I couldn't wait to get my hot little hands on The American Meadow Garden: Creating a Natural Alternative to the Traditional Lawn (Timber Press) written by grass and meadow madman John Greenlee, and seductively photographed by Saxon Holt. The book promised tools for my landscape architect's bag of tricks-philosophical reassurance, design inspiration, a new palette of plants, how-to details.

I just read it. It delivered.

Trade In Your Old Lawn...

You know I'm no fan of traditional lawns. They're stultifyingly boring and often serve no useful purpose-anybody seen the neighborhood kids playing in the front yard lately? They consume too much stuff and foul our precious nest. NASA photos put the collective national lawn at upward of 30 million acres. We can get by with a lot less.

John Greenlee is a dynamo of energy and passion when it comes to ornamental grasses. I won't take up space with his bio. It's all in the book, starting with John's childhood memories of "the field", the only wild space in his SoCal cookie-cutter neighborhood.

John doesn't insist that everyone plow up their existing landscapes and blanket the continent with meadows, but he does make a compelling argument for meadow gardens in more landscapes.

From the first page, John and Saxon beckoned me to join them in a field of words and images, touching on romantic and rational reasons to seek a "solution to the madness of lawn culture." Energy, water and resource consumption, polluted runoff, noise, greenwaste, and loss of habitat are offered as compelling reasons to murder a few lawns. And I agree with the guys that well designed, well managed meadow gardens are a lot more interesting than swatches of sterile, billiard-table-green turf.

Chapter two delves into the natural ecology of meadows and the wide variety of forms they can take; the difference between warm-and cool-season grasses; and the non-grass species that impart unique personalities to different types of grasslands. I took a whirlwind tour of America, visiting seven geographic/climatic zones, learning how their unique environmental factors influence the types of meadows that are most likely to thrive in each.

First Thing First

I was heartened to see that John devotes space to site analysis, perhaps the most important, but often glossed-over design phase. He explains why successful meadows come from close observation, then factoring into the equation the topography, drainage patterns, soil type, sun patterns and existing vegetation of the each site leads to successful meadows-sustainable "systems" that should require only minimal inputs and generate few harmful outputs.

Next, the book rolls up its sleeves, pulls on its steel-toe work boots (sorry, don't mean to diss all you Wellie wearers) and becomes an indispensible how-to gardening book. The plant lists are loaded with detailed information and include design uses for each species, divided into groundcovers, fillers, backgrounds, accents and natural lawns.

In the book's homestretch, John clarified for me how it's done-soil preparation, weed eradication (he's not apologetic about the sometimes necessary use of properly applied herbicides, as well as organic approaches), and plant spacing.

John includes "post-partum" tips on raising and caring for your "new baby". (If you've learned to summon the forces of nature whenever your meadow needs a drink, you can skip the section about watering, but I found it helpful.)

He cautions that a meadow doesn't always follow your wishes, unlike traditional gardens where trees, shrubs and perennials more-or-less stay put. "Invariably, you install plants where you want them," John writes, "but they end up where they want to be.

Such is the never-ending fascination of the meadow."

While John's words inform and compel, Saxon Holt's photographs cast a magic spell that brings the book to life. The "design" photos each tell a story of natural beauty, balance, and energy, while the "this is what the plant looks like up close" shots capture the character of each plant, the way a skilled portraitist reveals the essence of a person. Saxon's love of gardens and plants is obvious in his gifted work.

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Would you like to pore over the pages of this game-changing book? Have you contemplated lawnicide, but found yourself timidly standing on the sidelines, waiting for a sign?

Whether you plant a meadow garden in your own landscape or not, The American Meadow Garden is a great book to have in your garden library or on your coffee table.

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On-line Resources

John Greenlee

Saxon Holt

Timber Press

Lawn Reform Coalition at LawnReform.org: Subscribe to the LRC's newsletter and check out their Facebook fan page.

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