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Making Meadows

5-yrsBy Bruce Zaretsky

Writing about droughts and water shortages in his March 2008 On the Level column, Bruce Zaretsky started by observing, ‘This turn of events has made me determined to design landscapes requiring as little water as possible – one consequence being that I now do all I can to avoid using large expanses of grass.’  He continued:


‘[I just worked with] clients who had recently transplanted themselves from the mountains of Colorado to a housing development in upstate New York.  The home was nice and comfortable, but for various reasons it had been surrounded by an uninspired conglomeration of cheap plants, large lawns and paving.  We saw an opportunity to change all that . . . with a modest (but flexible) budget.’


‘Most of the other homes in the development had stereotypical front lawns, but my sense was that the hilly nature of the terrain on my client’s property would enable us to eliminate the lawn and turn it into a realistic mountain meadow complete with boulders and a stone walkway that would mimic the worn-bedrock pathways of the sort you see when hiking above the tree line.  I also thought we could do it without making it too disruptive to the neighborhood’s general look.  As the design developed, this transformation from grass to wildflowers became its focal point – and the theme for the entire site.’


‘We installed 500 Lupines, Catmint, Coneflowers and Helianthus and about 800 daisies in addition to 40 or so clumps of ornamental grasses.  Along the way, we transplanted as many of the existing plantings as we could and left all established trees in place, including three Red Maples, a Shadblow and an Ornamental Pear.’


‘With the front yard under control, we turned our full attention to the back of the house  . . .  [where] there was an uninspired backyard with a small, awkward deck and a long, straight-shot stairway down to a ground-level patio.  The grade sloped down about ten feet from the back of the house, leveled off a bit, then dropped off into a conservation-easement ravine.’  


‘As we’d done in the front yard, we also turned the backyard into a meadow.  Here, we deliberately chose alpine plants that would remind the couple of their childhood hiking.  We also did what we could to soften the building’s two-story-double-wide look by planting a pair of 20-foot River Birches less than ten feet away from the house to create a simple visual barrier from the deck.  These trees also provide a living arbor through which guests pass in approaching the deck or lower patio.’  


‘In planting our meadows, we had to deal with the common misconception that planting an entire area with perennials and shrubs requires greater maintenance than a lawn.  Even many of my professional colleagues think that way, believing that all of these plants will require significant ongoing maintenance, watering and weeding.  The simple truth is, while for the first season or two weeding and supplemental watering will be necessary, once the plants are established there is virtually no need for watering.  Moreover, the grown-in plants will suppress weed growth – and besides, once established, the popping up of the occasional weed in a garden such as this will hardly be noticed.’


‘This is not the first project in which I’ve applied these techniques,’ Bruce concluded, ‘nor is it the last. . . . As our industry learns to cope with ongoing concerns over water shortages, environmental stewardship and fuel costs, we all need to find ways to keep the creative juices flowing while looking at the big picture and the realities of our planet’s future.’

Has Bruce’s less-than-sunny perspective on lawns caught on where you live in the past five years, or is some ‘education’ still needed among professionals and homeowners?  Please share your experiences by commenting below!  


Bruce Zaretsky is president of Zaretsky & Associates, Inc. a landscape design/construction/consultation company in Rochester, N.Y.  You can reach him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .


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