Meeting people that are passionate about their work is always exciting. Not only do you learn something new but it is hard to walk away and not feel inspired to delve into your own specialty of some sort. On Thursday, we were treated to a visit from John Greenlee and Neil Diboll. John is the grass guru from Greenlea & Associates and specializes in grass ecology and designs meadows for private residences, as well as notable sites such as the San Diego Zoo and Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida. He’s also author of The American Meadow Garden, a fantastic guide to creating natural alternatives to the traditional lawn. John’s passion for his work was evident as soon as we showed him our neglected historic lawn.
Not many people can look at a dead patch of grass less than 1500 square feet in size for half an hour and talk about the many possibilities for it. In fact, not many people would see a possibility at all. During the penitentiary days, the west lawn was kept watered, manicured and was green all year. Actually, an inmate gardener was warned about using too much water for the lawn. The lawn, made up of non-native annual grasses, is lush and green during the winter and spring but then quickly turns into brown grass showing dusty bare ground during the summer months. This dead lawn serves as the backdrop to our now restored borders along the west road. No matter how beautiful the borders look, the eye can’t help but be drawn to the huge eyesore of the former lawn.
John has some interesting facts about lawns in the United States:
-Lawns are the fourth largest ‘crop’ in the States. Corn, soybeans and wheat are the first three crops.
-30% of water on the East Coast is used to water lawns; compared to a staggering 60% of water used to care for lawns on the west coast.
Obviously, lawns in dry California do not make sense. Neil coined a new term to describe this phenomenon: dis-ecological. Re-creating a lawn on an island without any fresh water would certainly be ‘dis-ecological’.
John described how using four or five types of native grasses could be used to create a meadow. Naming a few – Stipa pulchra, Elymus trachycaulis, Muhlenbergia species and Carex pansa, he explained that “grasses are framework that everything else hangs on”. Another component of planting a meadow would be to plant bulbs as “flowers are there for the sizzle”. South African bulbs, as well as native California bulbs would do well in our Mediterranean climate. Tritonia, Fritillaria, Tritelia, Dichelostemma capitatum (blue dicks), and Calochortus nuttallii (Sego lily) would be perfect.
John also gave us pointers for turning a plan on paper into an actual meadow. The first step would be to try to reduce the seed bank in the soil. Forty years of weed seeds have accumulated since this lawn was last cared for and those annual seeds is what have been providing the ‘green lawn’. Other than using roundup, John suggested watering the ground now to germinate as many of the seeds as possible. The germinated weed seeds can then be killed off using an acetic acid solution (vinegar). He advised against tilling the soil or amending it, as this would only bring more weed seeds to the surface. Plants need to survive in the existing soil, or they will never be happy. John described that plants should be thanking you for giving them dry, sandy, nutrient deficient soil. John commented that we only have annual grasses to contend with, so we are one step ahead already. Planting by plugs would speed up the establishment of the meadow by a full year, instead of taking two years with grass seed. We could potentially see a beautiful meadow this time next year! Once the plugs are in, the area would need to be kept weeded and watered until established. John explains as a general guideline “design what we can afford to water”; with our rainwater catchment sitting right next to this lawn, we will have sufficient water. Mulching around the plugs will help to prevent further germination of weed seeds and Neil recommended using corn gluten as an organic pre-emergent.
Once established, the meadow would have very little maintenance with cutting once a year. John said the goal of a meadow is “it has to say it’s a meadow; not ‘when are they going to mow that lawn’”.
After John and Neil left, the volunteers and I talked excitedly about our meadow-to-be; and actually, we were still talking about it this morning too. Seeing the possibilities through the neglect is a real skill; a skill that John, Neil, the Garden Conservancy team all share.