The American Meadow Garden: Creating a Natural Alternative to the Traditional Lawn

John Greenlee’s newest book is a labor of love. And, as he informs us in the preface, his love is not entirely cerebral: “Grasses are sensual. You can smell them, and hear them, and watch them move. Meadows are sexy, just like lovers—they never stop changing, never ceasing to surprise.”

It’s no surprise, then, that The American Meadow Garden delivers the goods. Eight full, richly detailed chapters provide everything you need to know to create your own meadow garden. The plentiful photographs (another fine showing by Saxon Holt) not only embellish the text, but they inform it. In other words, they are not just hanging around as eye candy to make the book look better; they actually help you understand the concepts being described.

Chapter One, The Lure of the Meadow, opens with a concise defamation of the Western lawn—that demanding, expensive, water-guzzling, and decidedly eco-unfriendly green carpet that may have to be abandoned if the drought really kicks in. Bad lawn! No tap water for you!

Meadows are offered up, in all their beauty and environmental appropriateness, as a satisfying alternative to the great American lawn. Why keep a bad lawn when you can plant a good meadow?

After explaining some of the basic concepts of grass ecology (eg, What are cool-season and warm-season grasses? Are they annuals or perennials? Do they have flowers?), Greenlee leads readers on a tour of the grasslands of North America. Then he brings the idea home by focusing on analysis and best-usage assessments of an actual garden site being developed.

Accent on Design describes basic elements that make up a landscape (background, filler, groundcover, accents, and pathways) and includes lists of suggested grasses for implementing each element of a design. Frequent consideration is given to the sensual aspects of grasses, including the play of light on their foliage and flowers. And a broad range of companion plants, ranging from flowering bulbs to daisies, penstemons and ferns is suggested for interplanting with the grasses.

For inspiration in creating a design, readers need only turn to the Portfolio of Meadow Gardens, which showcases twenty-two established landscapes from across the country, with the West well represented among them.
A fifty-four-page encyclopedia follows, detailing the best grasses for meadows, with a key designating the appropriate usage for each listing. The nitty-gritty of real meadow-making is covered in the latter two chapters, which offer thorough descriptions of meadow installation, establishment, and maintenance.

Finally, there is the all-important list of nurseries that supply grasses, a list of helpful organizations to contact and a list of public gardens throughout the United States that have display meadows to visit.

Here, then, is a plan for an entirely new approach to garden-making. It’s enticing and informative—and it’s presented with polish and pizzazz. No wonder they call Greenlee the Grass Guru.

Bob Hornbeck, educator/grassologist
Occidental, California