Imagine a meadow garden — grasses and dainty wildflowers dancing in the breeze, alive with butterflies, bees and hummingbirds. Now imagine one in an urban setting, rather than on country acres.
That’s what Kimberly Alexander, the owner of Allée Landscape Design, did when creating her award-winning display garden, Imagine, for the San Diego Horticultural Society at last year’s San Diego County Fair.
A contemporary outdoor room with industrial touches like pipe patio rafters and glass fiber-reinforced concrete chairs looked out on a downsized modern meadow that included easy-care grasses, perennials, small trees and shrubs.
Bold orange ceramic planters, modern garden art, eco-minded rain barrels, perme-able hardscape and a cobble-strewn swale — all of which Kimberly fit into a landscape smaller than 500 square feet — accented the informal look.
“I love combining architectural lines with plants that add softness,” Kimberly says. “I wanted to show people that a meadow is an option for a small front yard. It’s a habitat garden alive with color and texture that is low maintenance. Grasses are cut back once a year and the cuttings composted for a really small carbon footprint.”
Kimberly’s inspiration is California designer and nurseryman John Greenlee, the nation’s leading ornamental grass guru and the author of The American Meadow Garden. She also turns to Rick Darke’s Color Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses for details on grasses suited to Mediterranean climates like San Diego’s.
Here are more tips from Kimberly for a DIY modern meadow.
• Select ornamental grasses of various heights suited for the scale of your site and arrange them for a natural, informal feel. “In the fair garden, the grasses were no taller than 2 1/2 feet,” Kimberly says. “Start with shorter ones and use larger ones for accents. Also mix ground-hugging with arching and erect plants to mimic nature.”
• Consider native grasses and sedges that are suited to our dry summers and wet winters. Some of Kimberly’s favorites include a hybrid California field sedge (Carex praegracilis), often suggested as an alternative to turf; showy purple three-awn (Aristida purpurea), a good substitute for Mexican feather grass (recently classified as invasive); and ‘Canyon Prince’ wild rye (Leymus condensatus) with striking
• Seek out unusual grasses with showy foliage or flowers. Some eye-catching choices are ‘Blond Ambition’ blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis) with horizontal flowers that teeter in the breeze; ‘Red Bunny Tails’ fountain grass with fluffy red-pink seed heads; pink muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris) with its billowy pink flowers; and silvery flowered autumn moor grass (Sesleria autumnalis).
• Choose perennial companions com-patible with the grasses. Water-wise choices Kimberly favors range from small sages, yarrows in shades of red and yellow, monkey flower hybrids with red and orange blooms, and yellow torch lily. For annual color, sow California poppy seeds in early winter or under-plant with spring-blooming bulbs.
• Site your meadow in a sunny location, add drip or overhead irrigation to help establish the plants and mulch to hold down weeds. “Grasses are beautiful when backlit and swayed by the breeze,” Kimberly says. “They also are an ideal backdrop for garden art, like the modern sculpture and mosaic we placed in the display garden.”