“small, modest beginnings leading to extraordinary outcomes and impact”

The Pictorial Meadows story is one of small, modest beginnings leading to extraordinary outcomes, in a way that no-one could have imagined at the start.  The idea started out very simply, as a small student project around 20 years ago, gradually spread out into parks and gardens, became associated with urban renewal, and ended up providing some of the iconic images of the London Olympic Park in 2012.  It’s a lesson in how a germ of an idea can have widespread impact.

Designed Meadows vs Nature Conservation Meadows

The key to the Pictorial Meadows idea was that they were aimed at designed and disturbed sites, and that what might be wanted in a garden or park can be very different to what a dedicated nature conservationist or ecologist might want to see in the wild. The kind of meadow that I want to see is jam-packed full of flowers – a sort of meadow-max!   Something that sings the romance of sparkling sheets of flowers, alive with butterflies and bees, and full of exuberance.  Something that’s almost overwhelming in its beauty, and which gives a sense of working with nature, rather than against it. And something that keeps on giving, over a very long period of time. I might even want to see different colour themes and effects with my meadows. It’s all about creating the look and feel of the meadow – the meadow aesthetic – in a reliable and dependable way.

The concept for Pictorial Meadows grew out of research programmes into ‘sustainable urban plantings’ at the University of Sheffield over the past 20 years or so, as an alternative to typical tired, dull, low diversity and unimaginative schemes or to the unending expanses of mown ‘amenity grass’ – this is a wider programme by myself and James Hitchmough, of which these meadows are just one part.  But what typifies everything is what I call ‘High-Impact, Low-Input’ planting.

Below: an early trial mix of biennials and short-lived perennials for temporary sites, with Foxglove – Digitalis ‘Sutton’s Apricot’, Sweet Rocket, Oxeye Daisies. All photos by Nigel Dunnett

At the time, the idea of specialised meadow mixes was not a new one, but as far as I was aware, the Pictorial Meadows idea was unique.  I wanted to create seed mixes that were very dependable (almost fail-safe); which were carefully worked out to achieve an effective balance of colours – not necessarily harmonious, but often contrasting; and which flowered for a very long period of time.  Up until then, it seemed to me, most seed mixes were fairly randomly thrown together, and had not been subjected to much in the way of detailed consideration, or they were composed of long lists of native wildflowers.

Inspirations and Influences

Initially I started with annuals.  I had always been fascinated by the creative possibilities of annual plants, and the fact that different combinations could be made from one year to another.  But I had also grown up in the Kent countryside and experienced the splendour of corn fields full of poppies every summer, and wondered why it wasn’t possible to do the same thing in gardens or parks.  But it was living in North Carolina in the US for a year and a half, and seeing the large-scale use of direct-sown annuals in roadside or highway beautification programmes (e.g  highway wildflower programme) that made me wonder why the same thing couldn’t be done in the UK.  These programmes had a robust yearly site preparation, meadow establishment and management programme that was operated as a matter of routine.

I’d also been influenced by the dramatic wildflower landscapes created by the charity Landlife in Liverpool using native annual species, again using simple establishment and maintenance techniques.  But the problem with using native species on their own though is that they tend to have a short flowering period, usually from early to mid-summer.  So, the Pictorial Meadows concept grew out of the idea that by combining early, mid and late-season annuals in the same mix, it would be possible to get very long flowering meadows.  I must also acknowledge the work of the landscape architect Brita von Schoenaich who was instrumental in introducing the ‘new naturalism’ movement in planting design into the UK and who had also begun experimenting with annual mixes.

Below: 1) a photo of a field of poppies I took as a teenager near where I grew up in a village in Kent.  2) A photo I took of a roadside seeding of ‘wildflowers’ that I took in the US state of Georgia in 1989.  Both of these images were instrumental in developing the Pictorial Meadows concept.

Below: Developing the early Pictorial Meadows mixes around 15 years ago was the first time that I worked on the concept of successional layering of plantings for long-season flowering – this concept has come to define my whole approach.  Here, three photos of the same sowing taken months apart from each other: the early flowers of poppies and gypsophila in June and July give way to Ammi magus and cornflowers in August, and then to Cosmos in September and October.  The earlier flowering layers are hidden by the later flowering layers that rise above, and no interim maintenance is required.  Because of this, the seed mixtures change colour over the course of the flowering season, and at each point the flowering is defined by a small number of species used in large numbers.

Research-Intensive

I first started intensive research work in 1999, through one of my master’s students dissertations.  We took around 60 different ‘hardy annuals’ and sowed them direct in the spring in small plots (1m x 1m) in Sheffield Botanical Gardens, and monitored them through the whole growing season.  The intention was to identify species that would perform well without any on-going maintenance (particularly no dead-heading).  So we looked at factors such as height and spread, number of flowers produced, and also the overall flowering period, as well as an index of how healthy and acceptable the plants looked in general.

In the following year I then picked the best of these, and started to make simple combinations of different annuals to test how they worked in competition with each other, and how they could be combined to generate that long flowering season overall.  From these early experiments I was able to generate the first set of annual seed mixes for proper use.

Below: an example of the sort of experimental mixes that underpinned the development of the widely-used Pictorial Meadows seed mixes.

“Real learning comes from trying out things for real”

 

Testing for Real

There’s only a certain amount of work that can be done under very controlled experimental conditions.  For me, the real learning comes from trying things out for real, in real situations.  As a result, I have always taken a very collaborative approach to this sort of research – working with contractors in real locations as early as is possible.  After the initial trialling in experimental plots, I (cheekily) approached Sheffield City Council parks department and asked if there was any chance of trying out these mixes in public spaces.  To my surprise, the response was yes!  I was initially offered space in 10 different parks in Sheffield, ranging from very large areas of mown grass through to small entrance spaces and conversions of flower beds.  The deal was that I would provide the seed mixes for free and do the seed sowing, and that the City Council would do the site preparation and get everything prepared for that sowing.  The great benefits of working this way is that it allows fine-tuning of the techniques to make them work for real, but crucially, it subjects the final results to the full test of public opinion.

Many of these texts sites were in economically and socially challenging parts of the city, and to be honest, I was prepared for their to be damage and vandalism.  But nothing could be further from the truth.  The meadows proved to be very robust, and apart from unavoidable desire lines through the meadows, the meadows survived the whole growing season.  Kids on bikes generally kept to the desire-line tracks, and the biggest issue was some trampling around the edges by dogs.  But overall, these early public meadows were a huge success.  Because we were able to use the sites from year to year, it also enabled me to play around with the composition of the mixes at a large scale to test what really worked in the reality of highly visible and pressurised sites.

Below: an early trial mix in Weston Park, Sheffield, with annual grasses, and a pink blue and pink colour theme.  Tall Salvia turkestanica is in the background.

The Word Spreads

At around this time, I wrote a few articles about these early trials (published in Horticulture Week and The Garden in the early 2000s).  This raised awareness of what was going on outside of Sheffield and I was contacted by several other local authorities who were keen to try out these mixes.  The first was Gloucester, where the meadows were used to temporarily fill the central reservation of a new highway in the city.  This successful application opened my eyes to the possibilities for the use of these meadows outside of the park and the garden, and in itself generated a lot of local media publicity.  But the local authority that first took the meadows on in a big way was Telford and Wrekin, and this association proved to be crucial to the further development of the Pictorial Meadows idea.

The Telford Experience

The Landscape Officer at Telford at the time, Chris Jones, had read my article in The Garden and made contact to say that the meadows seemed to be the perfect solution to an issue they were grappling with at the time: how to deal with replacing over-mature and visually dull shrub plantings on roundabouts that had been planted when the new town was set up in the 1970s.  Chris wanted to develop simple establishment and maintenance techniques, but also wanted to work with a range of different mixes so that not all the roundabouts looked the same.  It was for Telford that I developed what still remains one of my favourite annual mixes (the rather unimaginatively named ‘Pastel’ mix).  But in addition to putting together what became the basic assemblage of Pictorial Meadows mixes, working with Chris Jones allowed the testing and trialling of mechanised approaches on a large scale that led to dependable and reliable seeding techniques, and to simple weed control programmes.

Below: a roundabout in Telford with the first trial sowings of the ‘Pastel’ mix – Shirley Poppies and Ammi majus, with cornflowers

Below: 1) Central Reservation seeding in Gloucester – the first application of Pictorial Meadows outside of Sheffield  2) A press cutting from the local newspaper in Gloucester – the first media coverage of a Pictorial Meadow seed mix in the summer of 2000.

“It takes a lot of effort for people to phone the council and tell them they’re doing a good job”

 

Public Responses

The other hugely significant outcome from Telford was that they kept meticulous records of public and media responses to the meadow transformations.  This response was extremely positive, and surprised by myself and Telford Council.  Many hundreds of people contacted the council by phone, requesting information about the meadows, asking where they could get the seed from, and offering positive comments about what the council was doing.  It takes a lot of effort for people to phone the council and tell them they’re doing a good job.  In fact, only one negative comment was received, and this related to the winter appearance (more about this below).  Chris Jones was also very skilful at persuading council politicians of the benefits of the meadows, and involving them in media appearances, alongside the flowering meadows.

Below: 1) children playing in a Pictorial Meadow, Sheffield (photo Jane Sebire) 2) early Pictorial Meadow in a housing estate in Sheffield

Commercialisation and the birth of Pictorial Meadows Ltd.

The increasing amount of publicity and awareness of these urban meadows resulted in more and more enquiries about how people could get hold of the seed.  This not only came from local authorities and other public bodies, but increasingly from landscape designers and private home gardeners.  Prompted by this clear demand, I went into discussions with the University of Sheffield about the possibility of setting up a spin-out company.  The proposal was very different to the typical sort of company that the University supported, which usually would involve high turnover, and exploitation of cutting-edge technologies in medicine, materials or bio-technology.  A meadow seed company by contrast did not contain any patentable intellectual property, and did not hold out the prospect of huge income generation.  But what it did have was news-worthiness – and the demonstration of how university research could have impact in local communities through transforming places.  The concept was therefore given special dispensation, and a full University of Sheffield company was set up.  But what to call it?

After a huge amount of thinking and trying out different ideas, I coined the term ‘Pictorial Meadows’ as a way of making it clear that these were very different from a standard wildflower meadows, and in fact had very little to do with trying to recreate something that would be growing wild in the countryside.  I saw these very much as ‘urban meadows’ suited to brining colour, energy and excitement to designed, disturbed and damaged sites.

Below: one of my very first photos of a trial Pictorial Meadows mix taken in 1999, with white Ammi magus providing a beautiful foil to the brightly coloured flowers: I had no idea at the time that this mix would come to be used widely across the country

Early days of Pictorial Meadows

In those early days, this was a real ‘kitchen table’ company.  The company was managed entirely by myself and my then wife, Helen, and was run from home.  We marketed the annual mixes that had already been widely used, but also added a number of perennial meadow mixes to the range, that worked along exactly the same principles.  Although we initially obtained the seeds from different sources (with North American species sourced in bulk from the US) and mixed them ourselves, this proved to be a huge task.  Therefore we subsequently sub-contracted this aspect out, and worked with John Chambers, the pioneer of wildflower seed supply in the UK, to mix the seed, packet it, and to send it out to customers.  Through my writings, presentations, word of mouth, and media publicity, the market for these innovative seed mixes mushroomed.

Below: an early Pictorial Meadow sown on an area of brownfield vacant land awaiting development in Sheffield

Below: an early Pictorial Meadow filling an area of run-down greenspace in Sheffield gave me a sense of the beauty of creating flower fields in urban settings

Meanwhile, Pop-Up and Temporary Sites.

The intention behind Pictorial Meadows had always been to provide simple and reliable mixes for difficult and challenging sites.  Of course, the annual mixes were never intended to be permanent solutions for public spaces on a large scale (although for smaller-scale sites, and individual planting beds then they certainly can be long-term), but rather as temporary features that would bring low-cost positive uses to sites that might otherwise be regarded as vacant, neglected or damaged.  Perhaps the biggest break for Pictorial Meadows arose from their use in Sheffield City Council’s ‘Cleared Sites’ and related programmes.  At the time I was the Chair of Sheffield Wildlife Trust (SWT), one of the country’s most innovative and go-ahead urban Wildlife Trusts.  SWT worked in partnership with Sheffield City Council, and were given responsibility to work with large areas of neglected and low-quality greenspace in housing areas in parts of the city, most notably the Manor Estate.  SWT were leaders in working with local communities, and in integrating nature conservation ideas with strongly social objectives.  The Pictorial Meadows idea fitted perfectly with this philosophy, and gradually, colourful meadows started to pop-up amongst housing and along roadsides in estates.

This early work at the Manor Estate was consolidated when Sheffield Wildlife Trust won the contract to work with Sheffield City Council on the cleared sites programme – a really forward-looking initiative to use innovative landscape approaches to fill sites that had become temporarily vacant as part of housing regeneration.  The use of Pictorial Meadows was integral to this programme, and the meadows became very prominent in many parts of Sheffield where old housing stock (estates and tower blocks) were removed, and where the site remained open for at least a year prior to new housing development coming in.  These sites ranged in size from individual house footprints through to huge areas where entire estates were being rebuilt.

Below: examples of Pictorial Meadows in empty land in housing estates

Below: examples of large-scale Pictorial Meadows on vacant land awaiting development in housing areas in Sheffield

“Pictorial Meadows is unique in that, as a social enterprise, the profits are put back into supporting innovative work in mending damaged landscapes and working with local communities”

Pictorial Meadows moving on

At the same time, the demand for the Pictorial Meadows mixes was increasing all the time, and it became apparent that it was no longer possible to run it as a small-scale business from home.  It was time to move on to allow the business to expand further.  In the meantime, SWT had set up a commercial trading arm as a social enterprise: Green Estate Ltd, to which it transferred landscape contracting work such as the cleared sites programme.  It seemed like a perfect match to transfer the Pictorial Meadows business to Green Estate as part of their income generating foundation.

As well as having a unique range of seed mixes, Pictorial Meadows as a meadow seed company is also unique in that, as a social enterprise, the profits from the company are put back into supporting the work of Green Estate in its innovative work in mending damaged landscapes and working with local communities.  But the integration of the Pictorial Meadows brand with a landscape contracting arm, enabled further development of the practical implementation of these urban meadows.

Below: Use of Pictorial Meadows on housing renewal sites

 

Olympic Games

In 2005 London was announced as the host city for the 2012 Olympic Games.  By this time, Sheffield was developing a national reputation for the colourful meadows that sprang up on vacant land and along roadsides.  In 2008 my colleague James Hitchmough and I were honoured to be appointed as principal planting design and horticultural consultants to the Olympic Park master planners (Hargreaves Associates and Landscape Design Associates).  John Hopkins, the head of the Olympic Park made a fact-finding visit to Sheffield and toured the Pictorial Meadows sites as part of his confirmation that the Sheffield approach was exactly the sort of thing that he wished to see filling the whole Olympic Park.  As part of the design process I developed a number of new annual mixes specifically for the Olympic Games, and which were subsequently incorporated into the Pictorial Meadows range.  I developed what was called at the time the ‘Olympic Gold’ mix to circle the main Olympic Stadium, and to line some of the main pedestrian routes into the park, with the aim of creating an amazing and dramatic display of yellow and gold for the whole of the summer.  This mix also included hints of blue as a contrast, and provided some of the most stunning and iconic images of the Olympic Park during 2012.

The sheer awe-inspiring experience for people of being surrounded as far as the eye could see by uplifting bold flower-fields of brilliant colour at the large-scale, and the beautiful jewel-box detail at the small scale provoked a huge public response, with so many people being over-whelmed by the sheer experience.

Below: John Hopkins, the head of the development of the London Olympic Park, on a fact-finding visit to Sheffield in 2008, visiting Pictorial Meadow sites in the city

Below: Pictorial Meadows in the London Olympic Park during the Olympic Games in 2012

Ongoing Development

Pictorial Meadows continues to develop and evolve under the stewardship of Green Estate.  As much emphasis is placed on perennial mixes as annual mixes, and in the last two years ready-grown Pictorial Meadows perennial turf has made the main perennial seed mixes available as a ready to roll out product, eliminating the wait during the first year of sowing for the seedlings to develop into flowering-size plants, and reducing the need for weed control.

Below:  1) One of the original Pictorial Meadows perennial seed mixes: the ‘Golden Summer’ mix, here used in 2009 in demonstration seedings at the head offices of Green Estate Ltd, Sheffield.   2) The same mix used in Pictorial Meadows perennial turf at Trentham Gardens summer 2017

A Controversial Concept

It would be fair to say that the Pictorial Meadows concept has been very controversial since the outset.  For a start, it has been said that these aren’t really meadows at all, because meadows are full of grasses and do not include annuals, and that Pictorial Meadows are just too flowery.  But I see the use of the term ‘meadow’ as an accessible way of getting people enthused and excited about the whole idea, rather than as an exact scientific term in this context – that’s why I invented the term ‘Pictorial Meadows’.  Other people have said that by being able to create artificial urban meadow-like landscapes in a relatively easy and reliable way, it makes the destruction of real meadows in the countryside more acceptable.  This has always seemed to be to be a perverse way of looking at things.  And of course, the really controversial element has been that Pictorial Meadows contain non-native species as well as natives.  Originally the claim was that the non-native species in the mixes were no good as wildlife supporting plants, and were likely to be invasive and take over the landscape.  More latterly concerns are expressed that the non-natives are too good at attracting pollinating insects, and in so-doing divert them from the native species, reducing pollination and threatening their survival.  But overall, there’s always been a streak of ecological puritanism in the urban greening movement, and a sense that if things are being done for aesthetics and people’s pleasure, then they’re not really serious or valid.

When they were first introduced, Pictorial Meadows were a unique product in the UK, but now there are many other non-purist meadow mixes available – in many ways Pictorial Meadows gave rise to a whole new market.  However, none of these other mixes have the depth of detailed research behind them.  I see their use as creating ‘hotspots’ of visually exciting meadows that people respond to extremely positively.  It’s a way of opening the doors to much wider, and widespread, application of wildflower meadows in designed landscapes, and that can only be a good thing.  For me, the ultimate aim has always been to promote that uplifting, joyful and positive human response to an immersive and overwhelming nature-like experience in even the hardest of environments, and for that we need may even need to ‘enhance’ the experience of nature.

Most of the guidance on making meadows for gardens, parks and designed and damaged landscapes is the same as that used by ecologists and nature conservationists to make replicates of what might be found growing in the countryside.  But we need to distinguish between ‘garden meadows’ or ‘designed meadows’ and ‘nature conservation meadows’.  In a garden or designed landscape we don’t necessarily need to abide by the strict rules of the nature conservationist or restoration ecologist.  We can go beyond them to make something that works for people – that gets to their very soul.  And in doing that we can introduce people more widely to the joys of the ‘meadow aesthetic’.

 

Below: Use of Pictorial Meadows in highway schemes

Below: Some photos from recent application of Pictorial Meadows in Trentham Gardens, Stoke-on-Trent.

For information about seed mixes, technical advice, perennial turf and other products and services, visit the Pictorial Meadows website

Below: a selection of photos of Pictorial Meadows in different settings and contexts