The Way it Falls

Late autumn around here is all about light and color and scent. Even on warm dry days, the nights cool sharply and we wake up to diamond dew. It is a good time to plant. It is a good time to make changes. And, both—planting and changing—have happened to the landscape here at our ranchito.

I hate mowing lawns. I don't like watering them either, and I feel a definite responsibility to limit water use in whatever ways possible, but my hatred of mowing is more motivating than any environmental ethos. Thus, while the back yard design has come to a (temporary) halt, the front yard, especially its last bit of lawn, has received all my re-design efforts and energy. I talked to my friend Russell Wightman, aka LA Farm Hands, about how to turn it into a low-water, low-maintenance puddle of green. He presented several ideas and also lent me a book, Greenlee's The American Meadow Garden. Inspired by many of the drool-worthy meadows the book showed as exemplars, I considered collecting a variety of sedges and low-water grasses to build texture and color variation; after further consideration, however, I realized it isn't a large space, and too much variety might seem too busy. I needed a meadow that was a calming spot in the middle of all the other things that happen in the front (an orchard, a rose garden, iris beds, perennials, and someday, a water-feature). Led by Russ's recommendations and lots of gorgeous pictures of the stuff, we decided to install a meadow of Carex praegracilis. C. praegracilis is a drought tolerant rhizomatous sedge that can be mowed once a month during peak growth if I ever want a traditional lawn again, or mowed only once a year to encourage fresh long and graceful growth to play in wind and tickle the leaves of the crepe myrtle that will fall on it. (See this picture, the third image—with a man holding a microphone—for a further imagination spark.) I'm certain you know what my intention is.

Another note of inspiration: A few years ago, when E and I were in Argentina, curling up the Andes on the winding road to Tafi del Valle, after we passed through the rain forest but before the high-elevation grassland, we passed through a brief area of scrub. Along the edges of the road, hanging like silken fairy-hair, some kind of Carex look-alike danced and swayed. It fell over hillsides like silk, over stones like green waves, and we wanted to reach out of the car windows and run our hands through it. E said, "I want grass like that." That is what we're trying to make happen.

While I decided that I wouldn't mix grasses and sedges to make a more textured meadow, I can't let go of my love of surprise, and inspired by another book, Ogden's informative Garden Bulbs for the South, I had to include another native plant in the little meadow, Zephyranthes, aka rain lily. What little foliage rain lilies have looks enough like the Carex to disappear into the green, but come summer, after the sprinklers run post a period of no water, the flowers will jump up.

With all this in my head, I dug out what was left of the Marathon, St. Augustine, and Bermuda front lawn I inherited. I couldn't quite complete it on my own, so when Russ arrived for the install day, he helped me finish digging. We raked through the soil, sifting for any evil Bermuda stolens that may still remain. Then, we turned some compost into the soil. Russ set urbanite (reused broken concrete) in place to move from the parking spot to the entrance and the rose garden. We planted the Carex plugs on  an eight-inch diagonal grid, tucking the bulbs in (hopefully) natural-looking flushes among the plugs. Spreading compost around the the plants to nurse along the babies and help prevent some of the weeds that are going to want to take hold in the new space, watering in the new plantings, we finished for the day.

It will take six to to nine months for the plugs to grow in, which means it doesn't look like much yet, and I've got lots of weeding ahead of me, but I'm game for it. I've planted a meadow, a meadow!, in my own yard. It will be a soothing, moving pond of emerald dripping upwards. It will ripple and shimmer. It will fall over itself in green.


Anonymous said…
I think my backyard looks like a meadow two seasons of the year, and like a slum for the other six months. I was going to take heroic action this month, but it's back to looking like a meadow.

Your first photo is a religious experience.
here is the rain? All these plants ready to go into the ground....I'm a lazy gardener. Setting up that hose and rain bird on top of some rickety tripod feature Vic made for me, puts me in a grumpy mood.

I planted those red grasses with the plums (not Pampus) but they got full of dead material. Hard to remove, treacherous even. When you live on a hill such as mine with a pitch - you start thinking about ivy. I know, don't preach - no plans of doing so. If this works out for you, maybe I'll give it a try
Christina said…
AH: It's hard to top the beauty of the soft "weed" grasses as it cools this time of year. I love seeing their leaves all sparkling with dew in the morning. I imagine your backyard is beautiful with meadowyness right now. Thanks for the compliment about the photo. It's a blown Hot Cocoa rose, barely keeping its last petals. I love that rose.

PA: I know the red grasses you're talking about; I think they're fountain grass, Pennisetum something-or-another. They're pretty but overwhelming. My friend had him in his yard and he had the same struggle keeping them attractive; removing them was a bear. I did a lot of research before choosing this carex, and I hope it doesn't overwhelm me--it didn't sound like it would. But, we'll see.

I'm picturing you cursing at the rain bird. HA!
lucy said…
brilliant - i saw a praire meadow planting recently at one of the gardens i sometimes visit and nearly fell of my perch, so lovely was it.

imagining crepe myrtle dropping pretty petals over it all...gorgeous. and i hears ya on the mowing. my solution - to make peter do it - is definitely the lazy option...

Hoover Boo said…
Will be very interested to see how your Carex meadow works out. I have just a couple of little throw-rug sized lawns left and am looking forward to getting rid of them, too.

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