I haven’t had much time for blogging over the holiday break, but I’ve gotten plenty of reading done. One of the highlights was The New American Landscape, published earlier this year by Timber Press.
I found out about this book first at Garden Rant in their review and giveaway – once again, I didn’t win! – and then was reminded of it in the latest issue of Landscape Architecture, who gave it a short but favorable write up in their book review section. Given my free-spending ways when it comes to books, and my bad luck at contests, I went ahead and purchased a copy from Amazon.
The New American Landscape is a collection of eleven essays written by various advocates for (and experts in) sustainable gardening methods — John Greenlee, Doug Tallamy, Toby Hemenway, etc. – and in fact reads a bit like a survey of Sustainable Landscaping.
There is actually so much to say about the essays in this book that I can’t tackle them all at once, so for now I shall just focus on one of the more thought-provoking (for me) pieces, which was “The New American Meadow Garden” by John Greenlee and Neil Diboll. Greenlee has also published an entire book about meadow gardening, which is now on my wishlist.
I’d always had a vague idea that meadow gardening was for folks who had several flat, sunny acres, and so never seriously considered it for my own garden. Well, Greenlee posits that anybody who currently has a typical American lawn can accommodate a meadow or natural lawn – no matter the light or soil conditions.
The secret for a shadier meadow seems to lie in creating a “sedge matrix.” In his essay, Greenlee presents profiles of several of his favorite grass and sedge species, many of which can tolerate clay soil, shade, and humidity. Here are a few of the plants he favors in his meadow designs:
One Carex species that I grow in my garden is Carex pensylvanica, which my local nursery carries plenty of all season long. It turns brown in the winter, but in a good way (I think):
I have my C. pensylvanica planted with Heuchera ‘Dale’s Strain’ and Sarcococca, but it would make a great-looking natural lawn in a shady area. And hopefully, with enough demand, nurseries will begin to carry a wider range of sedges and other meadow-friendly and lawn-alternative plants.
One of the images from the book that I was particularly smitten by was this “No Mow” fine fescue lawn in Wisconson. (This “No-Mow” seed mix was developed by Neil DiBoll, the co-author.)
To me, the fine grass flopping every which way reminds me of duck fluff, and has a tactile quality that traditional mown lawn completely lacks. Could you play croquet on it? Only if you were very patient. Would it be a pain to rake? I would guess yes. But having that soft sensual look all year, with only an annual mowing required, would make such a lawn totally worth it in my opinion. Croquet be damned!
And since, as Greenlee points out, your traditional lawn is probably either a weed-ridden piece of crap (mine) or swimming in chemical fertilizers and weed-killers, why not consider a meadow or natural lawn for at least a portion of your garden?
It’s a beautiful and ecological alternative.
I think the biggest obstacle to popularizing these meadow gardens is not the challenge in acquiring plants, nor is it the potential effort and expense of installation; rather, it is inertia of the average American homeowner.
Greenlee says that “Having something [other than a traditional lawn] would require learning about plants, about what your property used to be, and about what is there now.” Folks with families and full-time careers just aren’t in the habit of spending extra time thinking and learning about their yards.
But habits change. Tastes change. If Americans can break the bad habits of smoking cigarettes, driving gas-guzzling station wagons, and perming hair, I’ll bet we can break the habit of growing traditional lawns.
With these looser meadow grasses, what might be sacrificed — from a design perspective — is the neat edge that manicured turfgrass can provide. Line is one of the key principles of design, and the more natural look necessitated by sustainable landscaping techniques makes crisp lines harder to acheive in a garden. However, what is gained by meadow gardening — what is gained by all of the sustainable gardening strategies outlined in The New American Landscape — goes beyond visual aesthetics. Insect life, movement, texture, fragrance, birdsong — these are difficult to capture in photographs, but these are the qualities we can gain by transforming traditional lawns into beautiful, ever-changing ecosystems.
Sounds like a pretty good habit to cultivate.