I used to be prejudiced against grasses because I associated grasses with the American monoculture of Kentucky Bluegrass that we all know as “the lawn”. But after testing many kinds of xeriscape plants for over 20 years I finally realized that most sustainable ecosystems have grasses mixed with the other plants. And I also came to appreciate that grasses are strongly self-replicating and that they can be more easily grown from seed than most perennials, so that installation and maintenance costs could be much less. I still think low-water shrubs and Colorado-adapted perennials have an essential place in a sustainable landscape, but I have been wondering how grasses could fit in. Of course Piet Oudolf and Kurt Bluemel have shown the potential for using grasses in a garden, but their examples look well watered and seem like they would be high maintenance. The prairie model so successful in Wisconsin and the Midwest focuses on tall-grass prairie that is out of place here, and so I have been wondering how grasses could be used in a Colorado-sustainable landscape.
Then John Greenlee, who had written The Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses in 1992, came out recently with The American Meadow Garden. This very inspiring book, by a man who has left the lawn far behind, is a banner for what could be a new movement in western landscape design, and an ecological alternative to the archaic and energy-intensive lawn. Instead of clipped, uniform, controlled, fussed-over but abused turf, think naturalistic, rhythmic, sensual, diverse and relaxed; plus habitat for birds, butterflies, bees and beneficial insects.
A meadow does not have to be expansive, it can be an opening between trees, a secret space to lie in and listen to the sounds of life. Obviously the naturalist in me is aroused by the image of the meadow. It could take many forms depending on individual styles and tastes: more tall grasses, more short grasses, a mowed area amongst unmowed grasses, wildflowers mixed with grasses, shrubs, small trees, a path mowed to meander through the meadow, etc.
But before we get too carried away by romantic pictures, we gardeners want to know if the amount of work to build and maintain a meadow is worth it. Greenlee’s The American Meadow Garden book devotes just 35 pages to how to make a meadow, and little of his experience is in Colorado. The Kentucky Bluegrass lawn has had decades of time to develop the methods, materials and machinery to install and manage that grass system. And the meadow idea is too new to project clearly how much work and energy might really be required. Greenlee says meadows require less maintenance than lawns; Lauren Springer-Ogden thinks there is more maintenance, but worth it. Part of the unknown is how much wildness we and the neighbors will tolerate.
A big question for me is, Which plants would be appropriate for a Colorado meadow? Which grasses, wildflowers, and adapted native and non-native perennials and shrubs would require little water, little fertilizer, and very little or no pest management? In other words, how can we design a human-made ecosystem for the American West that is largely sustainable?
I talked with Lynn Riedel, passionate plant ecologist at Boulder City Open Space and Mt. Parks, to get some ideas about which plants are already growing sustainably in our area. Her suggestions for native low-water grasses that could function in a Colorado meadow are: Sun Sedge (Carex pennsylvanica), Rocky Mt. Bluegrass (Poa agassiziensis), Sporobolus heterolepis and Alkali Sacaton (Sporobolus airoides) as well as Buffalo Grass, Blue Grama and Muhlenbergia montana. Not all of these are available yet from local sources. And her suggestions for forbs (herbaceous perennial wildflowers that grow naturally with grasses) are: Native Blue Flax (Linum lewisii), Stiff Sunflower (Helianthus rigida), Dwarf Sunflower (Helianthus pumilus), Mt. Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia), Blanket Flower (Gaillardia aristata), Dotted Gayfeather (Liatris punctata), Mexican Hat ( Ratibida columnifera) as well as Fringed Sage (Artemisia frigida), Artemisia ludoviciana, Yellow Paintbrush (Castelleja sessiliflora), Aster macheranthera, various Eriogonums, Heterotheca villosa, Senecio spartioides and Thelesperma megapotamicum.
I also interviewed David Buckner, renowned grassland ecologist and soils expert, about his suggestions for how to create a naturalistic meadow ecology for this part of Colorado. David’s company ESCO applies plant ecology to practical problems of revegetation and restoration. I asked him what percentage of native land below 6000’ is covered with grasses and he said 90%-95%. He added, “In the arid west, grasses are intensely superior in our shallow soils because grasses have a fine and dense root system that is ready to grab any water that falls on them.” And I asked him if it makes sense to mix both cool-season grasses and warm-season grasses, and he answered, “Definitely, from both a biological standpoint and an aesthetic point of view.”
Cool-season grasses like Kentucky Bluegrass and the fescues start growing in early spring and resume growing in the cool fall, but go dormant in the hot summer unless they are watered a lot. Warm season grasses, like Buffalo Grass and Blue Grama, don’t begin to grow until the soil warms to 60 degrees or so, thrive in the summer and go dormant in the fall. So mixing the two types together could mean a longer season of green without the huge summer water bills.
David Buckner’s suggestions for low-water meadow grasses include: Buffalo Grass, Blue Grama, Sideoats Grama, Carex duriuscula, Festuca rubra, Poa compressa, Russian Wild Rye, Green Needle Grass, Alkali sacaton and Sheep Fescue. He also suggested the importance of mowing as a substitute for grazing or burning which will result in a more dense covering of the ground, more biomass and increased biodiversity. This mowing should be done at least once a year in early spring. Aeration and once-a-year fertilizing could substitute for other activities of the grazing animals that evolved with grasses.
Another excellent local resource is Don Hijar, owner and manager of Pawnee Buttes Seed Company in Greeley. He also thinks a mix of warm and cool season grasses would make a better meadow, and he agreed with Buckner that the vigor of grasses declines without mowing, burning or grazing. He said the healthiest ecosystem is a diverse mix of grasses, forbs and shrubs. He thinks meadows could be a good ecological substitute for lawns, but he is concerned that Kentucky Bluegrass might crowd out seeded native grasses if people water too much or mow too low or too often. Customers at our nursery tried out three meadow mixes that Hijar designed for us, so we look forward to their feedback.
My exploration into the potential of a Sustainable Meadow alternative to the lawn, barely scratched the surface of local knowledge and the specifics of how to remove or convert a lawn area and plant and maintain a meadow. It will need years of development, as did the lawn, with appropriate varieties, machinery and methodology. But certain points do stand out:
1) The current lawn of highly water and fertilized Kentucky Bluegrass (or even fescues) is not sustainable because it requires too much water, fertilizers, weed killers, gasoline-powered machinery, etc.
2) Grasses do have sustainable potential in our landscapes. As Lauren Springer-Ogden has said, “Grasses are the most successful plant group on earth; plus grasses are adapted to steppe regions like we have in Colorado because this land used to be shortgrass prairie.” And Gail Haggard of Plants of the Southwest seed company has written: “Grasses build the foundation for life. They bind the earth, preventing water and wind erosion. They are the base of the land food chain….”
3) The search is on for alternatives to the lawn. Besides Greenlee’s book another book was released in 2010: Urban and Suburban Meadows by Catherine Zimmerman. And The Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center is trialing native grass seed mixes for drought and disease resistance.
4) People are gaining a broader vision of the purposes of landscapes. They are no longer just pretty pictures to be seen, but are appreciated as an environment. Greenlee has said, “A meadow is a habitat for birds, a way to reduce the use of water and herbicides—creating one is giving something back to nature.”
5) A meadow could be an opportunity to express an aesthetic and a view toward nature that is less about tight control than respect for the intelligence and will of nature. Garden writer and grasses expert Rick Darke wrote, “Inviting wildness into our garden doesn’t mean inviting chaos—it means relinquishing sufficient control to allow plants to find their ideal niches and to evolve into real communities sustained by fertile, dynamic relationships
So let’s try some meadows. Take “before and after” photos. Maybe in two years, I will write another article in the Colorado Gardener about Colorado Meadows.