Read This: The American Meadow Garden

In this age of lawn bashing, let me say this: I am not anti-lawn. Lawn is useful for picnicking, playing sports, throwing a ball for the dog, sunbathing, and providing a restful bit of green amid a garden. A lawn of needed size, maintained without dumping chemicals and excessive water on it, can be an asset to the garden.

That said, here’s the reality of many lawns, at least many that I see here in Austin: large expanses of thirsty or invasive, exotic turf grasses that suck up expensive water and require hours of noisy, polluting mowing and leaf blowing each week from March through November. Seasonal applications of chemical fertilizers and pesticides may be applied as well, making the lawn toxic for people, pets, birds, beneficial insects, and other creatures that bring life to our landscapes. And after all that money and time spent on maintenance, what does the average homeowner get in return? A boring, green monoculture that, especially in the front yard, never gets used by anyone.

There are so many better choices, even for the person who doesn’t want to tend an ornamental or edible garden. One low-maintenance option is the meadow. As grass-ecology expert John Greenlee defines it in his book The American Meadow Garden: Creating a Natural Alternative to the Traditional Lawn, meadows are simply “grassy spaces that are not mowed and maintained like conventional lawn.” Published in 2009, Greenlee’s book is riding the anti-lawn movement, which continues to attract converts as water becomes an ever more precious—and expensive—resource in many parts of the country and as recognition grows of the traditional lawn’s wastefulness and detrimental effects on the environment.

What most people like about a lawn—openness, its relative ease of care (compared to a traditional garden), walkability, basic groundcovering—can be achieved with meadows, Greenlee argues. Though plant choices will differ across growing regions, the common denominator of the meadow is a grassy foundation with a diversity of flowering plants mixed in. Many of the meadows he showcases in his book are California-centric, but he also includes a couple of examples from “the punishing climate of central Texas,” where meadows must have “a strong foundation of…grasses, as most color from flowering accents is fleeting under the relentless heat and humidity of the region’s climate.” Um, yeah. We central Texans intuitively know this. After all, spring is when our meadows shine brightest, when bluebonnets and other native wildflowers color grassy fields in a glorious, short-lived explosion before the heat of summer sends them into dormancy. Still, meadows seem well-suited to our climate, with the plant-rich Blackland prairie of east Austin offering one model (see the Mueller neighborhood’s green spaces) and the short, clumping grasses of the arid Hill Country to our west offering another aesthetic.

Photographer Saxon Holt provides the eye candy for Greenlee’s book, with inspiring images of meadows in bloom and close-ups of meadow-appropriate plants. If you’re looking for an alternative to your traditional lawn, Greenlee’s eloquence about meadows and Holt’s photos will certainly make you want to try one in at least part of your yard or garden. My only quibble is that the how-to section in the back of the book is brief and, frankly, would prove daunting to the average non-gardening homeowner. (Despite its carefree appearance, a meadow is not a cinch to install.) But then this isn’t really a book for the average non-gardening homeowner, though he or she might benefit most from a meadowy lawn substitute. With its coffee-table-worthy formatting and exquisite pictures The American Meadow Garden is a gardener’s garden book. Greenlee is preaching to the choir, but his words of praise for the humble meadow are inspiring and well worth a listen.

Disclosure: This book was sent to me for review by Timber Press. I did not pay for the book, nor was I compensated for my review, which is, like everything in Digging, my own honest opinion.

All material © 2006-2011 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

10 Responses

  1. Donna says:

    Pam one of the first things I did when we moved here and put in the hardscape was to make a meadow…I work on it every year to reclaim it from the invasive weeds and give it back to the wildlife with native wildflowers…it is a joy and a passion and very doable in the back of my lot with just a little elbow grease….I actually did a blog about it a while back called Flow…

    Thanks for the link, Donna. I look forward to reading about your experience in making a meadow. —Pam

  2. Laura Munoz says:

    I’ve seen the ads for this book in other parts of the “gardening” Internet and thought about buying it because meadows can be so beautiful.

    I would love to replace my front lawn with a meadow or let it become a meadow, but I don’t think our city, Austin, would allow this as any grass over 12″ is considered a code violation.

    Last year because of a lot of rain in the spring, my Bermuda (not planted by me) got pretty tall before I could mow it. It had wild onions intermixed, and it was just gorgeous…The blooming onions were like little pink stars in a sea of green/gray…but the grass height was totally against the law, I think. If I did replace the Bermuda with shorter grasses, what would work on only an inch of top soil over caliche?

    Mowing a huge area for 2-plus hours every other weeks gets old in our hot climate…Wish our City would change.

    I may buy the book…even if I can’t implement a meadow in my yard.

    Buffalograss would work, Laura, and it only has to be mowed a few times a year. Here’s a link to a tour of a garden with a buffalograss lawn. The downside is that buffalograss is not very resistant to weeds, especially Bermuda grass, which can easily take over if you aren’t vigilant. Another solution is to reduce the size of your lawn with drought-tolerant plants in deep perimeter beds, especially under existing trees, if you have any. A smaller lawn, whether it be buffalograss or traditional grass, is more manageable. —Pam

  3. Denise says:

    Pam, you’ve accomplished that rare thing — a truly useful book review. That the book is light on how-to info and big on inspiration sounds perfect. (Coincidentally, the grass Sesleria ‘John Greenlee’ was on my mind all day yesterday.)

    Why thanks, Denise! Greenlee sure knows his grasses. I’d love to see some of his meadow gardens in person. —Pam

  4. Sounds like a “to buy” book; half the fun would be applying it to one’s own ecoregion and locale. That said, such a meadow to be true to it’s place, should rarely require irrigation past establishment. Your region is an ultimate expression of a meadow – prairie!

    But even in my area – much drier than even the Hill Country – it would be less a meadow and more a nice abstraction of desert grassland, *very* widely spaced plants, knitted by low, clump grasses – a more sustainable version of gravel on a larger ground plane. But even with careful design and thoughtful maintenance, still might not be loved by all.

    Quite right, David. Meadows are never loved by all, even in lusher regions than yours and mine. Many people think they look weedy. But over time I can see many traditionalists becoming converts, especially as watering becomes more and more restricted. —Pam

  5. Pam, I’ve been curious about replacing my lawn with my fave plant, Yarrow. Supposedly it can be walked on and even mowed when it gets out of control (according to Howard Garrett). It grows in sun and shade and is very soft underfoot. I keep picturing my lawn filled with yarrow in full bloom! That could be interesting…very drought tolerant, too.

    I’ve not heard of yarrow as a groundcover, but I’m intrigued! Why don’t you experiment with a small patch, Robin, and tell us how it works? —Pam

  6. Sylvia McCormick-Wormley says:

    I hate to admit that I killed off much of my wonderful, deep rooted, wild bunch grass meadow in Westlake before I gained an appreciation of how perfect it was for the Austin, TX hill country climate. It’s beauty was so different from the Dallas, TX, formal lawn culture that I grew up with. Now I’m embarrassed when I think of the wasted hours spent eradicating what nature knew to be the right plant choice for that no soil, no rain, hot, humid, rocky environment.
    Luckily, my strictly organic gardener neighbor took me in hand and we saved what remained. I only watered my 1/2 acre property once or twice in the summer and it was the greenest landscape in the neighborhood.

    Today, I’m trying to buy a home in Albany, GA on a heavily wooded lot. We love that it has no lawn at all and look forward to shade gardening around the house but leaving the rest natural…. leaf mulch and all.

    Thanks for sharing your story of your Westlake garden, Sylvia. I killed off a bunch of lovely native rain lilies in my former garden before I realized what I was doing. The important thing is that we learned from the experience, right? Shade gardening in Georgia must be such a change from the Austin area. Have fun making your new garden! —Pam

  7. Liz says:

    Ooo..yarrow as a lawn sounds fun, I would like to see it tried. My parents have a wild variety that popped up that would do awesome, I wonder if you could find a like variety in the stores. And I love your post, great views on lawn (and I’ve always admired your garden and the other day I realized it was so neat because it wasn’t full of lawn but plants). I have another book to read…if only I could get my library to buy all books from Timber Press. They do a great job.

    Thanks for your nice comment about my garden, Liz. Believe me, I still have a ton of lawn left in the front yard, but I have my eye on it for my next garden expansion. Other plants are just more fun! —Pam

  8. Diana says:

    It certainly is eye candy, Pam. I do like your critique, however, that it is not by any means easy to create a meadow. And, depending on where you place it, it’s not full of colorful, flowing grasses all year long, and it, like most things, does require at least some water. That said, I so wish my house weren’t set so far back with so much land in the front. I guess my wooded side yard is my equivalent of a meadow since I would never be allowed to do that in my front yard. The lawn police would faint! But I am slowly but surely increasing my drought tolerant beds to replace some of that lawn.

    A meadow would be perfect for the vast space in the front of your house, Diana. Lawn police, drat them! —Pam

  9. Laguna Dirt says:

    i think i’m much more likely to own this book about meadows than to ever have a meadow. but so enjoyed your review!

    Thanks, LD! It is enjoyable and enlightening to read about other kinds of gardens, even if we don’t plan to have one ourselves. —Pam

  10. Mamaholt says:

    I LOVE this book. It’s totally a Sunday morning cup of tea kind of book. Glad you reviewed it. I think it’s grand. You too!