Looking to create landscapes with the quality and vitality of wild meadows, James Hitchmough — professor of horticultural ecology at Sheffield University — began creating "synthetic" meadows from seeds.
Hitchmough found inspiration in the woodlands and meadows he experienced as a child. The trimmed hedgerows and manicured flower beds of the suburbs were no match for the deeper emotional resonance he felt in the wilderness.
Hitchmough's interest in ecology, design and management of herbaceous vegetation and his colleagues at Sheffield are discovering ways of creating landscapes that are compatible, more sustainable, require less maintenance, and are more resource efficient. The context for much of this work is public greenspaces in towns and cities as well as restoration ecology in prairies and grasslands. Hitchmough's work often re-interprets the natural environment through the use of semi-natural vegetation and the introduction of exotics. In a time when consensus is otherwise trending toward a return to natural plantings and native species, Hitchmough's work is not without controversy.
Sowing seed in situ creates a spontaneous and rhythmic interplay in the planting "design". In the high summer blooms can be spectacular. Throughout the growing process Hitchmough may still experiment by "tweaking" and "rejiggering" the plantings. The result: Previously undiscovered new forms of planting design.
But even design has its limits. Meadows, like any natural environment, are subject to the dynamics of natural selection and competition. When meadow and prairie gardening began as a trend in the 80s it soon foundered as no one at the time fully understood the competitive ecology of such landscapes. Through Hitchmough's and the work of others, breakthroughs have been made in meadow ecology and understanding which plants make the optimum alliances. As a result of these successes, Hitchmough's seed mixes are now being marketed for institutional use through Sheffield University.
Meadows can function as a natural weed management systems through the self-seeding and spreading of the plants. Hitchmough's creations tend to be denser and more diverse than their natural ancestors. Aesthetically, though, there are limits: "Visual impact is much more dramatic with 20 rather than 60 species" he says. “Seed allows you to plant far more species per square metre and then let natural selection do the rest.”
Above, a Hitchmough prairie near Chicago.
"[Meadows can be] a bit like a soap opera... It's good to think of the plant species as actors in a play... who's coming, who's going, who's dying, who's still there in the end... That's what ecology is about."
Perhaps in the end, nature, through natural process, may be the best final arbiter of how the garden should be. No matter: However the journey unfolds, the spoils are always for the eye.
Above, an ecological restoration project in Rhodes, South Africa.