Ornamental grasses: Meadows for the masses
“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.
Greenlee suspects that we could even get a poetic effect from many of our lawn grasses, if we didn’t suspend them in a state of infancy by constant mowing. “They’re like grass topiary. You can never see the plant.” By never allowing them to go to seed, turn brown in autumn or die back in the face of heat, he says, “we’ve purged grass of sex, death, seasons, of life.”
Strictly speaking, not all of the grasses he offers are grasses. The Carex praegracilis, a tufted deep-green plant that he would like to see replace lawn, is a native Californian sedge; Juncus patens is a Californian rush. One way in which Los Angeles is perfect for ornamental grasses is that many species that are dormant in cold climates are evergreen here. Grass gardens look good all year and change with the season, blushing from green to gold to brown, silver to gray to black, or red to purple to brown.
The key to his passion for grass is a deep yearning for seasonality. As a child, his family moved from Pomona to a suburban housing tract in Fullerton, he says, where the landscape didn’t provide fall color. “Instead, it was always green.”
With the Proven Winners line, he likes the idea of selling arching grasses in tiny containers, a prairie in a pot, so that even an urbanite can have amber grain as autumn closes in and see the grass wave in the wind from the balcony of a studio apartment. “It brings that tiny little bit of wildness that only grass can give.” he says.
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Go on, play the field
John Greenlee recommends switch grass from the Panicum genus for prairie effect, low-spreading sedges for a lawn substitute, Moroccan fescue for subtle khaki tones, fountain grasses for drama and, for a vibrant show of flowers, “any of the Muhlenbergias.” He is not a native purist but in building a meadow, he prescribes using a native grass as base, then adding different shapes, colors and textures. Think in terms of form instead of species: tufted, mounded, upright arching and so on.
Tufted: A Byronesque flop that makes a romantic alternative to a crew-cut lawn. For Southern California, the field sedge Carex praegracilis can take traffic and shade, and once established needs water once a week as opposed to once a day.
Upright tufted: Autumn moor grass or Sesleria autumnalis. “A tough but beautiful evergreen,” according to Greenlee’s encyclopedia. An import from Italy and Albania. “Fine large-scale ground cover, tolerates competition from woody plants.”
Upright arching: Pennisetum messiacum or ‘Red Bunny Tails,’ a fountain grass that catches light and wind, for burgundy streaks that turn silver with age. For reasonable drought tolerance and a cloud of red flowers, try the Texas native Muhlenbergia capillaris or ‘Purple Muhly.’
Grass class: Greenlee will be speaking and showing grasses at 9.30 a.m. Oct. 15 at the Walter Andersen Nursery, 12755 Danielson Court, Poway; (858) 513-4900.
Sources: Greenlee grasses are available through good nurseries or in quantity wholesale by appointment from Greenlee Nursery, 257 E. Franklin Ave., Pomona; (909) 629-9045; www.greenleenursery.com.
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