Pondering the mead

I was making a hasty departure from Longwood a few weeks back, and with no time to take a proper look at the excellent shop near the exit, snatched up a book on meadows near the door.  After a very quick flick and a glance at the price I shoved a copy and the right cash into the hands of one of my group who happened to be near the front of the checkout queue.

It’s rare for any book to reframe my thinking on gardening, and the chance of an impulse purchase achieving that is near nil.  But The American Meadow Garden by John Greenlee has come pretty close.

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Its approach to meadows has little in common with, say, Christopher Lloyd’s book on the same subject, which largely (and mouth-wateringly) reveals the delights and challenges associated with the diverse pasture-like meadows that surround Great Dixter.  The approach of The American Meadow Garden is much more achievable for the home gardener, and is more about creating swathes of ground cover planting that are largely grass-based – more like broad-scale gardening than flowers in paddock grasses.  Using permanent clump-forming or tussocky grasses as the fundamental plant matrix to create a meadow feel seems to me to be much more applicable to both our climate and our potential repertoire of native grasses, and it’s this sort of planting that is explained, and enticingly photographed, in this book.

What I can’t help but love is that the book is written by a well-known grower of meadow plants, and attests to his long experience of creating meadows in client’s gardens.  It’s a little irritating in that I feel like he’s trying, throughout the entire book, to sell me the idea of a meadow.  I think it’s a fair assumption that anyone who buys the book (let alone gets ¾ of the way through) is likely to already be sold on the idea.   What I want (and fortunately he supplies as well) is implementation advice.

Having said all that, it’s not the book, as such, that I want to write about.  As usual, I’ve gotten myself bogged in the preamble.

The Poa/Lomandra combo in vigorous (if modest) youth
The poa/lomandra combo in vigorous (if modest) youth

The book (and more importantly, the images), have had me thinking about the possibilities of the ubiquitous poa/lomandra matrix that you now see everywhere – on freeway sides, around car parks, in playgrounds etc.   On its own it can look pretty good (at least in the first few years, before the lack of any management catches up with it), but it’s inherently modest, and as such, isn’t quite garden worthy.

But having drooled over The High Line and other Oudolf plantings, and poured over the images in this book, it is clearer than ever to me that those bullet-proof plantings of Aussie natives could form the basis – the background matrix – for something much more exciting.  I say clearer than ever because I have for several years been planting large areas of Poa labillardieri with the intention of adding layers of other plants – primarily bulbs – that might add seasonal waves of colour. This book makes me aim much higher still.

But what has also become clear, and I’d really welcome your input on, is how few Australian native grasses are available for ornamental horticulture.  This may be that there simply hasn’t been the call for them, or that very few of the many native species are appropriate for the setting, I don’t know.  As far as I can see, the list doesn’t stretch much beyond Poa labillardieri and Poa poiformis.  I know there’s indigenous forms of Imperata cylindrica available (which we’ve known in garden forms as Japanese blood grass), but they’re not likely to form the basis of a mixed meadow planting.

The other claim I’d like to make (albeit with some hesitation) is that while we might get away with using the poa/lomandra combination as a background matrix, the floral content would virtually have be non-native.  I can’t think of any native herbs showy enough to lift the Poa/Lomandra thing out of its inherent modesty and into widely acceptable levels of garden-worthiness.  Mixing plants of different origins doesn’t worry me at all.  I wouldn’t hesitate to use exotic bulbs and ‘unimproved’  species perennials in a native matrix, but I wish that we had some native bulbs/herbs sufficiently showy to do the job.  I’m hoping one of you will be able to convince us that we do.

Camassias in the perennials mix behind Piet Oudolf's place, showing again how very few bulbs you need to make an impact in this type of setting (as long as they're an appropriate colour and form, and have a certain level of inherent showiness)
Camassias in the perennials mix behind Piet Oudolf’s place, showing again how very few bulbs you need to make an impact in this type of setting (as long as they’re an appropriate colour and form, and have a certain level of inherent showiness)

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