Magazine article Sunset

Fantasy in Grass: A Love Affair with Ornamental Grasses Transforms a Southern California Garden

Magazine article Sunset

Fantasy in Grass: A Love Affair with Ornamental Grasses Transforms a Southern California Garden

Article excerpt

Walking into the wildly romantic garden that surrounds - some might say engulfs - John Greenlee's house is like stepping into Henri Rousseau's painting The Dream. Isn't that one of Rousseau's startled lions poking its head out from behind Greenlee's stand of golden bamboo? No. Moving closer, we find it's only a rusty metal sculpture. The sculpture is the first of many pieces that lie half-hidden in Greenlee's verdant jungle, like clues to a mystery. One of the clues is a portable sculpture - an abandoned vintage lawn mower with an attached stylized head that wears a devilish grin. It's easy to imagine that the head is mocking the machine. And if it is, it's an apt metaphor for Greenlee's horticultural mission. But more about that later.

First we venture deeper into the tangle of green. What's that ahead, dangling from the trees? Aren't those cannonball-size fruit the same out-of-scale oranges Rousseau painted? No, if anything, they're stranger. They're golden Victorian gazing globes, objects we're accustomed to seeing mounted firmly to pedestals rather than suspended from tree limbs. And look, there in that open-sided utility shed. Could that be a mermaid on the grass-skirted bed? Of course not. Just because Greenlee calls this structure the "Mermaid House" doesn't mean she's real. She's just a figment of our imagination stimulated by the fantasy around us. Isn't she?

Greenlee is the founder of Greenlee Nursery in Pomona, California, and author of The Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses (Rodale Press, Emmaus, PA, 1992; $29.95). The first nurseryman on the West Coast to laud the virtues of ornamental grasses in the landscape, Greenlee has more recently been in the vanguard of the movement to replace water- and chemical-dependent turf grasses with more self-sustaining native grasses and sedges. It's time to knock the habit of evergreen turf, he maintains. It's an unnatural act, and exacts too steep a price, he says. We pump tons of fertilizer into the earth to make the grass grow, and drench the soil with herbicides and pesticides so nothing else will. Then we mow it all down and start over. The "jack it, gack it, and whack it" syndrome, he calls it.

Greenlee urges people to liberate themselves from the perpetual care of a traditional lawn, and spend the time unleashing their garden fantasies. Abandon the mower, and make room for mermaids.


To most of us, a meadow is at least an acre large. But to John Greenlee, alias "The Grassman," a meadow is in the mind. Even a narrow parkway strip or tiny island surrounded by flower beds can evoke the feeling of a meadow if it's planted with the right grasses, says Greenlee. …

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