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Garden Visit: A Backyard Meadow in Mill Valley, CA

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Garden Visit: A Backyard Meadow in Mill Valley, CA

June 5, 2017

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.

From a bedroom balcony, you look down into a backyard meadow full of flowing grasses. A raised wooden platform with lounge chairs is in the spot once occupied by a  backyard trampoline.
Above: From a bedroom balcony, you look down into a backyard meadow full of flowing grasses. A raised wooden platform with lounge chairs is in the spot once occupied by a  backyard trampoline.

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.”

A path of stepping stones set in a base of gravel runs alongside the side of the house, connecting the front garden to the backyard meadow.
Above: A path of stepping stones set in a base of gravel runs alongside the side of the house, connecting the front garden to the backyard meadow.

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.”

Introduced in \1937, &#8\2\16;Ballerina&#8\2\17; is a hardy shrub rose with clusters of single flowers.  Shade tolerant and perennial in growing zones 5-\10, a Ballerina Rose in a one-gallon pot is \$4\1 from Heirloom Roses.
Above: Introduced in 1937, ‘Ballerina’ is a hardy shrub rose with clusters of single flowers.  Shade tolerant and perennial in growing zones 5-10, a Ballerina Rose in a one-gallon pot is $41 from Heirloom Roses.
Georgia loves to run laps around the backyard where Greenlee and Coates chose meadow grasses, including Carex pansa, Festuca mairei, and clumps of Sesleria autumnalis &#8\2\16;Greenlee&#8\2\17;. (Greenlee discovered the hybrid growing in his nursery in Pomona, California.)
Above: Georgia loves to run laps around the backyard where Greenlee and Coates chose meadow grasses, including Carex pansa, Festuca mairei, and clumps of Sesleria autumnalis ‘Greenlee’. (Greenlee discovered the hybrid growing in his nursery in Pomona, California.)

“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.”

Salvia Nemorosa &#8\2\16;Caradonna&#8\2\17; has deep purple spikes, is drought tolerant, and will bloom throughout the summer. A plant in a 4-inch pot is \$7.95 from Annie&#8\2\17;s Annuals.
Above: Salvia Nemorosa ‘Caradonna’ has deep purple spikes, is drought tolerant, and will bloom throughout the summer. A plant in a 4-inch pot is $7.95 from Annie’s Annuals.
Georgia redux.
Above: Georgia redux.
Two wooden folding chairs Greg had made while living in Indonesia sit in a shady spot in a back corner of the garden, the former site of the treehouse.
Above: Two wooden folding chairs Greg had made while living in Indonesia sit in a shady spot in a back corner of the garden, the former site of the treehouse.
Strawberries and herbs grow in planting beds on the corners of the wooden platform.
Above: Strawberries and herbs grow in planting beds on the corners of the wooden platform.
Foxgloves re-seed themselves and will pop up serendipitously in unexpected spots in the meadow.
Above: Foxgloves re-seed themselves and will pop up serendipitously in unexpected spots in the meadow.
With a weathered teak base and concrete tabletop, a Belgian Trestle Table is available in five sizes at prices ranging from \$4,\144 to \$6,\2\10 at Restoration Hardware.
Above: With a weathered teak base and concrete tabletop, a Belgian Trestle Table is available in five sizes at prices ranging from $4,144 to $6,210 at Restoration Hardware.

A sunny patio with stone pavers has a retaining wall that doubles as seating for the dining table.

On their gently sloped property, the Sterns installed a French drain system and drainage to divert water from the house.
Above: On their gently sloped property, the Sterns installed a French drain system and drainage to divert water from the house.
A ridged metal side table is actually a planter, turned upside down. Available in two heights, a Metal Peyton Barrel is from \$49.99 to \$89.99 depending on size at Cost Plus World Market.
Above: A ridged metal side table is actually a planter, turned upside down. Available in two heights, a Metal Peyton Barrel is from $49.99 to $89.99 depending on size at Cost Plus World Market.

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.

Garden designer Coates and landscape contractor Brian Robinson sourced the fire bowl and ceramic fire balls from Concrete Creations in Los Angeles.
Above: Garden designer Coates and landscape contractor Brian Robinson sourced the fire bowl and ceramic fire balls from Concrete Creations in Los Angeles.

N.B.: For more of our favorite meadow gardens, see:

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