The New American Meadow Garden

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:

Carex texensis, a southeastern native that can tolerate humidity and some shade.

Carex divulsa, European native that is evergreen, cold hardy and tolerant of sun, shade, clay, sand.

Stipa brachyticha, Korean Feather Reed Grass. Can tolerate part shade but will flop a bit.

Mix with bulbs and a few shade tolerant perennials and voila! you’ve got yourself a semi-shaded meadow.  Unfortunately, it’s difficult to find many Carex species in any sort of quantity at most nurseries, so Greenlee suggests having them contract-grown by a specialty nursery, which — let’s be honest — sounds like a total pain and expensive to boot. 

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):

C. pennsylvanica in winter.


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.)

Fine fescue mix developed by Neil Diboll. Unfortunately it's not recommended for clay, but it sure is purty.

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.

22 thoughts on “The New American Meadow Garden

  1. There is another argument for maintaining open mowed lawns that goes beyond suburban inertia, at least here in the northeast: critters. We battle Lyme ticks (I’ve had a devastating bout with the full blown disease) and mice and voles and mosquitoes. We are trying to find the balance between the natural garden and a swath of lawn— at least a buffer zone — around the house to keep away the unwelcome wildlife. It’s welcome wildlife out in the meadow area (mice attract predators and the whole cycle is encouraged, even the ticks and especially the lightning bugs), but few suburban homeowners have enough land to create a tick free zone and a meadow too. I’m trying to get it right in my garden, and the book and resources you post are a big inspiration. I’d like to see more on incorporating meadows and no-mows with cleared zones too — there has to be a way to do it gracefully and pleasingly.

    • Laurrie, you bring up a crucial point. Deer and the ticks that accompany them are a plague in the worst sense of the word…Lyme disease is a big problem in VA, too, and I am very thankful that I’ve avoided it so far.

      If my property were visited by deer, I would certainly think twice about planting a meadow around my house.

      As for mosquitos, I’m not sure how much difference mowing your lawn makes in reducing their numbers. It seems that if there is a patch of woods or a wet spot anywhere in the vicinity, you’ll have mosquitos. I know they can carry West Nile, but it’s not nearly so rampant as Lyme, so I just wear OFF! and accept them as a fact of life in the summertime.

      I wonder if Greenlee or any other advocates for meadow gardening ever address this problem…since Greenlee works out of California, maybe it’s a problem that’s not really on his radar.

      Thanks for bringing up this important issue for those of us on the east coast.

  2. I too have had several bouts with full blown Lyme disease and a tick free area is impossible when pets can traverse the zones willy nilly, as can deer – in reverse. Any suggestions would be welcomed.
    There is a third kind of lawn, an ancient sward that has achieved a kind of stasis. We have sections that are centuries old and they just chuckle along through heat, drought and cold. Only the newer bits suffer.

  3. Mary, I love the phrase, “duck fluff.” This is not only horticultural brilliance, it is trenchant social commentary. Can I have mud flats around my house? Because that is where my lawn is headed. It’s such a pity…

  4. I have read John Greenlee’s American Meadow Garden twice and find myself drooling over some of the incredible photos of beautiful, naturalistic landscapes. Many seemed to be in California or Colorado, both rather arid areas. I live in south Florida, 30 miles south of Miami. I installed a small area with native wildflowers and grasses in my yard. I found weeds to be a problem during our rainy summers. I am currently growing some Carex divulsa to try it in this zone. So far it looks beautiful in our nursery. I am totally in favor of replacing our turf lawns!

  5. When you have a chance, pick up Urban and Suburban Meadows by fellow mid-Atlantic resident Catherine Zimmerman – I found it so useful as a designer. Have helped several clients establish meadow plantings with grass/clover paths for walking…ticks have not been a problem and clover stays green in drought. Best tick control is a flock of guinea hens who eat them readily! Small point – it’s Calamagrostis brachytrica, not Stipa. Though not native, it’s very useful in the landscape, as are many cool season grasses. Also, Carex flaccosperma and C. plantaginea tend to be semi-evergreen in Virginia.

    • Thank you, Donna! I will have to check that book out. I’m totally with you on the clover. My front yard is at least half oxalis, which is great…it doesnt’ need mowing, and it’s super soft under bare feet! The other groundcover I have a lot of out front is moss. I figure there’s gotta be some potential there as a lawn substitute, too, in cool moist areas.

      • Also a serious Doug Tallamy fan – Piedmont-Blue Ridge Hort. Society and Shenandoah Univ. are bringing him and other great speakers in April to Winchester, Virginia. Info can be found at – wanted to let you know…we are hoping that folks will see that sharing the landscape with other critters is in our own self-interest.

  6. I’m so excited to get to this book after reading your post. I purchased a copy at the Master Gardener International conference this fall and it is next on my reading list.

  7. I just spoke at a conference in Conn., S.A.L.T., with Catherine Zimmerman and enjoyed seeing her book and presentation. John’s meadow book won the gold and silver awards from Garden Writers and he has been talking lawn replacement long before it was fashionable.

      • Smaller American Lawns Today, where I keynoted with my talk inspiring the use of paths. Some might have heard it at UCONN which is a larger group. I took the small lawn out of my yard a few years ago.

  8. I think we are moving away from traditional lawns — sooner rather than later in drought-plagued places like my hometown (Austin), where the city is paying people to let their thirsty lawns die and replace them with drought-tolerant species. Re: the tick concern — although in Central Texas we’re not as troubled with Lyme disease as in the Northeast, in my experience having lawn doesn’t keep deer away. I see deer on my neighbors’ lawns on a daily basis, waltzing right up to the front of the house. Surely a sedge lawn or low-growing no-mow lawn would be an acceptable substitute.

    We are lucky in Austin that at least one nursery (Barton Springs Nursery) grows Texas sedge and Berkeley sedge in quantity for lawn replacements. I’m seeing more and more of these sedge lawns popping up. Here’s one example: They are beautiful! The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center has also recently developed a no-mow lawn mix for the Southwest called Habiturf, made up of grama grass and buffalograss. I’m writing about all of these alternatives in my book-in-progress. For more info, check out my FB page: . Thanks for posting about this topic — it’s a hot one, especially as we all become more concerned about water conservation.

    • Would love to know if any retail nurseries in the mid-Atlantic grow sedges for lawn replacement. All I see are the New Zealand and the fancy variegated forms here and they won’t replace lawn. I get large volumes of nice sedges from wholesale growers but most homeowners don’t have that choice. I think we are too moist for good buffalo grass but we have many options for lawn replacement.

  9. I obtained by Carex divulsa by online ordering. I ordered 5 plants (not cheap) and have since divided them. They are still in containers. I am frustrated that there doesn’t seem to be any research/testing/trials done for plants suitable for lawn replacements in south Florida. We don’t have a deer problem and ticks also are not that common. I’ve read Tallamy’s book (loved it) and as I said before, John Greenlee’s book. I am a member of the LBJ Wildflower Center, but they have done, understandably, no research regarding lawn replacement species for south Florida. I am feeling like this is the wrong part of the country for me.

  10. Excellent article! Lazy S’s Nursery carries 22 varieties of carex. They’re located near Blacksburg but have an incredible online nursery. They are my first stop whenever I’m looking for a specific plant or just in need of new ideas. I totally agree with Laurrie about the issue of ticks. One of my dogs almost died a few wks ago after a tick borne disease that had lay dormant decided to suddenly wake up, even though she’d been on anti-tick meds this summer. I try to merge the idea of a suburban prairie with the reality of a grass filled yard so that I can meet the needs of my five dogs, as well as my own desire to have a garden.

    But my grass is organically maintained and full of clover and even though I’d love to chuck most of it, I’d also have to chuck the dogs and hubby. I just can’t live without my dogs!

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