According to Graham Laird Gardner, you don’t have to have vast acreage to be able to enjoy the look and feel of a wildflower meadow. “Three plants in a container could potentially meet this concept,” Gardner says. He’s the author of the forthcoming book, Tiny + Wild: Build a Small-Scale Meadow Anywhere.
Gardner has been in landscape design for well over 20 years. Some of the largest agencies he’s worked with include the Denver Parks Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But he’s succeeded in plenty of small spaces, too.
While writing Tiny + Wild, he took pains to identify what made some of his largest installations successful. Then he distilled those elements down so that they could be applied to smaller projects.
“You have to be more deliberate and more simplified,” Gardner explains. “In a larger space, you can go a little wild, as long as you still keep the eye moving through the space. But if you’re in a smaller space, it can look chaotic quickly if you’re trying to plant one of everything.”
A Meadow’s ‘Essence’
Obviously, the smaller your space, the more limited your planting choices may be. Even so, Gardner says, “I don’t want to limit people into thinking they need X number of plants before it constitutes a meadow.” (On the other hand, he doesn’t want to run afoul of ecologists either: “I could see them saying, ‘I’m sorry, but you’re really misusing that word when you’re talking about a few plants in a container!’”)
So, to be fair, Gardner sometimes uses the word “meadow” in a somewhat loose, creative way. “When you’re getting into a really small scale, it’s probably more the essence of a meadow than a true meadow,” he notes.
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Small but Mighty
Nevertheless, whether you have a few large containers, a balcony or a strip of sidewalk, even these can be transformed. Much of Gardner’s guidance aims to help readers work the “wildness” of more naturalized gardening into their own landscapes—without losing sight of their specific goals.
(Some of these goals could include attracting and supporting native pollinators, mitigating the need to mow especially tricky terrain or, perhaps, screening an unsightly view.)
“There are a lot of elements in the book that touch on naturalized gardening and how to make things look more deliberate,” Gardner says. “[That includes] where you might site things based on proximity to neighbors and how you might approach things differently if [you’re planting] in the front yard versus the back yard.”
To that end, Tiny + Wild explores site evaluation, design ideas, plant choices, seed starting, plant installation, long-term meadow management and more. Gardner also covers plant choices for different kinds of space constraints and growing conditions.
For example, he says, “You wouldn’t be putting Joe-Pye weed in a small container. If you did use Joe-Pye weed, you might pick one of the dwarf varieties so that you could still be taking inspiration from nature but taking into account the scale of the space that you’re working in.”
Keep It Simple
Considering all of the different colors, heights, and textures different meadow plants can afford, it’s easy to become a little overwhelmed when choosing what to plant. When in doubt?
“Circle back to simplicity and to some of the [provided] design concepts … and the goals for the project,” Gardner suggests. “Your goals are going to guide you. If your intention is to attract more pollinators and beneficial insects and you keep reminding yourself of that, it will help you to choose your plants. Or, if your goal is to screen an unsightly area in your neighbor’s yard, you know that you’re looking for plants that have four-season structure and height.”
Of course, your budget will also play a role. One of Gardner’s favorite mini-meadow hacks? Working with landscape “plugs” or smaller plants in 2- to 4-inch containers, rather than springing for larger potted specimens. He also uses seeds to fill in the gaps.
“That way, you have [plants] at different ages, and those smaller landscape plugs and smaller pots will catch up to the 1-gallon pots pretty quickly,” he says. “It’s also a smaller root zone, so you’re not having to worry as much about watering and the shock of establishment.”
Mini-meadows provide at least one other benefit—particularly for beginners.
“If you have a smaller space that you’re maintaining, you can pay more attention to the small things that are happening amongst the few species that you’ve selected,” Gardner says. “You can really learn what your seedlings look like and what your problem weeds look like and not get overwhelmed by a larger space.”