Creating your own tiny patch of meadow in an urban area doesn’t have to be complicated – in fact you only need five types of plants to do it.
So says Lucy Bellamy, author and former editor of Gardens Illustrated magazine, who has a small city garden 5m wide by 8m long in Bristol. She has now written Grow 5 – a collection of 52 simple planting ‘recipes’ featuring seasonal ideas for small outdoor spaces using just five plants.
She says that using five types of plants draws on repetition, a key design principle. A combination of five allows the plants to provide the excitement and perform the lion’s share of design work.
“I chose five because it’s close to nature, where it’s really rare to see a monoculture or just one or two plants in a sea of soil. Nature is all about knitting a small group of plants together – and that’s what this does.
“There’s been a move in the gardening world into what is called perennial meadows. Whereas a traditional meadow uses annual plants, perennials which look meadow-esque will keep coming up year after year but are not necessarily grown from seed every year. They are really easy maintenance but look amazing.”
If you have no borders and only a trough or other container to plant in, you can still grow a micro-meadow, she insists.
“The idea of five plants works really well in a pot, working together as a medley but in a really tiny space, using maybe one of each of the five plants. It’s about thinking about your color palette, using different textures and choosing plants that flower for a really long time.”
In a small city garden, loose meadow-like plantings feel quite unexpected and therefore have much more impact than they would in a wider setting, she observes.
Consider your aspect – are you in sun or shade? Think about choosing plants with different shapes – look at the clusters and shape of flowers, consider grasses with fine filigree foliage.
“Think about contrast in shape and the element of repetition, so everything’s not the same but everything’s not completely different,” advises Bellamy.
Here, she offers a recipe for a contemporary take on a micro-meadow, using structural plants with strong shapes, including alliums, irises and plume thistles, softening them with stipa grass and wispy fennel.
“The plants I’ve chosen will all benefit from a sunny position, but they won’t need a rich soil,” she says. “New contemporary meadows thrive on quite a scratchy, urban soil. To give them extra compost makes them less resilient, so grow them quite hard.”
Ingredients: The five plants you’ll need
Allium ‘Miami’; Cirsium rivulare ‘Atropurpureum; Foeniculum vulgare (fennel); Iris ‘Sable’; Stipa gigantea.
1. Dig over the soil to a crumbly consistency.
2. Starting with the Stipa gigantea, space the plants out on the soil, still in their pots, and consider how they will look in different spots, including when you view the scene through your window.
3. Add the Cirsium and fennel, in ones and twos, so that the flowers and foliage mingle at the tips.
4. Dot Iris ‘Sable’ at random among the other plants, making sure you don’t place them too close together, as they will be hefty plants.
5. When each plant has a spot, dig a hole for the stipa, Cirsium and foeniculum, tapping each plant from its pot and easing out a few roots with your fingers. Dig a hole the depth of each plant pot before planning them.
6. Plant the irises, not too deeply, as the top of the rhizome must remain above the soil. Water thoroughly.
7. Alliums are best planted the previous autumn as dormant bulbs, buried 10-15cm deep, tucking them between other flowers, or you can buy them as budding bulbs in early summer.
Bellamy adds: “These modern meadows are designed to have a long season of interest – the plants will naturally change and evolve throughout the year – so the fennel will in summer have yellow flowers, while the allium and cirsium will hold their shape after their color fades, providing decorative seedheads which last through winter.”
Grow 5 by Lucy Bellamy (photography by Jason Ingram) is published by Mitchell Beazley, priced £22.