Book Review: Sowing Beauty

Sowing Beauty: Designing Flowering Meadows from Seed

By James Hitchmough

Published by Timber Press, 2017

This magnificent volume’s title underscores the work’s poetic reason for being: as a guide to creating beautiful meadows in urban settings. But the book goes much further than that. Within these pages, the designer will find a definitive, broad-reaching and detailed accounting, based in observation and rigorous testing, for more than just the tried and trusted, yellow-and-purple, meadow of American prairie plants that we all know well.

James Hitchmough has studied meadows and meadow archetypes from all around the world. Chinese steppe, South African veldt, alpine meadow and English roadside, in addition to American prairie, all hold plants and characteristics that can be useful in an eye-catching city planting. In his work as head of the Landscape Architecture Department at Sheffield University in the UK, Hitchmough has loosed his imagination and taken the broadest “what if?” approach possible, pushing the edge of mainstream thinking on meadow making. He has closely examined the archetypes: their structures, soils, climatic needs, and their flowers; borrowed what is best, developed seed mixes, figured out how to plant for greatest success—and then created stunning city meadows all over the world. His case studies, complete with beautiful photos to please the artist and detailed charts and lists to please the scientist, complete this book.

Hitchmough is best known for designing the heart-lifting meadow gardens that lined London’s Olympic Park during and following the 2012 Summer Games. I had a chance to chat with him before his keynote presentations at ELA’s conference at Winterthur, Delaware, this past November. He explained that the driving force behind his urban meadows, which are often very small in size, is to bring a measure of joy and color into the lives of city dwellers. He said that in community meetings held before he plants a neighborhood garden, he often hears that residents want beauty, but not disarray in the design. Especially in lower income and underserved neighborhoods, people are tired of society’s uncertainty and messiness, he feels. For this reason, he stresses structure, color, and a neat edge around each meadow’s inherent wildness. Obtaining this effect means that he does not conform strictly to exclusive use of native plants, although he pays a lot of attention to plants that supply food and habitat, and that create the natural stratified canopies of native meadows. It is a choice we might make ourselves on occasion, if we were blessed with Hitchmough’s own intimate knowledge of the surfeit of wonderful meadow plants the world offers!

Meadow designers will find all sorts of ecological secrets in a careful read of Sowing Beauty. For instance, for all of us who have been specifying rich screened loam, fertilizers, and frequent irrigation for meadow plantings: Stop! Hitchmough reports, and his photos more than prove, that planting in a lean medium of mostly sand, with no fertilizer, and watering only to get the seeding germinated is the most successful way to get a meadow to survive into the future. If we think about nature, we realize this is true. And, if you are looking for a book both to dream over and to plan over this winter, this is the one!

About the Reviewer

Amanda Sloan, RLA, ASLA, has worked for over 22 years to bring beauty as well as function to the design of parks and trails throughout New England. Amanda combines her background in natural science, community design, and art on projects such as school and playground gardens, lakeside parks, recreation sites, rain gardens, and home landscapes. Amanda is currently a landscape architect with BETA Group where she specializes in rain garden design and native plants.

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