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Walking through a William Morris meadow

Did you encounter Dan Pearson’s ‘William Morris’ meadow at Compton Verney this year? Now the dust has settled and the wild flowers have been cropped, I thought I’d take a look back through poppy tinted spectacles to see what valuable lessons were learned.

Parterre image by Jamie Woodley © Compton Verney 2015
Parterre image by Jamie Woodley © Compton Verney 2015

It’s worth adding at this point, that if you’re not the slightest bit interested in wild flowers, meadows, William Morris or garden design; I’d click away now!

Why did this project come about?

In short, the project aim was to reinvigorate a wild lawn area, re-presenting it in support of the 2015 summer exhibition The Arts and Crafts House: Then and Now. We were fortunate to strike up a relationship with the prominent garden designer Dan Pearson, who came up with the concept having looked closely at the landscape and garden areas.

What did it consist of?

The design picked up on a William Morris design titled ‘Trellis’, a pattern that would contrast well with the curvilinear landscape originally laid out by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. In a parterre style, the design would be mown into the sward of a wild flower enriched lawn – an artistic interaction with long term benefits.

Artistic impression of meadow © Dan Pearson Studio 2015
Artistic impression of meadow © Dan Pearson Studio 2015

How was it funded?

We were glad to receive an early boost when the good folks from Art Fund agreed to support our fund raising efforts through their Art Happens crowd funding initiative. A set of ‘rewards’ were offered, resulting in financial support from a whole range of individuals and organisations.

And how was it executed?

As 2014 rushed by we had much to achieve and funding deadlines pushed us right into the challenging late autumn period – wild flower seeding between showers is less than ideal! However, with a good deal of help from a local agricultural contractor the lawn was harrowed, drilled with seed and rolled.

Nick Gasson drilling the seed © Compton Verney 2015
Nick Gasson drilling the seed © Compton Verney 2015

At this stage we were given a strong a steer from Dan Pearson himself; a large helping of advice (and seeds) from Donald MacIntyre of Emorsgate Seeds and of course the mechanical efforts of our neighbour Nick Gasson.

The grounds staff and volunteers also played a valuable role throughout, weed pulling and stone picking to the unenviable job of raking the edges of the entire perimeter to ensure an even edge.

Adam & Anne raking the edges © Compton Verney 2015
Adam & Anne raking the edges © Compton Verney 2015

Towards the end of 2014 our lovely green lawn looked more like a ploughed field. As the green sward returned I would occasionally search for emerging wild flower seedlings, and in early spring our hard work and patience was rewarded with a strong showing of the all important yellow rattle across the whole lawn area.

In good time the final design arrived, and with a few nerves we embarked on the next stage of the work – to mark the design into the sward. This took much, much longer than anticipated, essentially because of the formality and need for accuracy, but working from a clear setting out plan helped enormously and the design knitted together perfectly.

Design for meadow © Dan Pearson Studio 2015
Design for meadow © Dan Pearson Studio 2015

Dan chose to interpret the roses from the original Morris design as circular beds of annual flowers, a pretty pastel mix from Pictorial Meadows, and so three circles of turf were cut, cultivated and the soil improved. The seed was sown, temporary rabbit nets added, and during a prolonged dry period we watered, fed, and hoped…

What was the outcome?

Well I might be biased, but I’d say it was a complete success! It wasn’t just me to be fair, many encouraging comments were received throughout. Even Dan seemed genuinely impressed at how effectively we had turned around the lawn.

Dan Pearson & Gary Webb, © Compton Verney 2015
Dan Pearson & Gary Webb, © Compton Verney 2015

On the exhibition launch day at the end of June the neatly mown paths awaited inspection. I was thrilled to tour the garden with Dan, ahead of the visiting media, and very happy to hear such positive comments. We crouched to admire the flowers and stroked the taller meadow grasses whilst physically walking through a William Morris’s meadow.

Dan Pearson inspecting the flowers © Compton Verney 2015
Dan Pearson inspecting the flowers © Compton Verney 2015

We had started the year with a cold, winter flattened west lawn, and in a few short months seen a wild flower meadow emerge, an area with a new sens of purpose.

Annual flowers in 'rose' circles 2015. © Compton Verney
Annual flowers in ‘rose’ circles 2015. © Compton Verney

The paths enticed visitors through and were clearly visible, as all parterres should be from the windows and terrace of the gallery. In the first week of July the rose circles flowered and continued until the end of the season – simply stunning from every angle.
Any learning points?

I’d certainly start the process earlier in future, September for soil working and seeding would have been much easier. Also for the annual flowers; sowing earlier would have worked better for our busier period.

We could also have managed expectations better. The wider meadow area was sown largely with perennial grass and flower seed which takes some time to mature, years in some cases. We knew this and were very vocal, Dan himself speaking of how the meadow, beyond the life of the exhibition would mature and improve. However, many cameras focused only on the spectacular annual flowers in those ‘rose’ circles, and I’m certain some folks visited expecting a sea of pastel shades… On the whole though, the meadow was very well received, and enjoyed by many.

IMG-20140516-Yellow Rattle. West Lawn. © Compton Verney/ Gary Webb 2015
Yellow Rattle. West Lawn. © Compton Verney/ Gary Webb 2015

And looking ahead?

Although the formal parterre design won’t return for 2016, the hard work to improve the meadow area won’t be wasted. From spring each year we’ll embrace the meadow flowers, mowing informal paths between before cutting and baling in late summer. The area will then return to shorter grass height for six months so we can experience the lawn how ‘Capability’ Brown intended.

Any final words?

I personally wish to thank all who supported. The staff, volunteers and sponsors, and all those who shared words of encouragement and images on social media; you’ve helped something really special to establish at Compton Verney, something that will I hope be here for many years to come.

Gary Webb, Head of Landscape & Gardens at Compton Verney.

3 thoughts on “Walking through a William Morris meadow

  1. For the record this was a native flower plantation, since it was planted. ‘Meadows’ are mown and ‘wild’ means not cultivated.

    I am not knocking the project or its result, but I dislike the modern trend towards dishonesty in language relating to landscapes. Another all too common example is to describe a plantation of trees as a ‘coppice’.

    1. Thanks for commenting and putting your points forward for the blog, they are duly noted and will certainly be kept in mind moving forward. Regards, Gary, Head of Landscape & Garden.

  2. What a fabulous result and as Dan Pearson is one of my favourite garden designers, I am especially thrilled that you chose him to be involved.

    I mowed a path through our small 1/2 acre meadow, meandering around various trees and patches of wild meadow flowers, daffodils and fritillaries and the joy is you can change the design every year if you want too so it is always fresh.

    I look forward to seeing it next year, what is the best time to see it in full flower?

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