the same time James Hitchmough (now at the Uni. of Sheffield) had a similar idea. He, needless to say, was larger-scale and more scientific. Our hope was that we could come up with an alternative to just boring mown grass or long shaggy, but rather untidy grass.

Not actually a great success, but not without some hope.

Problem is, nearly all ornamental perennials have a dormant season, during which our native grasses (which makes up both lawns and pasture) and pasture forbs (like dear old creeping buttercup) are growing, give ‘em a mild winter and the things will grow for 365 days a year. So, perennials are immediately out-competed. This is why you get (or one reason why) you get such fab wildflower meadows in places with freezing winters where nothing can grow Oct/Nov to April, like the Alps, eastern Europe etc. – everything here starts off on a level playing field. Our British/NW European long growing season is just too grass/creeping buttercup+other winter-green forb – friendly.

So, we sprayed off (with Roudup) or dug out circles of grass and planted and watched results. Almost inevitably, both James and I found that plants in year 2 and onwards were so much smaller than we were used to seeing them in borders, out-competed and weakened by the grasses. Very few were able to survive and prosper. My conclusions in my thesis say:

• Effective basal cover, combined strongly with:
• Early emergence
• At least some ability to effective spread by ramets, (ie. new shoots)
• Root competition may also play a part – further research is indicated.

Which means geraniums, especially G. endressii, G. versicolor, G. x oxonianum types,(see pic at top) big inulas (e.g. I. racemosa - see pic below), Rudbeckia laciniata and that's about it. Asters did ok for a few years then got slugged. Euphorbia cyparissias did ok with its manic runner production. Meanwhile James found that Lychnis chalcedonica and Papaver orientale did respectably well too.

Those on planet Academia can check out these:
Hitchmough, J.D. (2000) Establishment of cultivated herbaceous perennials in purpose sown native wildflower meadows in south west Scotland. Landscape and Urban Planning. 714, 1-15

Woudstra, J. and Hitchmough, J.D. (2000) The enamelled mead: History and practice of exotic perennials grown in grassy swards. Landscape Research. 25,1, 29-47

Hitchmough, J. and Woudstra, J. (1999) The ecology of exotic herbaceous perennials grown in managed native grassy vegetation in urban landscapes. Landscape and Urban Planning. 45, 107-121


Phil said...

A really interesting idea. One thought that has often struck me about the attempts to create wild flower meadows by transplanting in native wild flowers (and I guess the same applies to other perennials) is that people always – quite literally – start with a level playing field. Genuinely diverse wild flower meadows tend to feature hummocks and hollows, ant hills and ancient scars in the ground, poorly draining boggy bits, etc. that tend to act as microhabitats for different species. In old ridge-and-furrow fields different species of buttercup favour the ridges and furrows (although I can’t remember which-favours-which). I suppose, when trying to recreate a cultivated equivalent there is always a tendency to start with the idea of converting a lawn or a similar flat area of grass to something more interesting..... but maybe introducing a bit of topographical variety might help.

NewShoot said...

Thanks for this article Noel. If you will excuse I will print it out for discussion in my class next week. I have been enthusing to my group about your research, so it's nice to have a plant listing and some references.
Best wishes,
Jenny Woods

VP said...

Fantastic - thank you. I'd been pondering why we couldn't easily make perennial meadows in the garden, so now I know. I wonder if other vigorous self seeders apart from the Papaver tried already might also have some ongoing success?

Unfortunately an appointment elsewhere meant I couldn't make it over to Cheltenham. Any idea when your talk goes up on the web?

James Golden said...

I've had some success with this in western New Jersey (actually inspired by your The New Perennial Garden), but our winters are rather fierce compared to yours. And the conditions are special - very wet, use of highly competitive perennials, mostly of large size, with selective cutting in mid-summer to control come undesirables, and one complete clean-up (burning and cutting) in late winter.

Nutty Gnome said...

This explains why my multiple attempts to create a perennials and grass area has invariably failed after a couple of years - except for the creeping buttercups and self-set wild alpine strawberries!
Thanks :)

Sarah said...

In 2004 I cleared an area of rich soil, damp in places, and planted up with a mix of strong growing perennials or native species suitable for that habitat.
Creeping buttercup and grass has as expected returned with a vengence along with meadowsweet but some of my planting has fought back. In particular Euphorbia griffithii, which is a bit too vigorous, Inula magnifica, polygonums capanulatum & superbum,a tall miscanthus, Rogersias, Purple loosestrife seeds all over and Devil's Bit scabious doed well.
I wanted a transition area between meadow and garden with minimal maintainance (I cut down and remove material in winter), and despite some plantings being swamped out I am generally pleased with the amount of colour and interest provided by the survivers.

Don Statham said...

I have been playing around with this in my garden: something I call 'Pattern Meadows'- where I stop mowing squares of lawn. I do mow a 6' foot path between the squares. I read that a 35 year old seed bank of our meadow plants are dormant in our lawns. I live in upstate , NY. very rural setting. Sure enough all the meadow plants in my fields started showing up once I stopped mowing :buttercups, ragged robin, vetch, daisy, Indian paint brush to name a few. What I have noticed in early summer June- July the meadow plants star as the native grasses are still growing. In late summer the perennials quite down and the seed heads of the grasses now 4'-5' feet tall take the stage. Here is a short piece I wrote about that experience.

Unknown said...

I have tried over 15 years establishing 'thug' perennials in long unmown pasture with some success. Species that did really well include Inula, Geranium pratense, Iris sibirica, Leucanthemum, Montbretia. Euphorbia palustris, Persicaria amplexicaulis 'Alba', 'Rosea' and 'Speciosa' and P.polymorpha. Hemerocallis, Phlomis russeliana and Sedum Autumn Joy. Echinops,

Unknown said...

I have tried over 15 years establishing 'thug' perennials in long unmown pasture with some success. Species that did really well include Inula, Geranium pratense, Iris sibirica, Leucanthemum, Montbretia. Euphorbia palustris, Persicaria amplexicaulis 'Alba', 'Rosea' and 'Speciosa' and P.polymorpha. Hemerocallis, Phlomis russeliana and Sedum Autumn Joy. Echinops,