Excerpt: 'The American Meadow Garden'

'The American Meadow Garden' Cover
The American Meadow Garden: Creating a Natural Alternative to the Traditional Lawn
By John Greenlee
Hardcover, 280 pages
Timber Press
List Price: $34.95

Chapter 1. The Lure of the Meadow

The obvious place for a meadow garden is most likely the space currently planted with lawn. Do you really need a lawn? In most suburban gardens, lawns serve little or no purpose; they are seldom used and are way too small for competitive sports. "Silly lawns," my friend, landscape architect Wolfgang Oehme, calls them. Sure, they get walked on occasionally, but there are meadow grasses that will let you do the same thing, with less mowing and with far less consequence to the environment. In the three-county Los Angeles Basin alone, mowers, blowers, and edgers create 22 tons of air pollution a day. Worst of all are the chemicals used by gardeners in their quest for a "healthy" green sward. The amount of fertilizers, weed killers, and insecticides put on the average lawn is staggering. These chemicals — more often abused by untrained amateurs, not professional lawn services — are poisoning our environment at an unprecedented rate. Fertilizers are dissolved salts; fungicides usually contain heavy metals; and insecticides are insidious, killing the good bugs along with the bad. Despite the alert given by Rachel Carson in her Silent Spring (1962), we almost lost the bald eagle and the California condor, and biologists still worry about decreasing amphibian populations in an increasingly warmer and drier world. All these concerns should be real to every gardener because we all share this one planet. There is a better way, as this book will show you.

At base, all meadows are grasslands. In various times and on various continents, these grass ecologies have been described as meads, pastures, savannahs, sods, and lawns; some of the world's most famous grass ecologies are the South American pampas, South African veldt, the steppes of Russia, and the great North American prairie. These ecologies are characterized by vast, largely treeless grass-covered landscape. Although they vary greatly in their components, they are broadly similar in their nature and look.

Meadows are generally acknowledged to be grassy openings in landscapes with trees, often associated with streams or creeks. Meadows can be composed of indigenous species, or they can be mixes of both native and introduced or exotic species. Rightly or wrongly, we may also refer to pastures as meadows. More often, pastures, especially those with a long history of grazing by horses, cattle, or sheep, are altered native ecologies, with very little or no native components.

Meadows, although dominated by grasses, are also a madcap of many other broadleaf plants, something that is like no other plant community. A meadow is a symphony of color, light, and texture. Any one small plot of meadow may look amorphous or anonymous, but actually it is rich in plant species with bulbs, annual grasses, sedges, rushes, mosses, and lichens interwoven to make a living cloth — the hair of the earth, as the great German horticulturalist Karl Foerster put it in his book, Einzug der Gräser und Farne in die Gärten (Introducing grasses and ferns into gardens). Like icebergs in the ocean, there's as much, if not more, going on beneath the soil in meadows, out of sight, than there is visible above the ground. And because they are filled with a diversity of plants, they support a diversity of life: from the crucial microbial level to birds, bees, and butterflies, all kinds of creatures are found in meadow ecologies. <8>

For me, meadows have always meant grassy places that were enclosed or framed by the natural features surrounding them. By the sea, you will find grasses adapted to sand, salt, and the wind of the dunes. Meadows on ridge tops, often called balds or portreros, are populated by grasses and other plants adapted to survive the extreme conditions found in these locations. In parts of the Midwest, the term "glade," an opening among trees, is interchangeable with "meadow." For many people the word meadow is synonymous with the phrase "mountain meadow." Indeed, after one reaches an altitude of 8,000 to 9,000 feet, the forest trees give way to grassy, flowering meadows, no matter where such conditions are found in the world. Meadows can show up anywhere. For the sake of this book, we will define meadows as grassy spaces that are not mowed and maintained like conventional lawns.

The beauty of meadows

Just as there is no real scientific definition of meadow, if you talk to different people, chances are, you will get differing opinions of what makes a meadow, and that really says it right there. Meadows can be whatever you want them to be, but they are always a place of destination, and a particular magnet for children. Prairies, beautiful in their ocean-like vastness of endless waves, have almost infinite horizons, but the meadows I design all have a backdrop: sometimes trees, sometimes hills and mountains, more often the disguised boundaries of the gardens they are in, or the rest of larger areas, where people are lucky enough to have the luxury of such space. There is usually a door — a portal, if you will — where you step from forest into the light and the grass. For me, the beauty of meadows is all about the relief of a sunny opening after the dark drama of trees.

Meadows are about sky and light; each is an open invitation to lie back in the grass and watch the clouds overhead. Watch the light change, and watch the grasses changing with it: no other plants catch light quite like grasses. In early and late light, the translucent leaves of grass even take on the dramatic colored light shows of dawn and sunset. Clouds and fog are part of the meadow, too. Beads of dew and shadows of moving clouds on waving grasses are all part of the meadow. For me, meadows are all about being in them — you can design them with well-planned paths that meander through lush growth. Or plan enclosed sitting and meeting spaces so that you don't have to stretch out on the ground to appreciate them fully. Unless you really want to, that is!

Grasses and water are a good combination (both are liquid and have movement) and, as it turns out, a natural one as well: meadows are often found by water, near a creek or river, along the seashore, or by a lake. Meadows can be secret spaces, tucked away in dense woodland or steep canyon; such damp, shaded, ferny meadows have a special feeling all their own. Alpine meadows are places to rest, draw your breath, and admire the beauty and grandeur of nature all around you.

Meadows do not have to be expansive — they can be small, like prefect little jewels, tucked behind a hedge, fence, or wall in town and suburban gardens. Simple meadows with just a few components can be a place for the eye to rest. Meadows are beautiful transitions between a garden and the wider landscape. On rural sites, meadow plantings can bring the landscape beyond the boundaries into the garden, smudging the garden's end into the natural landscape.

Most meadows are sunny open fields with good, fertile soil and plenty of water. That's precisely what makes them so desirable, and across the country, most meadows were the first areas to be inhabited by settlers pushing the frontier westward. It's no wonder so few native meadows are left: meadows were the first places to be plowed and built on. But even deserts have meadows: Las Vegas literally means "the meadows" in Spanish. Often good desert ecology has a component of grass, especially along desert arroyos or canyons. In desert light, grasses can be at their most stunning. Grasses soften the harshness of arid soil and rock, rendering them more human and habitable. Their fine-textured softness belies the toughness of desert grasses.

Natural or meadow lawns: a better alternative

By definition, lawns are areas of finely mown grass. A lawn is usually composed of grass species that lend themselves to regular mowing to maintain shorter height. The most common turf grasses in the United States are blues, ryes, bents, fescues, Bermuda, zoysia, centipede, St. Augustine, and paspalums. Few are native. The turf grass industry has focused primarily on these species; they have been selected and extensively hybridized to withstand close cutting by machine and regular foot traffic. Rarely do they resemble their original species: they've been treated with radiation, doused with hormones, crossed and crossed again — all so that they can be kept low and tight. Most conventional lawn grasses need 30 to 40 mowings a year to maintain their manicured appearance. And constant cutting requires constant watering and feeding. Now there is new research into splicing genes in turf grasses to make them chemically resistant to weed killers. Is this a good thing? I wonder. I think we may be creating super weeds.

Yet every region in this great country of ours has its own native sods, which — with very little mowing or cutting — grow naturally as a turf. In recent years, the increasing awareness of the ecologies that once predominated has brought to light native grasses and sedges that make natural or meadow lawns, naturally. These native plants, found in nature before urbanization and modern development, are short by nature, reducing the amount of mowing required for them to stay low. Natural lawns (lawns of nonconventional turf grasses) are adapted to their regional rainfalls, soil types, and climatic conditions.

A natural lawn (from 2 to 6 inches in height, depending on the variety of grass planted), while lawn-like, is quite different from a conventional lawn. If you want a crisp clean look, natural lawns may not be for you. But natural lawns can truly function as conventional turf; they can do what lawn does. From a strictly design perspective, a lawn is a cool green place for the eye to the rest, a place of calm apart from the busyness of a mixed border. Natural lawns can perform this function as well as mowed turf does. And, as they do not require mowing or edging in the conventional sense, there is the additional possibility of flowers and bulbs. Less noise, less water, less labor-intensive. Maybe a natural lawn is right for you.

Most property sizes have shrunk in America. Lawns have gotten smaller and less "useful" in a very real sense. Now, in many older neighborhoods, the urban forest has matured, making our suburban spaces shadier, and increasingly our garden understory is affected by tree roots. In some gardens, it's just too shady to grow a good lawn. Or perhaps the children have grown up and are no longer playing on the lawn. Maybe it's time for a change.

In addition to grasses, each region of the country has its own native sedges that will make these natural lawns. Sedges are a group of grasslike plants belonging to the family Cyperaceae. Most people are familiar only with wetland and weedy species, but in fact many of our best candidates for natural lawns are sedges. They vary in color, height, leaf width, softness, and flowering habit. Some are evergreen, carrying some green through most of the winter; others go dormant with the first hard freeze. Some are best in full sun; others can take deep shade. Some are sand-loving; others can tolerate the heaviest clays.

Meadow sedges that are useful for natural lawns are a particular interest of mine. I have found them from coast to coast, in almost every climate, both in nature and in suburban ecologies. Many vary only slightly from one another, and identifying them can be difficult, even for botanical experts. At our nursery in California, we offer regional clones from throughout the United States, most with great potential in garden settings. Specialty grass nurseries are the best source for local genetic material, and many native plant nurseries grow local clones. When creating natural lawns, it's OK to use a mix of sedges as well as using them in singular masses and sweeps.

The amazing adaptability of these plants has somehow been lost on the turf grass industry. Maybe they don't want a lawn that does not need mowing, watering, and fertilizing like a regular lawn. As more people become aware of the many native sedges that can be utilized as lawns, I'm sure more species and varieties will show up in mainstream nurseries.

Meadows as a solution

Meadows offer a solution to the madness of lawn culture. Many of us just don't want to put precious time into the all-consuming project that is the reality of a good-looking conventional lawn. The alternative — paying for a lawn service — is hardly more attractive in this economy. And think of it: it's not only the energy consumed by mowers; you must also factor in the gas and oil for mowing crews to drive to the site the required 35 times annually, on average. The pollution from the vehicles, mowers, and edgers is in addition to the methane created by the dumping of lawn cuttings. Once on site, noisy lawn care machinery annoys humans and scares wildlife out of your garden. Birds flee, butterflies and bees fly away — until the screeching and whining has ceased. And water is a finite resource that in many regions of the country will never be more plentiful or cheaper. In many areas, aquifers are not being replenished by rainfall, and water is increasingly scarce. There is no longer enough of it to supply lawns. Growing populations and dwindling supply is our scary future, and our landscapes must change with the times.

Native or not, designed or not, meadows are an excellent alternative to the traditional lawn. If you're lucky enough to start with a rich, native patch of plants, you can give nature her head, and let her do the design work while you take the role of managing and editing the plants without adding any outsiders. But, again, such opportunities are rare these days — in fact, that's why some of my clients call me in, to recreate a vision of what might have existed in past times in their gardens. What is imperative is that meadow components be eco-friendly, rather than just native for native's sake. Create meadows using grasses and ornamental plants that suit the environment and conditions of your site, be they tropical, wet, rooftop, coastal, hot desert, shady woodland, exposed hilltop, or whatever. Why keep a bad lawn when you could plant a good meadow?

From The American Meadow Garden: Creating a Natural Alternative to the Traditional Lawn by John Greenlee. Copyright 2009 by John Greenlee. Published by Timber Press. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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