Wild about grasses

Why have a lawn when you can have a meadow? A passionate grower shares his secrets for using grasses in pots and beds

Kathleen N. Brenzel

Planting ornamental grasses

Shaking the soil from his hands, John Greenlee is surveying the pot he’s just finished planting when his gaze falls on the bunny-tail grass rising above an orange ‘Crackling Fire’ million bells. Sunlight illuminates its fuzzy, buff-colored seed heads; a breeze stirs, gently swaying its delicate stems. “See what I mean?” he says. “It’s got whoosh. No other plant can catch light and movement like ornamental grasses.”

We're standing on a patio at Sunset's headquarters in Menlo Park, California, where we've invited the West's guru of grasses John Greenlee to plant meadows in pots ― to show us how well the casual blends of grasses and flowers, more typical of prairies and forest clearings, can work in small spaces.

"Just a few pots should do it," we suggested. But with typical gusto, Greenlee arrives in a truck jammed with grasses, from wispy feather kinds that shimmer like spun gold to fluffy mounds that could make pretty convincing green wigs. And enough flats of annuals to pave a city block. For the next four hours, he composes and plants with the speed and flourish of a couture designer pinning together a gown at a runway show. Spotting our stash of pots in a nearby corner of the test garden, he fills those too.

Now 21 potted meadows surround us in the dappled shade of an oak tree. All are simple yet dramatic. "Grasses animate pots, make them more alive," Greenlee explains.

Greenlee's passion is nearly palpable, and he'd like to change the way we garden in the West ― fewer lawns, more meadows. "Lawns are monocultures," he says. They need mowing and edging frequently, and mowers and edgers pollute the air we breathe. "But meadows are rich and diverse, especially when they blend sedges and grasses with small bulbs and wispy perennials. They can get by with just four mowings or fewer per year."