The first major step of the upper field installation was completed in early March – the site preparation. Every step along the way to the Upper Field restoration is thrilling, at least to this native plant geek, and it looks great.
The nice dark compost on top is a boost to help the plants get established and will be the only external nutrients that get added to these beds. I am a bit worried about some of the plants that prefer lean soils, but other plants will appreciate it so overall it should balances out.
Meadow Planting Design
Back at my desk, I have been diving into the design details. Last year, you may remember, I did a design for the meadow, which was fine, and I still love the idea of a matrix planting. But I learned more about these plantings from the New Directions in the American Landscape (NDAL) conference in January, so I decided to revamp the design. The prior design was a uniform spread of plants, with kind of random placement of anchor plants and drifts. The images from the conference that inspired me had meadows divided into different sections with different but overlapping plant mixes in each but flowing together for a much more interesting visual effect.
So, for my oval meadow I played with various section schemes, and decided to divide the oval into three sections, with a curved boundary between the sections. The meadow is surrounded by a pathway and there is a viewing bench on the left, and I thought this design would give opportunities to view some interesting combinations of plants as you walk around or view from the bench.
Next was developing the plant palette. For each section the matrix scheme calls for 2 types of anchor plants, which are larger in size and more visible, to catch the eye; 3 types of drift plants for seasonal color; a primary grass; and 1-2 matrix plants that are relatively low to fill in the empty space. The requirements for the plants include full sun, dry conditions, native to Cape Cod, and preferably rabbit resistant. Thankfully, there are not so many plants that fit these criteria, so that made the choices easier. After some playing around, the palette I developed looked like this:
I always like to cut and paste images to try to visualize what the eventual planting layout will look like, but that is beyond my skills for a meadow planting. Instead, I took images of the plants in each mix and put them together on a page. For each mix I looked at heights, plant structures, and leaf and flower types, to make sure I had good variety and plant combinations that I thought would be compatible. One thing to note is that I didn’t pay particular attention to color, as the meadow in my mind is full of different colors that vary throughout the season. Yes, I tweaked and rearranged after reviewing these pages.
Now to the fun part – the plant layout. I have never enjoyed doing this on the computer – a pencil and eraser on tracing paper is the best for me, to allow lots of trial and adjusting and rearranging. When it’s ready, I color in each plant – in this case, I used the same colors as on the plant palette chart for cross reference.
Did you know that gardening sometimes involves math? That was the next step, figuring out how many of which plants were needed. For smaller beds, graph paper and a pencil are enough – you can draw out the circles for each plant based on its eventual spread and count the circles. A meadow is too big for that, and so it’s time to fall back on math – get ready for lots of percentage calculations!
The meadow is an oval 48’x30’, and if it were a rectangle the area would be 1,440 square feet. For the oval, lets estimate it is about 1250 square feet. Most plants take up 1-1.5 square feet, so if the average is 1.25 square feet, the meadow would need 1,152 plants. (My back is tired and sore just thinking about that many plants.) The grasses/matrix plants are 70% and the perennials 30%, so that means 807 grass plants and 345 perennials.
Let me focus on Mix A for the rest of this illustration. I estimated that Mix A is 30% of the total, so that means 242 grass plants. The breakdown to get to individual plant types is based on which plant will be dominant in each section, and that plant should be 50% of the total and the others 25% each. So for Mix A, I would need about 120 little bluestem plants and 60 each of purple lovegrass and butterfly weed.
Calculating the perennials is a little trickier. I looked at the diagram above, and counted the blobs for each plant type, then estimated the square footage of each blob and how many plants would fit into the blob, then totaled them up for each plant. Here’s the calculation for Mix A:
Whew, that was kind of overwhelming. It’s a good thing I can block off an afternoon to work with my calculator and spreadsheets, and it’s also a good thing that there’s flexibility in the exact number of plants. The goal is to order approximately the right number of plants, filling in the space but without buying too many extra plants.
One concern in working with this many plants is, of course, the cost. If I were to go out and buy typical nursery plants for, say $14 each, the cost for over a thousand plants is prohibitive. For many meadows installations, it is entirely planted by seed, which is considerably less expensive, especially if you are doing acres of meadow.
But I don’t have a lot of experience with planting with seed directly into the ground and I want results a bit faster, so I am adopting a blended strategy. Most of my perennials will be planted as plugs, which are small plants about 1-2” in diameter. about 4” deep and costing $3-4 each. I haven’t found a source of native plant plugs available for retail sale anywhere nearby, so I am ordering perennials from Prairie Moon Nursery in the Midwest. There are some plants they don’t carry so I will buy locally grown, larger plants from Bluestem Nursery in Norwood MA or other local nurseries. Finally, for the grasses and matrix plants, I am ordering about 15% of the plants as plugs and will use seed for the rest of the needed coverage. I am told that native grasses germinate pretty readily, so wish me luck.
In mid-March I nervously hit Submit on the largest plant order I’ve ever made. The plants will be delivered in flats in mid-to-late May. Anyone want to join the planting party? I can hardly wait!
This is awesome!!! Gives me a lot of ideas for my own area!!
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Let me know when the planting party starts!
This is truly amazing. Sounds like genius at work to me!!!