making meadows, with longwood gardens’ tom brightman
NO PLACE in the high-summer landscape is more alive than a meadow. Even in the little unmown, informal, meadow-like area I encourage uphill from my house, I swear there is so much life buzzing around that it looks and sounds like you’ve tuned in to a whole different frequency compared to the rest of the garden just below.
But how do you make a meadow or meadow garden, and manage one? What plants, and what practices, combine for a successful mix?
Tom Brightman has been land steward at the famed Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania since 2007, where he oversees more than 700 acres of forest, meadow, wetlands and agricultural lands—including the 86 inspiring acres called the Meadow Garden.
On the August 15, 2016 edition of my public-radio show and podcast (listen using the player below or at this link) he shared some advice he’s gleaned from his work, helping us think about distilling big concepts down to our scale to maybe enjoy a meadow of our own. Learn how (and when) to tackle woody invaders, why grasses (but not too many!) need to be part of the mix, and how to augment your planting with more of say, asters (and reduce another element that may be too thuggish).
Details on visiting the Longwood Meadow Garden and on meadow-related events there are at the bottom of the page. It’s not far from Chanticleer and Winterthur…so a great summer or fall destination (or anytime) for a day or weekend of garden visiting.
my meadow-making q&a with longwood’s tom brightman
Q. The Meadow must be coming into its biggest moments, yes?
A. This is kind of the week when some of the spectacular plants like the Joe-pye weed [below] and the early goldenrods are really kicking up.
Q. All of the anticipation is starting to pay off. The new Meadow Garden, as it is called, was no small accomplishment. Can you just give us a brief background about what happened?
A. We had about a 40-acre parcel that we had in meadow since the mid-70s, but it had been cut off from the rest of our property by a state highway. A few years ago, back in 2010 and 2011, we ended up moving that road. It allowed us to join two larger parcels together, so we could start envisioning this larger Meadow Garden.
We basically have an area that has been meadow since the 70s, a 10-acre hayfield that we transformed, and some other areas in between.
It’s a quite varied landscape both in its age and its topography. We really came to think about the Meadow Garden as part of our longterm 40-year strategic and master plan. One of the core goals at Longwood is stewardship, and land stewardship being part of that. This just seemed like a great opportunity. We’d always want to get more of our guests into our natural lands, and this was a great way to do it.
Q. You hinted at this, but there is dry and wet meadow, forest edge—lots of different habitats that you are working with both in the design and implementation.
A. Exactly. And I think that’s what’s really instructive for our guests. When they come there, they don’t just see one type of habitat, or one type of meadow habitat. With some slopes that faces north, or south, and some wet or dry, there are all these different meadow and forest-edge communities to see.
Q. I read on the Longwood website that there are 3 miles of mown paths to walk through in the Meadow, and bridges, too.
A. There are several little creeks and wetlands that run through the space, so we developed a whole trail system, partly to get people around so they could see the really neat vistas and the different plant communities, but also just trying to develop a space where people could just get out and kind of be by themselves.
Q. Also on the Longwood website: “The plants of the Meadow Garden blend the art of horticulture with the science of ecology…” providing a tapestry of texture and color that shifts with the seasons. That first part interested me: the art of horticulture with the science of ecology coming together. I think that’s what you’re talking about with land stewardship as opposed to pure horticulture.
A. Exactly. We couch it in the term “ecological design,” where we looked at the space and tried to work wit the existing plant communities—the land that we already had. Really looking at a landscape and how we could use horticultural techniques—things like pruning, good cultural practices, good planting practices—to just augment an already thriving ecosystem. And then really look at how we interpret that for our guests, because some people come out and if they are not used to seeing large meadows like that, they’ll have some questions about why don’t you cut this now; why does this look like this; why don’t you deadhead these plants?
And when we start talking from an ecological perspective where those seedheads are obviously the food for a lot of birds and insects and things like that—once you start showing them the relationship between ecology and horticulture, I think it’s a much more in-depth experience for them.
Q. I like the idea of “augmenting,” because it’s not always replacing, not always starting fresh. I want to talk about techniques, because if you go shopping for “meadow plants” even in the very best catalogs, you right away bump into the questions: Do you buy “plugs” (small plants) or bigger plants? Or start with seed; and how to prepare the canvas and so on. Even in my small meadow thing, a couple of thousand square feet, it can be daunting and almost paralyzing.
You used a variety of techniques at Longwood?
A. Yes. The first thing we did—and anybody should do when thinking about a meadow space—is think about the scale of it and the resources that they have both to install it and also manage it long term.
I think that native landscapes have been overly touted as “maintenance-free” [laughter], which is not the case.
Q. Oh my goodness. [Laughter.]
A. But once they’re self-sustaining, which can take a few years with a meadow, the maintenance does drop off.
So we looked at the land. We obviously had an older meadow, and all the niches in that meadow ecologically were filled. Some of the taller plants, we have clump-forming plants, rhizomatous plants, stoloniferous plants—but they had already had 40 years of knitting together.
Other than in areas right at entrances, or where there was construction, there was no need to augment that a lot. We did do that in one way I’ll tell you about in a little bit.
We’re talking large-scale, and we had to make decisions—and it was going to open in about a year, so it was a pretty short timeline. We gravitated toward mostly plugs, because we had the resources to both purchase those and install and maintain them. Plus we knew how they talk about native plants—how they sleep, creep and leap in the first two and three years…
A. …so by getting plugs you minimize that sleep and creep to maybe two years. You just get a quicker impact—and obviously we wanted that, because we were going to have public visitation in a short time period.
But there were areas where we used seed—for instance, in that old 10-acre hayfield, which was mostly just a cool-season hay grass that our farmer had always just cut. We rounded that up, and then actually drill-seeded that with a Truax drill seeder, and we did that three different times in three successive seasons—in the spring, the fall, and then the next spring, to take advantage of different germination conditions. We used different seed mixes, and used the drill in different patterns, basically trying to turn what was an old square 10-acre field into much more of a mosaic. That’s how we looked at
Q. You said you rounded that up—so you use an herbicide to make a blank canvas, because with seed, it won’t do so well trying to compete with the remnants of that old hayfield, correct?
A. Exactly. We’re fairly minimalist with herbicides, but in this case, you really need to get that good soil contact with the seeds—the appropriate depth of contact, which can vary depending on the plant because the seeds vary widely in size. On that kind of scale—10 acres—that’s really your only way to do that.
A homeowner could certainly find other ways. They could sculpt out the soil. I’ve done that at my house, in my little meadow plot. I just took a mattock and ripped up the sod. If I would have done anything else, it would have been to take even more topsoil. It seems the worse the soil is, the better the native plant compete. If you leave too many nutrients, the weeds love that. You almost can’t start with too poor a soil. [Laughter.]
Q. So you’ve named two tactics: You used plugs, the little cell-pack-looking plants, and you used seed in the old hayfield.
A. One question I get from a lot of visitors is: “How do I choose plants?” They want to see my plant list for the Meadow.
Q. They think they’ll just translate it.
A. Right. And then I say there are about 300 plants that live in the Meadow. A, you probably can’t find seed for half of those, nor do you want to pay for that type of seed mix [laughter]. What I try to do is have them walk with me or one of our docents—we’ve trained many docents who can help with this—and find a piece of the meadow that actually is somewhat similar to what the homeowner, the guest, might be contemplating turning into a meadow.
Then we look at the plant community or communities that might be there, and start with what’s growing there in combination—so you can bring this list of 200 or 300 plants down to 10. And then really drill down into are you looking for aggressive colonizers, or what?
I think one thing that people don’t understand about making meadows, is that it’s really a balance between herbaceous plants [forbs] and warm-season grasses. You have to have that matrix to have a successful meadow.
Traditionally, a lot of the “meadow in a can” that you used to buy would be full of all herbaceous plants, and it would all be annuals and biennials. So you would have this riot of color, mostly from non-native species, and by Year 3 it would all go away. They wouldn’t be able to perpetuate themselves very well, and people would think it was a failure.
We really gravitate toward the native perennial plants, or at least biennials and pseudo-biennials, that will be in that landscape for a long period of time, and not just the flash in the pan.
Q. So you say the matrix is partly dependent on warm-season grasses. Would little bluestem be a warm-season grass? And tell me some others.
A. Exactly—and also Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), or prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis). One thing you do have to be careful about is that the grasses tend to be fairly aggressive. Especially with seed mixes, you want to make sure that the percentage of those isn’t too high, because you can kind of overwhelm the herbaceous plants. All the native plants—one of the reasons they do that “sleeping” at the beginning, is that they’re putting these deep roots systems into the ground, and that’s why they’re so drought-tolerant.
The first time I heard that a Kentucky bluegrass lawn has a root system that was like 6 inches, where prairie dropseed might be 8 feet deep—there’s obviously a different way those plants are using their habitat, being able to mine groundwater. But in those first years, they’re putting all their energy into those big root systems. You just have to be patient, and then think about hos these plants are going to relate to each other structurally not just above the ground, but how the root systems are going to really start adding structure and holding soil as well.
Q. You were taking about using plugs, and say I have this unmown area I’ve been cultivating or influencing [photo above at Margaret’s garden in late summer]. It has a lot of little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), and Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis)—which we’ll talk about because that’s a whole separate issue we can commiserate over…
A. Good, because I have an interesting solution we’ve tried with that.
Q. Good. But say I wanted more asters in my meadow. Could I carve out some bare patches and plug in asters, for instance? Is there a way to kind of bump up the quotient of something where you’ve already got your grass layer?
A. Certainly. We had an area that was thick in Canada goldenrod, and we wanted to augment the diversity there. What we did: We waited till the plant had flowered, but not gone to seed yet—so it had used all that energy. We cut it off right them. You could do the same thing with warm-season grasses—let them use some energy but not let them go to seed.
Especially with the Canada goldenrod, we came back a couple of weeks later and we targeted them with some spot-spraying, or you could hand-pull, just to create a little bit more space there. And then you could put the plugs in there.
Down here, we had done that treatment to the goldenrod right about now or mid-August, and once we cut it back, waited a couple of weeks and did the herbiciding [or hand pulling] and then we waited about a month and put the plugs in kind of in mid-to early October, so they’re able to start getting some root growth before frost hit, and obviously you want to protect them from the hungry deer if that’s an issue where you are.
This is the third season after we did that, and the goldenrod is coming back here and there, but it was a thick blanket of it. We’ve been able to put in many plants, and asters were one of them. They’re thriving—and we used plugs, deep LP50 plugs.
Q. And we should say they’re great—but they’re wholesale. But my local nursery will order from North Creek for customers who want to do a project like this. Don’t be afraid to go into your garden center and say, “Hey, I’m making this meadow in my yard, and I need the right stuff.” And they can mark it up; they don’t have to sell it to you wholesale, but people can get it, and should ask. North Creek is an exceptional source. I call these plugs “torpedoes,” because they’re deep, not tiny things in cellpacks an inch tall.
A. Exactly. They have a groove in them that sends the roots downwards, so they’re ready to rock when you put them in the ground.
Q. We talked about a couple of forms of editing—like tackling the Canada goldenrod when it’s at its weakest, and the idea of making bare spots manually or with herbicide, and plugging in stuff.
There is the other thing about a meadow: woody plants want to come in. Timing your mowing, for instance—I have a lot of blackberry, some kind of Rubus, and so I walk through maybe three times a season and pull [or dig] it out [including the roots]. And I mow once a year the first week of May before the little bluestem is too far up, knocking down the cool-season weeds and favoring the bluestem. How do you figure all that management out? Look up the habits of the plants or what?
A. There are some generalizations, especially with woody plants. Typically you try not to mow them when they’re about to put on a lot of growth anyway, because sometimes it just stimulates them. This isn’t mowing, but more individual cutting. We’ll actually cut them in the fall, when they’re starting to draw their nutrients down into the ground, and then put a few drops glyphosate right into the cut stem. We’re really minimizing the amount of chemical, but it pulls it right down and it does a much better job of killing the roots.
If you constantly mow shrubs over the years, a lot will have these huge root systems. They’ll keep coming back every year and some if you miss a year they’ll grow twice what they might have if you they’d been beaten back a little bit. My advice is try to get the early obviously when they’re small and can be hand-pulled, or if you have a weed wrench or something, you always have to worry a little about disturbing soil. Every time you disturb soil you may be disturbing seeds that you don’t want just a much as ones you might want.
So anytime you make an disturbance you want to follow up in those areas and see what’s coming up to make sure you’re not liberating a whole patch of Canada thistle.
Q. Right. [Laughter.] Which is even tougher than Canada goldenrod in my opinion, in that it’s nasty and spiny.
In the last few minutes, I want to talk about who else lives in and visits the meadow. I loved seeing that Longwood is an eBird hotspot—the citizen-science project, eBird—and I can see what birds have been seen at Longwood in a given week if I log onto my eBird account. I bet you have a lot of birds in the meadow.
A. Biodiversity is one of the key goals of managing our natural lands, and the Meadow being part of that. It really starts with diversity in the plant community. All these insects—many of which are adapted as pollinators or to graze on certain plants—the more diversity of plants, the more diversity of insects, and thus the more food for the different birds.
And so for example, Eastern bluebirds are one [above]. If the meadow is large enough you may get Eastern meadowlark or bobolink. There’s just a whole suite of grassland-nesting birds and then along our forest edges, there are a lot of birds who use those edges. They may best in the woods, but they feed in the successional edge or actually come into the meadow.
So it’s really looking at the diversity at all the different levels of structure in the meadow. You can say, “I want Eastern meadowlarks,” but unless you have a large meadow—they typically like over 100 acres or so, so if you have a 5-acres meadow you’re not going to get Eastern meadowlark.
You have to be realistic about what you’re going to get. We had some kestrels nest and fledge some young; we hadn’t had that happen in a few years. The bobolinks, though they haven’t nested here yet, we’re getting flocks of 40 or 50 at a time in the fall as they migrate, so we’re hoping that they’ll eventually adopt it as a place to breed as well.
Q. Oh, nice.
What are some of your favorite plants that you did add—that you did use to augment the Meadow, and you’re excited to see in this planting?
A. A lot of my background is in wetlands, so I love wet meadows—and there is a lot of that in our Meadow Garden. One of my favorites is New York ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) [above right]. It can be a little rangy for some people, but that intense purple is just really neat, plus it kind of harkens back to our agricultural dairy history here at Longwood. It’s a plant that cattle typically don’t like to graze on.
A. Sometimes you see these big wet meadows, and in a few weeks it will be all purple. You can just tell that was grazed at one point, because that is how that plant has flourished. I like Verbena hastata [above left], and monkey flower (Mimulus ringens) is really another great wet-meadow plant.
There are all kinds of neat sedges, and I like how soft rush (Juncus effusus) holds the structure—the grass-sedge structure—of the wetland together. It’s always that deep green, so no matter what time of year you look at it, it’s kind of vibrant. It always to me evokes wetland life.
There are certainly plants like swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)—and all the milkweeds. It was really cool when we opened the meadow, we had some swamp milkweeds that were barely three months old, and they were just covered with monarch caterpillars. Just creating this habitat, and within two or three months of putting those plugs in the ground—it was very gratifying to say that.
Q. If you build it—or if you plant it—they will come, right, Tom Brightman?
A. That’s definitely the case. We’ve found that to be true.
visiting longwood and its meadow garden
Or: Learn more about the Meadow Garden over all at this link. The following walks and hikes happen in the Meadow Garden at Longwood:
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the August 15, 2016 show right here, and also use the buttons below to subscribe to future shows, free.
(Photos courtesy of Longwood Gardens, except photo of Tom Brightman from University of Pennsylvania/.)