by Valerie Easton photographed by Richard Hartlage IN THE PAST few months I've gotten more questions about meadows from readers than anything...

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by Valerie Easton

photographed by Richard Hartlage

IN THE PAST few months I’ve gotten more questions about meadows from readers than anything else besides slugs and deer. Meadow gardening, a European trend kick-started by the hazy, billowy landscapes of Dutch designer and nurseryman Piet Oudolf, has recently been featured in a number of public spaces and publications. But I think it’s the Olympic Sculpture Park, with its native meadows rising up on both sides of Elliott Avenue, that has piqued local interest.

A meadow is not the same as a prairie, which is an ecological term for an area of low topography with growing grasses and herbaceous plants but few trees. You can see gorgeous ever-changing expanses of prairie at Ebey’s Landing on Whidbey Island and Fort Lewis in Pierce County.

While the word meadow brings to mind romantic visions of sun-drenched, daisy-dotted orchards animated by flitting butterflies, the definition of a meadow is simply a field vegetated primarily by grass and other nonwoody plants. To create a native meadow is to undertake the restoration of an entire ecosystem, which isn’t what most of us are up to in our home gardens. And yet . . .

What better way to blanket the ground in biodiversity than to plant a shimmering meadow where grasses and flowers bloom in succession through the year?

But is the idea even feasible for home gardens?

I turned for advice to Richard Hartlage of AHBL in Tacoma. Along with associate Emily Stachurski, he is deeply involved in meadow-restoration projects. But mostly I was intrigued by a Hartlage-designed multiacre meadow in Connecticut that is one of the most enchanting and sophisticated landscapes I’ve seen. Many of us have admired, in person or in pictures, the meadow at Great Dixter in England, a space planted with wild abandon by the late Christopher Lloyd and chronicled in his book “Meadows.”

Lloyd defined meadow gardening simply as wildflowers growing in a grassy place that will survive being cut to the ground once a year. At Great Dixter he planted an assortment of wild grasses and flowers directly into old, rough turf for a constantly changing tapestry of plants. He warned, “A meadow’s serenity suggests lazy abandon but, like a garden, establishing and maintaining it is almost entirely dependent on human management.” Lloyd found that meadows need continual tinkering because some plants will try to take over while others tend to die out.

So how did Hartlage create the glorious Connecticut meadow? “It wouldn’t work as well in this climate because it would go dormant in our dry summers,” he began discouragingly. But if you can accept a few months of brown and olive green dormancy, it’s possible to have what he calls “re-created, choreographed meadows” despite our usual late-summer drought.

Hartlage began the meadow by planting “plugs” or small starts of more than two dozen species of grasses and perennials, with a mix of roughly 60 percent grasses and 40 percent perennial flowers. “The key is to realize it takes four years of weeding out invasives until the meadow is dense enough to be self-sustaining,” says Hartlage. And he cautions not to turn over the soil before planting, as that will activate weed seeds. As Lloyd pointed out, meadows aren’t as low-maintenance as they look.

If you’re not up for this level of commitment, an easier route is to use native and nonnative plants to create meadow effects. “If you just want flowers in a field, you can introduce oxeye daisies,” suggests Hartlage. Prairie plants from around the world, such as coneflowers, baptisia, phlox and milkweed, can be mixed with grasses for a meadow-like look. Idaho fescue is a good grass choice for our climate because it is drought tolerant, adaptable and comes easily from seed planted in autumn.

“Time is the key to beautiful, complex meadows,” concludes Hartlage. “Biodiversity is a function of time . . . It takes 10 years to make amazing meadows.”

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of “A Pattern Garden.” Her e-mail address is valeaston@comcast.net.