Meadow makers

Landscape designer Kathy Connolly brings her expertise to Polly Hill Arboretum.


Kathy Connolly’s focus is ecological landscape design. With a master’s degree from Conway School of Landscape Design in Northampton, she describes ecological landscaping this way: “We know that the world operates on natural systems or ecology — or all of nature’s interactions. These are often disturbed by our building practices. What I try to do is bring back as much as I can, particularly pollinators and bird systems, within a property.” She states on her website, “I believe that enduring landscape design balances our desire for attractive spaces with care for our fellow creatures and the environment we share.”

Connolly explains that natural systems are everywhere. “The question is, can we bring them back? The reason we need to do this in every backyard is the insects, in particular, have a limited movement range. If an insect is foraging on an aster at one end of a shopping center, for instance, but the parking lot is four acres, that insect doesn’t have the capability of crossing it. So the insect will die.” We humans have created systems that are undermining the populations of creatures that are critical to all life. She continues, “When we don’t have the forage that they need across all the front and backyards and curbsides and town parks and building entrances, their populations decline … and they have.”

Connolly tells me that many people have heard this message, and one of the intriguing ideas is replacing parts of their properties with meadow planting instead of a lawn or a more formal type of landscape. She will be teaching two classes at Polly Hill to help those interested in learning more about it.

The first class, on Sept. 30, is “Site Preparation for Landscape Transformation.” “Everybody likes to focus on the finished product, but it’s hard to wrap your head around how much it might take to get to that finished landscape,” Connolly says. She will dig into the subtleties of properly preparing a site, including the value of soil testing and analysis. She will address the embedded seed bank, the years of seeds that have been blown and dropped in by birds and carried in by ants. “All of our soil is like a little treasure chest of seeds. When we clear the surface, they will pop up. They may not be what we wanted,” Connolly says. She will also address what it takes to prepare a site without chemicals of any sort, as well as how you know when the site is ready for planting, and whether to amend it with fertilizers.

“Meadows 1-2-3” takes place on Oct. 1. This class assumes you were there the day before for the earlier class, or already have prepared a site. With meadows, it is vitally important that you go into it with a blank slate. Once you put down a seed, getting in there to weed is extremely hard, almost impossible, so a clean site is vital. Connolly will advise on plant selection, timing, and using seeds versus plugs. She will also cover what to expect in years one, two, and three. Participants will also learn about the sources for plants and seeds, the issues when buying them, and ways to design a meadow for visual appeal and easy maintenance.

“What I try to do in the class is explain the reality of a meadow, which is a little different from the image, so that people can learn what part of that they want and may not,” Connolly shares. “It’s important to know what you’re signing on for, like anything else. If you knew nothing about a lawn and someone told you you were signing on for twenty-six mowings every summer, ongoing watering, fertilizing, and repeat seeding — you might think twice. But because it’s so widely practiced, we don’t step back and rethink that.”

Year-round resident Ione Bissonnette of Meadow View Farms in Oak Bluffs is a strong supporter of Connolly’s work, explaining that the property owners association hired her to design spaces within two large common areas known as “the Meadows,” and worked with them, providing advice in carving paths and planting perennials and shrubs.

Bissonnette connected with Connolly through an online workshop she had taken with her, sponsored by the nonprofit Grow Native Massachusetts. “I was very impressed by Kathy’s presence, her extensive knowledge of native plants of the Northeast and how to grow and promote them in the form of meadows, her practical nature and experience, and her generous provision of written and electronic supportive material,” Bissonnette says. She emphasizes that what stuck with her about Connolly was the depth of information that she was willing to share. “She’s very generous. And we also needed someone who was able to do a design. Kathy’s expertise comes from her ability to do this using native plants and her generosity,” Bissonnette says.

Now everyone on the Island can absorb Connolly’s knowledge and experience her generosity in sharing her deep expertise.

For more information about Kathy Connolly, see For Polly Hill Arboretum class information and registration, visit