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Special Issue: Fall Gardens | PASSIONS

Meadows for the masses

A vehement critic of the manicured lawns of suburbia is delving into the mainstream, making a line of ornamental grasses for a nursery giant.

October 06, 2005|Emily Green | Times Staff Writer

"I keep saying it and saying it and saying it," says John Greenlee, "brown is a color too." As autumn turns the dozens of grasses, sedges and rushes in his Pomona nursery various shades of gold, silver and brown, the leader of the Western meadow movement seems exhausted by a two-decade fight against the perpetual green of the suburban lawn.

Or perhaps he's simply worn out by a 2 a.m. arrival home after a bedeviled flight across the country, returning from a trip to see a grower for the John Greenlee Grass Collection, a line of grasses for the nursery giant EuroAmerican Propagators. As much to his own surprise as anyone else's, one of the most outspoken critics of mainstream American horticulture, the leader of the "meadow revolution," has gone over to big business. For the last five years, Greenlee has been developing ornamental grass collections for EuroAmerican's Proven Winners line. If the relationship lasts, Greenlee's grasses may soon appear in garden centers near you.

When asked if it is the equivalent of Martha Stewart's deal with Kmart, he answers, "Exactly! Except I'm not a felon."

As we meet at his home -- a beat-up Craftsman laborer's house in a gritty corner of Pomona -- he's watering an overgrown garden with one hand and holding a coffee mug in the other. "I don't really live here any more," he says. As he and the photographer search for light in the overgrown garden, it emerges that for the last five years, he has been living in the Bay Area, where he has a new wife, new child, new life. This is his ex-house, his ex-garden. His plans are not definite, he says, but he suspects that he soon will be leaving his hometown and moving the heart of the American meadow movement to Napa Valley.

Yet, if you enter the largely abandoned Pomona garden, you can see why he's still watering the plants. Starting with a row of Canary Island pines, it is a wonderland, replete with meadow, bamboo tunnel, echo court, reflecting pool, pavilion.

Instantly, he falls into reminiscence, about how he was born in Pomona, how his twin brothers are buried in the cemetery across the street, how he raised that Guadalupe cypress from seed. It is garden as living scrapbook, started in 1978, his senior year as a horticulture student at Cal Poly Pomona, carried through as he became a young garden designer in the 1980s to a leader of the meadow grass movement in the 1990s, and semi-abandoned for the last five years after the move north.

"It's all going to be ripped out," he says, adding that his wife wants him to sell. "Gardens are just glimpses in time."

If this almost unbearably poignant place is indeed doomed, then his cause is alive and well, he says. This is the meadow revolution. Down the street, in the backyard of another tumbledown house, is the nursery. Here, what would be the garden is covered by flat after flat of grasses and grass-like plants -- California sedges, Italian Timothy, sweet flag that smells just like licorice. "Roll around in this and you come out smelling like scented candy instead of Ortho Weed B Gon," he says.

When he began thinking about grasses in the mid-1980s, a gardener had two choices, he says. "Either a cow could eat it, or you could whack a ball on it." But the 1980s perennial movement shook the supremacy of the sod industry.

By the time he published the Rodale reference book "The Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses" in 1992, concern over lawn pesticides had many states moving to require warning signs on treated lawns. By 1996, when he was profiled in the New Yorker, the air pollution caused by mowers and blowers was the hot-button issue. (Gas-powered mowers used for an hour can emit as much pollution as a car driven for 50 miles.)

The present concern is water.

So, if you have a spring green lawn and want to be called an "eco-terrorist," John Greenlee is your man. Where he stops insulting potential customers and shifts to a voice that could win converts is the subject of beauty. The anger drops away as he describes the effect rippling grass has on his heart. "I love fountain grass," he says. "It's such a cheerful thing to see the plant throw these flower spikes up in the air to catch the early light and breeze. It's just the magic of them."

At first, his best customers were the coming generation of garden designers -- Bob Fletcher, Nancy Goslee Power and Pamela Burton -- that in the 1980s and '90s brought back drifts of blowsy natives into formal landscapes. It was Greenlee who talked Robert Irwin into using native deer grass to line the swale leading to the Getty Center. The day we meet, a couple of young designers are shopping for Italian Timothy to run beneath olives at the new gardens of the Getty Villa in Malibu.

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