Woody Meadows greening our cities the right way

Public spaces across Australia are being planted with beautiful, practical, native Woody Meadows

Associate Professor Claire FarrellDr Rachael Bathgate

Published 27 March 2023

In 2015, we planted two small plots of native plants in the City of Melbourne.

These Woody Meadows were part of a trial, in collaboration with the University of Sheffield, for a novel low-cost and resilient approach to urban greening, using natural shrublands as templates to create beautiful, diverse plantings of Australian shrubs which are maintained through coppicing.

One of the original Woody Meadows in Royal Park, Melbourne. Picture: Supplied

They were designed to replace typical low maintenance plantings which are dominated by monocultures of strappy plants, like Lomandra and Dianella, or single shrub species, like Saltbush.

The idea was that coppicing (hard pruning to 10-20 centimetres high) every two to four years would promote flowering and rapid canopy closure to exclude weeds and reduce maintenance. Meaning that we could have much more diversity and beauty at a low cost and effort.

And look at them now. Woody Meadows are growing exponentially.

Councils, government agencies and developers are embracing this idea, with more than 6,000 square metres of Woody Meadows established around Australia that include approximately 40,000 plants from 150 different species.

With more 25,000 square metres of plantings planned for 2023, you’ll likely be seeing Woody Meadows popping up in your neighbourhood soon.

Why woody meadows?

In the face of rapid urban growth and climate change, there’s a critical need for new landscape approaches in our cities – plantings that are beautiful, functional and deliver significantly more benefits to people and biodiversity than traditional, low-maintenance landscapes.

Woody Meadows are highly adaptable and can be used in a wide range of urban settings including railway easements and roadside verges, roundabouts, parks and gardens, and as part of water sensitive urban designs like raingardens and retention basins.

A Woody Meadow being planted on a roundabout in Bundoora (City of Whittlesea), Melbourne. Picture: Supplied.

Their low water use and maintenance requirements, coupled with high visual appeal and adaptability make them an attractive, cost-effective solution for councils and urban land managers challenged by climate change and often limited green space funding.

Our team in the University of Melbourne’s Green Infrastructure Research Group has partnered with five local governments, the Victorian Department of Transport and Planning, Greater Western Water and Greening the Pipeline, with support from an Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage Project.

We are working together to test and demonstrate the success of Woody Meadows across Greater Melbourne, with sites ranging in size from a roundabout in the City of Whittlesea (20 square metres) to a massive 3,750 square metre road upgrade in Sunshine.

These trials are providing information on plant performance, maintenance approaches and cost estimates that will be used to develop our Woody Meadow Guidelines.

Our Woody Meadow Network facilitates rapid uptake of new research and is continually expanding with new partners and councils beyond the ARC Linkage Project. The network meets regularly through workshops, design meetings and workforce training, building skills and knowledge.

Major projects across Australia have embraced Woody Meadows, including Melbourne’s Level Crossing Removal Project (LXRP), the Sydney Metro Rail project and the East Subiaco redevelopment in Perth.

Regular coppicing promotes flowering and rapid canopy closure to exclude weeds and reduce maintenance. Picture: Supplied

The guidelines we developed with LXRP have been embraced by landscape architects, project managers and engineers and resulted in Woody Meadows installed around three new train stations in Metro Melbourne.

We’ve also conducted large-scale research experiments in our field station at the University of Melbourne’s Burnley campus to understand the response of different Woody Meadow species to coppicing and further experiments are underway to determine how drought impacts on resprouting.

How to create a woody meadow

You start with your substrate.

We recommend 10 to 20 centimetres of mineral (crushed rock) substrate in Woody Meadows as they are low in nutrients and weed free – reducing maintenance. These substrates are installed over existing soil and replace topsoil and mulch, making them considerably cheaper to install.

They can also be safely installed on top of poor quality and compacted urban soils or culturally sensitive areas where digging or ripping cannot be done.

One of our PhD students, Claire Kenefick, is researching the use of recycled substrate materials – like concrete – with the aim of making woody meadows even more sustainable.

Then you choose your plants.

We focus on plants that are fire resprouters – they have the ability to grow new shoots in response to fire. Coppicing mimics fire and encourages dense new shoots and flowering.

A Woody Meadow for the Level Crossing Removal Project, Moreland in Melbourne. Picture: Supplied.

Woody Meadows are planted with more species and higher plant density (6.25 plants per square metre) than a typical public garden, which results in rapid canopy cover that excludes weeds.

We also recommend planting tubestock instead of larger potted plants and due to the large numbers of plants, it’s a good idea to get them pre-grown for your Woody Meadow at least six months ahead of planting.

Woody Meadows are designed as multi-layered naturalistic plantings with base, mid and upper layers to mimic the structure of natural shrub communities and create year-long visual interest.

The proportion of plants in each layer is typically 70 per cent base, 25 per cent mid and five per cent upper. The high proportion of plants in the base layer maintains cover after coppicing and helps exclude weeds.

Then comes maintenance.

Hopefully this is the easy part. The canopy should rapidly close, excluding weeds, but we recommend some hand weeding to begin with, to avoid the use of chemical herbicides.

The plants we choose are low water users, so they only need to be watered in the establishment phase, including the first summer.

Finally, it’s time for coppicing.

Start by tip-pruning at planting, removing one third of foliage. Then, after one or two years, cut the whole meadow back to 10 to 20 centimetres above ground.

From then on, coppice every two years to four years, depending on the design and how quickly it grows. Each successive coppice should be slightly higher than the one before to make sure there are lots of new buds for reshooting.

Woody Meadow founders Claire Farrell and John Rayner preparing a demonstration Woody Meadow for the Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show. Picture: Supplied.

An adaptive research approach

The Woody Meadow Project is a highly collaborative approach to research that involves ongoing knowledge exchange amongst researchers, practitioners and horticultural experts.

Practitioner experience in site preparation and maintenance informs new installations to improve Woody Meadow design and implementation.

Each Woody Meadow design is informed by previous plantings – enabling constant refinement and improvement of the approach. With each new planting, Woody Meadows are improving the quality of low-input public landscapes and adding beautiful, as well as diverse flora to our fast-evolving Australian cities.

Come and experience a demonstration Woody Meadow at the Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show, Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens, 29 March to 2 April 2023.

Banner: Woody Meadow in Birrarung Marr, Melbourne. Image: Supplied.

Find out more about research in this faculty


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