I got to hear plantsman and American Meadow author John Greenlee talk to the landscape architects recently and learned that what he designs to great effect aren't really meadows as we commonly use that term. He calls them grass ecologies and if I knew that I might not have gotten in trouble with Saxon Holt by scoffing at the notion of meadows for typical suburban lots. (Yes, new readers, this is actually the kind of stuff we argue about.)
My complaint was that tall grassy meadow-like areas usually look like crap, but I love John's suburban designs because he uses short groundcover grasses, grasses you can use “up by the clubhouse.” Naturalistic but not messy, no taller than 8” to 2’. When he mentioned that "people are afraid of prairies that are tall" I remembered my own experiment with simply letting my turfgrass go unmowed – until a month later when I discovered that snakes had moved in. Even an ardent animal-lover has her limits.
Know Your Grasses
The other big take-away from John's talk was that to create a meadow or grass ecology that succeeds, you really need to know these plants – which ones are long-lived (many aren't), which need a cold dormancy period, which need to be burned, which have messy seedheads and which are self-cleaning, which will succeed without supplemental watering, and so on. Also, what do they look like during their off-season? He showed us some gorgeous California grasses that look green just four months of the year and are brown and highly flammable the other eight. Important stuff to know! And there are tricks to designing with grasses that we need to know, too – like keeping it simple by limiting the palette.
So really, just hire John or someone with his knowledge near you (as if).
Eliminate all Weeds First
After choosing the right plants, the other key to successful grass ecologies is starting with weed-free soil – weed competition being the top cause of failure in the first year – and it's common to have 10,000 weeds per square meter. Getting rid of them takes three to four cycles of spraying with herbicide, then waiting for the weed seeds to grow, and spraying again. Yep, a whole lotta herbicide goes into the making of these meadows.
John told us he'd love to see a gardening president in the White House. Imagine seeing him (or her) landing in Helicopter One on the White House Meadow instead of the White House Lawn. And John's hopeful because “This lawn revolution is catching on.”
For More Info
Landscape architects need answers, so they packed the house for John's talk, asked lots of questions and, like me, took furious notes. Thankfully his hand-out is online. I noted that out one of his slides reads: "Bad Horticulture Makes Shitty Art". (Aside to George Ball: That quote's for you.)
On a Trivial Note
My notes of John's talk actually started with this: "Movie star looks. Redfordesque, but holding up much better." Here's a really bad photo of John displaying a Lawn Reform button.