Meadow garden designer John Greenlee gave a rousing seminar today at the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show (running through Sunday). You might already have his recent book...it's still on my wish list.
He began with a call to action for Western Hills Nursery (I think the website is a ghost; they're not actually in business anymore. You can read the sad story here, in what Greenlee referred to as a terribly written article). He said if the Garden Conservancy can't save Western Hills, then it might as well throw itself off the Bridge. Ha!
Western Hills folded before I started gardening. The grounds are still there for visitors who venture in. I guess I should give that a whirl. It would make for an interesting blog post. And you know how I love to trespass.
Anyway, moving on. Greenlee fervently denounced the environmental plague that is the turf grass lawn. "Lawn is the fast food of American gardening," he said, quoting Michael Pollan. The best lawn in your neighborhood is owned and maintained by your neighborhood's worst eco-citizen. He explained that a nursery must fill out forms in triplicate for every application of fertilizer while Joe Q. Public can spray all the chemicals he can afford to buy from Home Despot. He attacked the reasoning that lets someone despoil everyone's environment for the benefit of a green lawn.
Are you in or are you out, he asked us. The crowd was definitely in, shouting back its approval of Greenlee's message. Meadows, he proposed, are one answer. There is no precise scientific definition of a meadow, but we all know what a meadow is, whether it be the American prairie or the African veldt or the South American pampas. There would be more meadowland still, were it not so widely converted to farmland or human habitation. Much of Florida's natural environment, for example, is a pine savannah, a fire-adapted ecology much like California's.
Grassland ecologies occur naturally all over the Earth, and many of our favorite garden plants come from these systems (e.g., Dutch iris [really from Spain]). Unfortunately, grasslands lack for charismatic focal points. Julia Butterfly Hill can occupy a redwood tree to save a glade, but what is she going to do in a meadow? This reminded me of a popular midwestern refrain: anyone can love the mountains, but it takes soul to love the prairie. He said it's a one-garden-at-a-time revolution. We must make meadows at home.
And to do so we have many choices. Meadows come in all colors and sizes. You can have a six inch high blue grass meadow or a 3 foot high evergreen meadow. Or a chocolate brown meadow, or silvery gray, et cetera. Australian Lomandras are great for shade. Be on the look out for Sesleria.
One thing you should not have is a flammable meadow, not in California with our long dry season. His favorite three grasses for the basic California meadow garden: Carex divulsa, Pennisetum spathiolatum, Festuca mairei. He identified three qualities important for a garden meadow grass. It should: 1) have a noticeable flower, 2) not drop seed, 3) be evergreen.
(The not dropping seed part was key for me. Importation of European annual grasses has been one of California's most destructive botanical events.)
Were do we find these plants? Expect to use specialty nurseries and mail order. Grasses typically come in thumb-sized, 2-inch plugs ($1.25 wholesale) that don't look like much. He showed us a picture; he's right. His clients call at very predictable time points after he plants their meadow. "Is this what we paid for?" Patience, he counsels. He showed us pictures of the process, from before, shortly after, the halfway point, and finally maturity. You have to prepare for the growing-in period.
Seeds are not appropriate to start meadow gardens. The grasses that grow from direct sowing tend to make many more seeds. Not good. Use seeds to grow wildflowers instead. Plant plugs on 3' centers. That seems like a big spacing but you put bulbs between the plugs. He's big on bulbs. "It's an addiction." [Tell me about it.] For meadows he recommends only dwarf forms of narcissus or daylily (and other bulb types).
Grass flowers are very important. He personally prefers grasses with the more subtle flowers. While it can be hard to imagine the result of a mass planting of subtle flowers, the effect is very desirable. Apply all the basic garden design principles and techniques to the meadow that you would use in the perennial border. Repetition is a given, but don't forget about texture and form. He likes to mow paths through the meadow. That way, as a designer, he chooses where the garden visitor walks. Make the paths wide so you can see the snakes and the snakes can see you.
That part about the snake prompted a digression. Once, early in his career he stood up and denounced a previous speaker who advocated turf grass. Later the speaker angrily demanded Greenlee answer the question, "What about the snakes?" Exactly, he said. What about the snakes! Note: snakes eat gophers and moles.
Greenlee is not big on soil preparation. Raping a peat bog in Canada doesn't do your garden any good. He believes edible gardening is the only time it's appropriate to dig in soil amendment. Otherwise, a top dressing is all you need.
Don't fight the site.
Are you in, or are you out?