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)


  1. Would Helichrysum monstrosum pass for a native flower? Some dispute that the new colourful varieties of this plant are just some monstrous derivatives of the humble yellow native paper daisy, but how many people out there go that deeply into semantics? These flowers certainly perform quite decently among the tufts of Poas in one corner of my garden, and they could quite easily be colour-coordinated with whatever grows near-by, which I might do one day. 🙂 Ammobium alatum would fit the bill if you wanted to be a true purist, both in terms of plant origin and pristine white petals. I guess Crinum flaccidum would be a good native bulb to plant with Australian grasses as well.
    I personally enjoy poas mixed with some exotics, such as Dierama pulcherrimum, coreopsis, geum and helianthus angustifolius.

    1. Hadn’t thought of the everlastings Adele. They’re certainly showy enough. Don’t much like the idea of using an annual, given the need for annual cultivation and sowing, but the perennial species sound fabulous.
      Love the Crinum flaccidum idea.

  2. I don’t get my daily Gardenist any more………wonder why?

  3. Austrodanthonia (wallaby grass) and Austrostipa might fit the bill for a native meadow grasses. Some are available at retail centres, but there’s lots of forms that aren’t necessarily easy to get, even for landscaping purposes. I’m not sure if they’re all suitable, but wouldn’t it be fantastic to have a lot more local grasses to choose from. Hopefully something that will change as demand increases.

    1. I haven’t tried either of these, Louise, but I’m now determined to. I called a local native nursery yesterday (over another matter), and found out that they grow every propagatable grass species in the Western Plains of Vic. The owner mentioned stipas in passing. I asked which ones they grow. They had 12 different species! I’ve clearly underestimated the repertoire!

  4. I just don’t know how well large swathes of meadows would work here. Snakes and bushfires come to mind, as well as the relentless heat and the stinging rays of sun on an Australian summer’s day. The only emergents in a matrix of Poa or Lomandra should be trees to provide some shade and comfort in the height of summer.There is great enjoyment in the spots of sunlight dancing on the ground, the smell of Eucalyptus wafting, the shimmering air, the sound of crisp grass underfoot – no flowers needed there! Just a banana lounge and a long cold drink will do.
    As delightful as a wonderfully composed ‘New Perennial Planting’ looks, translating it to this climate is a very difficult endeavour, requiring very careful selection of plant material suited to ones very own climatic conditions, soils, water availability, temperature range, humidity or lack thereof, etc. There is also the problem with the ever-dwindling choice of plants in garden centers or the unavailability of overseas species due to quarantine restrictions.
    The two most memorable front-gardens I have ever seen have done away with those problems: one had narrow garden beds along the picket fence and along the path leading to the cottage, entirely ‘planted’ with plastic flowers from the 2$-shop, with plastic garlands draped between the verandah post and plastic ivy growing up those posts. The other garden was decked out in blue painted pebbles with 2 dozen garden gnomes placed around. What great pleasure the sight of those gardens gave to passers-by and of course, the owners. And I bet that neither one had a copy of a Piet Oudolf book anywhere!

    1. I totally recognise the difficulty of the endeavour Ellinor, but I can’t help but want to try, anyway.
      And I’m in full support of the plastic and painted pebble gardens – bring ’em on! But I’m a plant lover, and mine needs to contain plants – as many different types as a nod to the disciplines of design will allow.

  5. I dislike the look of little clumps of Poa or Lomandra scattered around with mulch between them (and they do seem to be everywhere in public spaces), and I think your idea of using them as a matrix is well worth pursuing. I don’t have a problem with mixing natives and exotics either, as plants indigenous to the south-west Western Australia, or the sandstone of the east coast, are just as “exotic” to areas where you and I live as any tulip or daffodil. If the “native” tag is important to someone, though, I think Kangaroo Paws are showy enough and have the right look to fit in with this idea (although it’s too frosty for them here).

    1. I’m with you, Lyn. The only time I can like them sparsely placed is in gravel, and even then they have to have contrasting foliage nearby in careful balance. As I’ve said above, I’m much more used to the pasture-type of meadow, and it’s only this book that has got me puzzling over the uses of tussock-as-matrix. It somehow seems more manageable and familiar in its demands/cycles/rhythms, in that it seems to be a lot more like broad-scale, low-demand gardening than british-type meadow-management.
      And the ‘Paws’ (to adopt Angus Stewart’s term of familiarity) are a great idea. I can see it now – a largish area of tussocks, dense in some places, sparse in others, and then scattered about, as if self sown, the tall wands of brightly coloured paw-blooms. Could even use the recently bred low forms down at grass level in repeating clumps here and there – they certainly provide the density of colour necessary to value-add to the grass matrix

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