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Where nature truly ruled

The place that made it OK for California landscapes to 'breathe' and be wild is closing.

February 21, 2008|Ellen Hoffs | Special to The Times

Tucked into a tough Pomona neighborhood behind a bamboo-camouflaged metal gate is an otherworldly garden that once was a magnet for horticulturists and designers experimenting with plants and landscapes.

The contained wildness still beckons with a sense of mystery. Hundreds of exotic plants crowd meandering paths leading to a maze of hidden outdoor rooms and patios. Lush vines and plants dangle from branches of dead trees. Towering bamboos surround the perimeter of the garden, designed by John Greenlee and a man called Simple.

The half-acre garden -- a symbol of free-spirited California landscape design -- is closing this month. Greenlee, author of "The Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses," has rented the property since 1977, when he was a student at Cal Poly Pomona. He now lives in Northern California.

"The garden had a tremendous impact on California gardeners and landscape designers. It demonstrated a freedom of spirit and embraced nature," says garden designer Pamela Berstler, who co-owns West L.A.-based Flower to the People.

"John did for horticulture what Jack Kerouac did for literature. He brought to the West a style that endures," says Jim Marshall, general manager of Suncrest Nurseries Inc., Watsonville. "Historically a garden has been an attempt to create order. The fallacy of that is that nature eventually dominates and the order at some point is going to be rendered unto nature. John brought nature into the garden in a way that transcended the need for order."

Until the early 1990s, Greenlee used the back of the rental property for his grass nursery. He began to build the garden after he moved the business next door. Visitors to the nursery, usually garden professionals, were invited to see the adjacent work-in-progress.

The stars of the garden world brought their precious finds. Landscape architect Paul Comstock donated grass seeds of "Paul's Chinese mystery grass." Garden designer Jack W. Catlin of La Canada Flintridge contributed a Japanese black pine, P. thunbergia, which he shaped by weighing down specific branches with stones. Horticulturist J.C. Raulston, the late founder of the Raleigh, N.C., arboretum named after him, gave an unknown species of red bark willow and crape myrtle, both of which he collected in Korea.

The magic began in 1994, when Simple, who calls himself "the roving garden artist," drove cross-country in his '60s-style, painted VW van and landed at Greenlee's front door. Simple wouldn't reveal his given name in a recent phone interview from Pennsylvania and says he legally changed it because it describes his attitude about life.

Greenlee had visited Simple's garden in Pennsylvania and been dazzled by its playfulness and whimsy. Simple had hedges with windows, outdoor rooms made of espaliered plants and hedges, and snail and slug topiaries.

Simple, whom Greenlee calls the architect of the Pomona garden, began by installing the sliding metal and bamboo gate for privacy. Greenlee filled in the remaining frontage with bamboo. The soil was rich silt loam.

Next, the two attacked the driveway. It cut through the property past the Craftsman bungalow to a guesthouse and stopped near the back of the lot. Simple says, "We looked at the asphalt driveway and saw one straight line. We argued. We debated."

And they collaborated. They divided it into thirds and chalked lines in an S-shape, to pull the eye from one side of the walkway to the other. They removed asphalt they didn't need and used it for other paths.

"Simple created destinations, pathways and a sense of mystery," Greenlee says with admiration. "It was sort of a finishing school for me."

The Mermaid House, now in disrepair, was the garden's most celebrated destination. Both men wanted to build a strong element and find a way to recycle a square concrete pad and 4-by-4 posts once needed for a trash Dumpster. Simple mounted old windows and doors they'd bought at a salvage yard on wood they'd rescued from a torn-down chicken coop.

Across reinforced 4-by-4s, he built a thatched roof that was open to the sky. To make walls, he untangled the canes of the Mermaid rose that Greenlee had planted to hide the Dumpster, and attached each cane to inexpensive concrete wire. He made living walls, "living garden architecture," Greenlee says.

After it was finished, the two differed about what should go inside. Simple preferred a table and chairs, but Greenlee, who always opted for romance, got what he wanted -- a brass bed filled with grass.

Simple added one short-lived feature: golden glass balls suspended from a walnut tree overhead. Neighbors shot them down one Easter.

"Arts under fire," Greenlee says.

Various pathways and rooms led to the Mermaid House, however most visitors walked through the Alphonse Karr bamboo alee. Greenlee built it wide at the entrance, narrow at the end. Simple added a strategically placed mirror that produced an illusion that the walk was endless, until visitors saw their reflection.

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