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In Van Nuys, 'Gene's Garden' is a hidden gem

'It's the best-kept secret for 25 years,' says Gene Greene, who has long overseen the lush 61/2-acre Japanese Garden on the campus of the sprawling Tillman Water Reclamation Plant.

March 20, 2010|By Ann M. Simmons

It is known simply as the Japanese Garden. But to those familiar with this 6 1/2 -acre oasis, tucked away in the middle of bustling Van Nuys, it is affectionately referred to as "Gene's Garden."

Since its dedication in 1984, Gene Greene has overseen this inspiring display of native plants, exotic birds, trees, waterfalls, lakes and streams - a public treasure that many don't know exists.

"It's the best-kept secret for 25 years," said Greene, who worked closely with the landscape architect who designed the garden.

One reason for the park's low profile may be that it's part of the sprawling campus of the Tillman Water Reclamation Plant, which processes more than 65 million gallons of sewage daily. The treated water is used to irrigate San Fernando Valley parks, golf courses and greenbelts while nourishing the garden's lakes and plant life.

The lush grounds include a variety of flowers such as azaleas, magnolias, lotuses and wisteria, as well as fan-shaped ginkgoes, one of the oldest species of trees. Snow-white egrets perch like sentries atop black pines, planted on islands in the middle of a large lake. A three-tier waterfall, representing heaven, man and Earth, provides the main source of water from the plant.

The shoin building, which projects over the lake, is a replica of a Japanese residence built for aristocrats, monks and samurai warriors during the 14th and 15th centuries. Its interior has been modified to accommodate group meetings and weddings. A traditional Japanese teahouse adjoins the shoin and hosts a Sunday tea service.

Ensuring that the garden retains its cultural authenticity is Greene's priority, and he undertakes the task with painstaking precision, similar to the way he recites the history of the garden.

It was former Los Angeles city engineer Donald C. Tillman who devised the concept of combining a wastewater treatment facility and a garden. To win public support for building an upstream water reclamation plant near Lake Balboa Park, Tillman promised the city's Department of Recreation and Parks that he would provide a buffer in the form of a traditional Japanese garden.

Tillman, who had studied at UCLA under the late Japanese landscape architect and art history professor Koichi Kawana, lobbied the city for the $3 million needed to construct the garden. The money was allocated for the project in 1979, and Kawana was commissioned to build it.

Greene worked closely with Kawana to revise the garden's irrigation plans and manage the design of the landscape. "He was sensei, and I was his student," Greene said, using the Japanese honorific for a teacher or mentor.

He fondly recalls every detail of the garden's construction, including excavating the soil, laying the pipes and meticulously setting by hand some 642 boulders, some weighing up to 8.5 tons. Greene, who will say only that he's "older than dirt," beamed as he recounted how he personally set the final 28 stones.

Today, Greene, who oversees three full-time staff members and four gardeners, prides himself on preserving the garden's authenticity.

"Most people want to trim hedges square. We don't want them square," Greene said. "Sometimes they want to top off trees. We don't want them topped off. It's done Gene's way, because Dr. Kawana taught me how the garden should be done."

David Chambers, director of Dragon Associates Inc., a Thousand Oaks-based company that specializes in promoting Japanese cultural events, said he was cynical when he first heard about the garden.

"I dismissed it as being a Disneyland . . . Mickey Mouse-type Japanese garden," Chambers said. "But I came here, and it was absolutely authentic."

Today, Chambers is an advisor to the Japanese Garden and is helping Greene organize an Okinawa, Japan, cultural festival there in May.

But there are also financial challenges. The city is constantly looking for ways to slash the $500,000 it costs annually to maintain the garden. Some advisors have suggested replacing the garden's dirt pathways with concrete, or installing Korean lanterns instead of Japanese ones, because they're cheaper.

"It's the vision of understanding that you just don't do that," said Greene, noting that one of his many jobs is that of a lobbyist.

Not even a three-month reprieve from work -- after suffering a stroke six years ago -- could keep Greene from his duties. He fielded calls from his hospital bed and used his laptop to e-mail instructions to his staff.

"Gene is the heartbeat of the garden," said Betty Ethridge, the garden's coordinator, who has worked at the facility since 1995. "His blood is running through the veins of this place. . . . This is his life."

But Greene directs all the credit to his army of 70-plus volunteers and docents, who educate the public on water reclamation and Japanese culture.

"People say it's Gene's garden, but this belongs to the people and the city of L.A.," he said. "I just happen to have the best job in the city."

ann.simmons@latimes.com

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