John Greenlee makes Designed Grass Ecologies


Screen Captures5
I got to hear plantsman and American Meadow author John Greenlee talk to the landscape architects recently and learned that what he designs to great effect aren't really meadows as we commonly use that term.  He calls them grass ecologies and if I knew that I might not have gotten in trouble with Saxon Holt by scoffing at the notion of meadows for typical suburban lots.  (Yes, new readers, this is actually the kind of stuff we argue about.) 

Height Matters
My complaint was that tall grassy meadow-like areas usually look like crap, but I love John's suburban designs because he uses short groundcover grasses, grasses you can use “up by the clubhouse.”  Naturalistic but not messy, no taller than 8” to 2’.  When he mentioned that "people are afraid of prairies that are tall" I remembered my own experiment with simply letting my turfgrass go unmowed – until a month later when I discovered that snakes had moved in.  Even an ardent animal-lover has her limits.

Know Your Grasses
The other big take-away from John's talk was that to create a meadow or grass ecology that succeeds, you really need to know these plants – which ones are long-lived (many aren't), which need a cold dormancy period, which need to be burned, which have messy seedheads and which are self-cleaning, which will succeed without supplemental watering, and so on.  Also, what do they look like during their off-season? He showed us some gorgeous California grasses that look green just four months of the year and are brown and highly flammable the other eight.  Important stuff to know!  And there are tricks to designing with grasses that we need to know, too – like keeping it simple by limiting the palette.

So really, just hire John or someone with his knowledge near you (as if).

Eliminate all Weeds First
After choosing the right plants, the other key to successful grass ecologies is starting with weed-free soil – weed competition being the top cause of failure in the first year – and it's common to have 10,000 weeds per square meter.  Getting rid of them takes three to four cycles of spraying with herbicide, then waiting for the weed seeds to grow, and spraying again.  Yep, a whole lotta herbicide goes into the making of these meadows.

About Lawns
John told us he'd love to see a gardening president in the White House.  Imagine seeing him (or her) landing in Helicopter One on the White House Meadow instead of the White House Lawn.  And John's hopeful because “This lawn revolution is catching on.”

For More InfoIMG_0349
Landscape architects need answers, so they packed the house for John's talk, asked lots of questions  and, like me, took furious notes.  Thankfully his hand-out is online.  I noted that out one of his slides reads: "Bad Horticulture Makes Shitty Art".  (Aside to George Ball: That quote's for you.)

On a Trivial Note
My notes of John's talk actually started with this:  "Movie star looks. Redfordesque, but holding up much better."  Here's a really bad photo of John displaying a Lawn Reform button.

Garden photos by Saxon Holt, via screen shots of the American Meadow video.


  1. WOW! thanks for this post and for the link to the pdf of Greenlee’s handout at ASLA2010.

    Clients are intrigued by ‘grass gardens’ because they imagine they are no maintenance and easy to establish. If this were the case, the handout would be 1 page, not 8, long. In fact you can see from reading the handout pdf that planning and establishing a successful cool-season/warm-season native grass planting is much harder and more expensive per square foot than, ahem, lawn. Not to say it’s wrong, but a more apt $ comparison is perhaps to an intensively gardened mixed woody/perennial border.

    In zone 6b, Gentle Gardener Green Design has been experimenting with mini-meadows in the eco-tone between intensively gardened landscapes/gardens, and extensively (and thus intermittently) managed/farmed forest, pasture, crops.

    The client has to have objectives other than saving money and time vs. lawn: for instance, increased habitat for birds, beneficials and pollinators….increased water infiltration and improved water quality because of the deep root systems of the native grasses, sedges, rushes…and the aesthetic/sculptural interest and movement/illusion of movement in the dog days of summer.

    In VA, meadows are always becoming forests, so management of woodies and vines is critical. Controlled burns in most suburban areas are a little scary but are the ideal for the plants. (Wildflower Center in Austin, TX has a cool video of their controlled burn on YouTube).

    I see opportunity for designers, landscapers and farmers who understand how to manage this intersection, and for equipment mfgrs who make sickle bar mowers and such to keep from cutting crowns too closely, and even weed whackers for small, sloping areas. Also oppoortunity for goat herders (goats browse woodies but don’t usually decimate crowns of grasses like sheep do), and provide some agri-tainment in the process.

    Extensively farmed/managed meadows are a great opportunity for homeowner associations’ commons areas, IF they can find qualified care for the meadows. Landscape maintenance and grounds management companies are often less qualified than farmers or forestry people, because they’ve been browbeaten by their training/clients into ‘grooming the life out of our gardens’, to paraphrase Sarah Stein.

    There ARE permaculture designers and other qualified folks out there who can assist, coach, implement and help you maintain.

    Great post!

  2. There is one word that sums up the problem with “meadow lawns” in the midwest: chiggers.

    We keep that stuff mowed for a very good reason….


  3. I don’t care how cool it looks. If the garden cannot be established without four cycles of Roundup, it strikes me as a very old-fashioned, corporation-dependent, ecologically unfriendly garden. Hardly better than a lawn.

  4. Could people believing they KNOW about horticulture GET this RIGHT? Glysophate is the main ingredient in ROUNDUP, please call the spade a spade could you?

    ORTHO is a much better product and costs one third.

  5. Ok, so you clean the slate with vigorous treatments of RoundUp over and over but what do you do when birds bring in weed seeds and the wind blows in weed seeds? Its like you’re setting yourself up for more work or failure.

  6. Well, I make no claim to being a landscape designer; in fact, since I’m a plant collector I’m constitutionally incapable of landscape design. However, over and above the Roundup issue (which I consider to be serious indeed, not to say ill-advised), I just feel that the “prairie” look has been done to death for years now. It’s had its day – let’s move on.

  7. I love the idea of prairies where they are appropriate, and the above images are gorgeous – just what I’d love to have someday. But to use multiple applications of herbicide to kill the weeds before planting ? Wouldn’t solarizing be just as effective, but less toxic ? Sure it takes longer, but that prairie ain’t gonna grow in a day anyway.

    How does he control the wind-blown seeds, etc ? And what does he do to continue to keep out weeds after the grassland is growing ? I do quite a bit to keep the weeds in my yard from getting big enough to go to seed. But my neighbors seem to think that nutsedge & spotted spurge are ornamental natives & allow them to re-seed freely. One good breeze & they are back in my yard, despite my vigilance.

  8. Now I live on the East Coast but I consider myself an Oklahoman, the state where I‘ve spent most of my life and a state with miles and miles of authentic prairie/meadow. Standing on the edge of the Tall Grass Prairie Preserve with wildflowers and grass extending far past the horizon I always appreciated it, always found it beautiful and as important as any ocean off any coast. This was never the case of any tourist or visitor that I experienced, they come to see buffalo or chase tornadoes but found the wide open landscape boring and dull. So now you’re telling me that people are paying good money for a treeless look? That folks on the populated coastlines now admire and covet the natural landscape of the middle of the country? I don’t believe it.

  9. I think most suburban dwellers could easily reduce their lawn coverage by a third w/o doing anything too crazy.

    What we did was to look at our yard and lawn and look at where grass was growing well and where we kept replacing it. We got rid of the turf in those areas. We replaced the turf with plants and bedding that required less upkeep (after the initial effort) and less water. Where we kept the turf we reduced it by widening our border areas with the end result of reducing a good amount of grass w/o doing anything really crazy.

    Three years later we need to update some of our plantings but the original plan is working well.

  10. you can get the look without glyphosphate. this is the classic ‘no-till’ vs. organic tillage cuss & discussion farmers have every day.

    you can start with strips of meadow, spirals, etc….invading the turfgrass lawn. truth is, these ‘mini-meadows’ look better to us humans in the landscape in contrast to cool season turf grasses or pasture….lawn/greensward providing the mat/frame around the painting, calm amid the activity of a motion-filled mini-meadow.

  11. Why do people want to create praire where there never was prairie? Basic human nature to want what we don’t have? “I’m wealthy, I can afford to fight nature and now that lawns are all sooo middle class, I have a prarie”. Once big busineess figures out how to make prairies affordable and they replace lawn in all the suburbs, praires will be considered bad, just like lawns. I’d be happy with all trees, just like my part of Ohio use to be. Except the spot for the vegetables.

  12. Grass Ecologies, hmm? Municipal in aesthetics, maintenance & chemicals.


    Tara Turf, what the wind blows in, escaped ground covers, clover, bulbs, moss, dichondra, natives provided by providence. Pollinator habitat.

    Used across the globe since before Christ’s era.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  13. I think the whole idea of a prairie is misguided, especially in the Northeast. New England meadows as the should be called are dominated completely by grasses with little to no wildflowers. They can’t even be considered a proper landscape choice as they are indicative of damaged land. In much of America where one would like to replace a lawn with a “prairie”, a forest or wood with be better. It’s an eye for an eye. One monoculture for another. I understand that most soils in the suburbs have since been destroyed, but compost is truly a miracle pill that exists for the garden. Don’t look at the wide open suburbs and think “PRAIRIE”, look at it and think PRIMARY SUCCESSION FOREST. *shout this as loud as you can too so that the neighbors can catch the drift* Humans will never be able to recreate the old growth forests of yore, but we can create the next closest step. Compost in your soil can hold nutrients and water. Allow primary succession forest trees to grow like birches and willows. Then underplant native species of vines, shrubs, perennials, and self sowing annuals. Don’t feel discouraged about grasses though. They too have their place, but not the top of the pedestal, more like the bottom left side, growing in a sunny location. These types of habitats, where multiple ecotypes come together are the most diverse in the world. The trees hold the birds, and yes your grasses can hold their insects. Instead of seeing the suburbs as barren, see them as the perfect space for the most diversity in the world. Not only biological, but social as well. Go over to your neighbors and talk about this type of planting, not everyone can or should have one of every type of plant in their garden. But if I have a birch tree, and the Joneses have a sycamore tree, and the Langs have the ferns, and the Calebs have the vibernums, think how rich the area will be. And if you all have a vegetable garden, you can enjoy the fruits of everybody’s labour and the majesty of the environment as well.

  14. Great post, and very interesting comments.

    I agree that meadows, like other lawn alternatives, are going to require effort. Not just to establish them but also to keep them looking low and neat (or at least cared-for) like most people want. And free of snakes and chiggers as well.

    Seems like there are a couple of parts to “lawn reform” and site-appropriate landscaping, which will also lead to less overall maintenance and more wildlife habitat.

    One is deciding how much land we need to keep cleared and controlled. Then we can focus our maintenance efforts on those spaces. The open “clearings” and “paths” where we will walk and sit and play and eat and so forth.

    Then part two is transitioning/restoring/retaining regionally appropriate and site-appropriate plant communities in the rest of the landscape. This could mean grassland, woodland, dryland, or wetland depending on the site and the local climate.

    I wonder how many folks would be willing to let go of controlling some parts (maybe even the majority) of their property and let them become more natural? I would like to think that even folks who prefer human-oriented landscapes might learn to love those wilder places if they also have comfortable cleared areas in which to enjoy the outdoors.

  15. Those look lovely, but…

    >Getting rid of them takes three to four cycles of spraying with herbicide, then waiting for the weed seeds to grow, and spraying again. Yep, a whole lotta herbicide goes into the making of these meadows.

    I don’t thing that’s work here. There’s just too many seeds that get blown over.

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