Brown Cannon III
When Acorus gramineus is  bruised, the acorus’s leaves have a licorice scent. It's planted here with Chasmanthium latifolium.

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  – September 11, 2006

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.”

Meadow revolutionary

Meadows are ideal replacements for small patches of lawn that serve no purpose. Not to mention they make sense for our climate.

“All good gardening is a way of walking more softly on the planet,” Greenlee says. “And relaxed plantings like grasslands and prairies are what the West has always been about.”

To get the word out, Greenlee writes books about grasses and travels the globe constantly looking for new species. He’s designed grass gardens for Hollywood glitterati and Silicon Valley execs, Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park at Walt Disney World, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, among others. Grasses surround the San Francisco-area home he shares with his wife, Leesa, and young son, Sedge, and fill his nursery in Pomona, California.

Back at our headquarters, Greenlee has run out of pots to fill, so he tosses the few remaining plants into his truck and prepares to leave. Two visitors wander by to ogle his grassy combos. “I want that one,” says a woman wearing a broad-brimmed hat. She’s touching the spongy, undulating mounds of Scotch moss that surround a ‘Golden Rocket’ rush. “Look at this,” says her friend, running her hand across the soft tops of a sea oats grass. “So casual ― even a little bit wild.”

Which pretty much describes Greenlee himself. Sliding into his truck, he spots an empty patch of ground near our test garden. “I could plant a meadow there,” he calls out, smiling broadly. “We’d love it,” we say. But that’s another story.

Info: Design: John Greenlee, Greenlee Nursery , Pomona, CA (909/629-9045).

Designing with grasses

The secret to composing a meadow in a pot, according to John Greenlee, is simplicity. One fountainlike grass with showy seed heads can hold its own in a pot. Two plants with different textures and heights ― a tall, stiff rush next to a low, fluffy perennial, for instance ― are subtly elegant. A third plant, like a giant aeonium, can add a dramatic accent. The same simplicity holds true for small backyard meadows, he says. Just start with an evergreen groundcover sedge such as Carex pansa to create the framework, then mix in flowers. Add taller grasses in back for variation. Or tuck in a licorice-scented acorus for subtle fragrance underfoot.

“Ornamental grasses are incredibly versatile,” Greenlee says. “Pair them with succulents for a Mediterranean look, or with Japanese maples for the look of a Northwest forest opening. Chocolate sedges and Carex buchananii are beautiful with fall color, rose hips, berries. They’re great with roses ― they hide the plants’ bad knees and bony ankles.” Best of all, he says, “they’re stellar at providing the natural look.”

To get started with grasses, Greenlee offers this advice: Learn the difference between good plants and weeds. Browse through nurseries and look through books, such as Landscaping with Ornamental Grasses (Sunset Publishing Corporation, 2002; $15). Then choose grasses that are appropriate for where you live ― some are frost tender, others can be invasive in some areas. Most grasses are sold as container-grown plants in 1- and 5-gallon cans.

In the ground: Plant in a sunny spot. Grasses tolerate most soils, but adding compost to planting holes gives them an extra boost. Mulch to suppress weeds, and water regularly the first season to establish the roots. In pots: Use large containers (at least 16 inches in diameter and 10 inches deep) and packaged potting soil.

In late February or March, refresh ornamental grasses in pots or in the ground by trimming them back to one-third or one-fourth of their height.