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The lure of a meadow

by Timber Press on July 28, 2017

in Design, Gardening

The meadow garden at River Farm, headquarters of the American Horticultural Society.
No other group of plants quite catches light like the grasses. When the light passes
through their leaves, grasses glow in late or early light. Included photos by Saxon Holt.

With rising interest in naturalistic planting—in public spaces like New York City’s High Line and private homes like those featured in Planting in a Post-Wild World—the meadow is getting its well-deserved day in the sun. In The American Meadow Garden, John Greenlee and Saxon Holt meditate on the beauty and functionality of cultivating grassland ecologies:

At base, all meadows are grasslands. In various times and on various continents, these grass ecologies have been described as meads, pastures, savannahs, sods, and lawns; some of the world’s most famous grass ecologies are the South American pampas, South African veldt, the steppes of Russia, and the great North American prairie. These ecologies are characterized by vast, largely treeless grass-covered landscape. Although they vary greatly in their components, they are broadly similar in their nature and look.

Meadows are generally acknowledged to be grassy openings in landscapes with trees, often associated with streams or creeks. Meadows can be composed of indigenous species, or they can be mixes of both native and introduced or exotic species. Rightly or wrongly, we may also refer to pastures as meadows. More often, pastures, especially those with a long history of grazing by horses, cattle, or sheep, are altered native ecologies, with very little or no native components.

The movement of birds, bees, and butterflies adds animation to grass ecologies. Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia.

Meadows, although dominated by grasses, are also a madcap of many other broadleaf plants, something that is like no other plant community. A meadow is a symphony of color, light, and texture. Any one small plot of meadow may look amorphous or anonymous, but actually it is rich in plant species with bulbs, annual grasses, sedges, rushes, mosses, and lichens interwoven to make a living cloth—the hair of the earth, as the great German horticulturalist Karl Foerster put it in his book, Einzug der Gräser und Farne in die Gärten (Introducing grasses and ferns into gardens). Like icebergs in the ocean, there’s as much, if not more, going on beneath the soil in meadows, out of sight, than there is visible above the ground. And because they are filled with a diversity of plants, they support a diversity of life: from the crucial microbial level to birds, bees, and butterflies, all kinds of creatures are found in meadow ecologies.

Settlers heading west often chose meadows for their homesteads. Meadows provided food for livestock and allowed the settlers to see who was coming and going.

For me, meadows have always meant grassy places that were enclosed or framed by the natural features surrounding them. By the sea, you will find grasses adapted to sand, salt, and the wind of the dunes. Meadows on ridge tops, often called balds or portreros, are populated by grasses and other plants adapted to survive the extreme conditions found in these locations. In parts of the Midwest, the term “glade,” an opening among trees, is interchangeable with “meadow.” For many people the word meadow is synonymous with the phrase “mountain meadow.” Indeed, after one reaches an altitude of 8,000 to 9,000 feet, the forest trees give way to grassy, flowering meadows, no matter where such conditions are found in the world. Meadows can show up anywhere. For the sake of this book, we will define meadows as grassy spaces that are not mowed and maintained like conventional lawns.

Meadows do not have to be expansive—they can be small, like prefect little jewels, tucked behind a hedge, fence, or wall in town and suburban gardens.

Just as there is no real scientific definition of meadow, if you talk to different people, chances are, you will get differing opinions of what makes a meadow, and that really says it right there. Meadows can be whatever you want them to be, but they are always a place of destination, and a particular magnet for children. Prairies, beautiful in their ocean-like vastness of endless waves, have almost infinite horizons, but the meadows I design all have a backdrop: sometimes trees, sometimes hills and mountains, more often the disguised boundaries of the gardens they are in, or the rest of larger areas, where people are lucky enough to have the luxury of such space. There is usually a door—a portal, if you will—where you step from forest into the light and the grass. For me, the beauty of meadows is all about the relief of a sunny opening after the dark drama of trees.

Meadows can be especially valuable in marrying the house to the site when the development is on the edge of a natural area.

Meadows are about sky and light; each is an open invitation to lie back in the grass and watch the clouds overhead. Watch the light change, and watch the grasses changing with it: no other plants catch light quite like grasses. In early and late light, the translucent leaves of grass even take on the dramatic colored light shows of dawn and sunset. Clouds and fog are part of the meadow, too. Beads of dew and shadows of moving clouds on waving grasses are all part of the meadow. For me, meadows are all about being in them—you can design them with well-planned paths that meander through lush growth. Or plan enclosed sitting and meeting spaces so that you don’t have to stretch out on the ground to appreciate them fully. Unless you really want to, that is!

Grasses and water are a good combination (both are liquid and have movement) and, as it turns out, a natural one as well: meadows are often found by water, near a creek or river, along the seashore, or by a lake. Meadows can be secret spaces, tucked away in dense woodland or steep canyon; such damp, shaded, ferny meadows have a special feeling all their own. Alpine meadows are places to rest, draw your breath, and admire the beauty and grandeur of nature all around you.

Grasses have an almost magical ability to catch and reflect light.

Meadows do not have to be expansive—they can be small, like prefect little jewels, tucked behind a hedge, fence, or wall in town and suburban gardens. Simple meadows with just a few components can be a place for the eye to rest. Meadows are beautiful transitions between a garden and the wider landscape. On rural sites, meadow plantings can bring the landscape beyond the boundaries into the garden, smudging the garden’s end into the natural landscape.

Most meadows are sunny open fields with good, fertile soil and plenty of water. That’s precisely what makes them so desirable, and across the country, most meadows were the first areas to be inhabited by settlers pushing the frontier westward. It’s no wonder so few native meadows are left: meadows were the first places to be plowed and built on. But even deserts have meadows: Las Vegas literally means “the meadows” in Spanish. Often good desert ecology has a component of grass, especially along desert arroyos or canyons. In desert light, grasses can be at their most stunning. Grasses soften the harshness of arid soil and rock, rendering them more human and habitable. Their fine-textured softness belies the toughness of desert grasses.


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