Friday, March 11, 2011

European meadows, American meadows

A seaside meadow, technically really a pasture, by the seashore in Victoria, Australia.
I've had a long lasting love affair with meadows, which I've confessed earlier in a post called Meadows, meadows everywhere. And the larger community of gardeners seem to share my affection for meadows, judged by the steady flow of articles, books and blog posts that fill the media on all continents.
So as you can guess, it didn't take long to make John Greenlee's book The American Meadow Garden - Creating a Natural Alternative to the Traditional Lawn (Timber Press, 2010) the newest addition to my library. Based on Greenlee's decades long experience as a nurseryman and garden designer, and illustrated with Saxon Holt's lavish photographs from all corners of the US, this well-written book is a real treasure for devotees of all things grassy - lawns strictly excluded. Covering all bases from natural habitats and design tips to plant information and advice on cultivation, it will probably be "the classic American grass gardening book" for years to come.
Saxon Holt's pictures in The American Meadow Garden are both instructive and inspirational at the same time, not an easy feat to achieve. (I snatched this picture from the net, shame on me...)
Greenlee's language reflects his deep passion for his subject: "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." Likewise, it shows his contempt for lawns; according to him, traditional such are "huge, time-consuming, water-guzzling, synthetic-chemical-sucking mistakes". He shows no mercy for any historic or geographic considerations to nail down his point, which sometimes feels a bit simplistic. After all, in some climates, lawns can be maintained with little or no watering, in small gardens, muscle-powered reel movers are perfectly ecological, and using harmful chemicals is not a necessity. And anyone who thinks that a perennial-filled large meadow thrives with "minimal input" of anything must be dreaming. Still, Holt's pictures of Greenlee's designs show temptingly shimmering gardens that are sensual and hugely attractive, two characteristics that few lawn gardens can boast of.
A meadow in front of the old barn at Christopher Lloyd's Great Dixter. His book "Meadows" is still one of the best ever written about the subject.
I love Greenlee's enthusiasm and commitment to challenging the dominance of lawns in American gardens. Throughout the book, his designs are both beautiful and ecologically sound, and his deep knowledge of his subject makes the book both practical and instructive. There is only one thing that bothers me (and even then slightly), and it is the use of term meadow of Greenlee's gardens.
When I think of a meadow, I think of a delicate tapestry of breezy grasses interlaced with fleeting shows of dainty flowers. Probably because of my northern European background, my mind goes back to the Scandinavian meadows that carpet hills, forests sides and seaside clearings after the dark, frozen winters like small wonders (like the one below...). Or alpine flower meadows that look like a perfect background for Fräulein Maria and the von Trapp children to frolic on.

I know I've published this before, but this is still my favorite meadow...

So when looking at some of the meadow designs in this book, I have difficulties with thinking of them as such; especially when large specimens of Miscanthus grasses, sedges, and perennials are grown in well-positioned swathes, all arranged for the maximum effect. These gardens are well-designed and often stunning, but are they really meadows? Greenlee talks about them as "designed meadows", but rather than a carefully arranged design, isn't a meadow more a process with an amount of unpredictability to it, even when it has been created with a great care to its habitat? And isn't it just that unpredictability and randomness the reason why we are drawn to their natural or naturalistic beauty? Beautiful as they are (just like any well-designed gardens), I think Greenlee's grass gardens have too much control to really be meadows.

But then, Greenlee writes about The American Meadow Garden; just like when an European orders an entrée before and an American for his/her main course, we might think about and see meadows differently, too, having been influenced by the natural habitats of our continents (like most things in America, the meadows too are often more lush and taller than their European cousins). But whether or not meadows, Greenlee's grass gardens are often breathtakingly beautiful and always ecologically sound, and they are well worth to be studied by all gardeners interested in creating earth-friendly habitats.


Anonymous said...

Love your favorite meadow :-).


The Garden Wanderer said...

Great post - yet another book I will now have to add to my wish list. I love meadows as well and generally associate the same 'look' with them as you describe, but maybe that's also my European roots :)

Sophia Callmer said...

Låter som en intressant bok om ett ämne jag verkligen tycker om och tycker är spännande.
Ängar är nog det finaste som finns, så oerhört vackert och komplext.
ha det fint/Sophia