A backyard meadow of grasses and wildflowers was the farthest thing from Catherine and Greg Stern’s mind when they bought their Spanish-colonial style house in Mill Valley, California nearly two decades ago. The previous owners had been avid gardeners; flowering trees ringed a traditional turf lawn in their small suburban garden and “it was really pretty,” remembers Catherine.
But as families grow, so must gardens. First came a treehouse and a backyard trampoline. “Then one day, we had two teenagers and I realized it had been at least five years since anybody used either; they were just sitting there,” says Catherine.
With water shortages a major concern in California, Greg wanted to get rid of the lawn. When garden designer Sarah Madeline Stuckey Coates first saw the space two years ago, she envisioned a drought-tolerant meadow. Says Catherine, “There would be days I would come home and find Sarah sitting in the yard, just dreaming.”
Coates consulted meadow garden expert John Greenlee. The result is a colorful garden that looks wild and natural—and feels at least twice as big as the .15-acre lot it occupies:
Photography by Mimi Giboin for Gardenista.
With the mature flowering trees, the garden feels well-established and private. “It is just delightful,” says Catherine. “As the time has gone on, it’s gotten prettier and prettier. It changes throughout the year. The plum tree blooms in March. In April we have pink dogwood blooms.”
Says Coates, “The inspiration came from Greg wanting a meadow and me wanting to implement what I learned about making meadows from John Greenlee:the utility and beauty of a meadow over lawn, and also how a meadow isn’t a water, mowing, and fertilizer monocultural hog, like most sods. Rather, it is a flowing, dancing, living piece of art that you can plant flowers in and attract butterflies and other good insects.”
“Honestly, right after everything was planted last year we got a puppy,” says Catherine. “You can tell it’s a hardy garden because it can withstand a dog.”
Robinson Landscaping installed the meadow and mow it once a year, in winter. “The landscape crew worked hard to make sure everything got enough water the first year,” says Catherine. “Now it really is an easy garden.”
A sunny patio with stone pavers has a retaining wall that doubles as seating for the dining table.
It was Greg’s idea to replace an unloved space heater with a fire pit, which lures the family outdoors even in cool weather. “It feels like we added two rooms onto our house,” says Catherine.
N.B.: For more of our favorite meadow gardens, see: