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The Dry Garden: John Greenlee, 'American Meadow' and the crusade against the American lawn


California nurseryman John Greenlee has a new book, “The American Meadow Garden: Creating a Natural Alternative to the Traditional Lawn.”


It should be yay. In 1987, he created what is now the oldest specialty grass nursery on the West Coast. Greenlee Nursery, first in Pomona and now in Chino, is where artist Robert Irwin went when landscaping the grounds of the Getty Center. During the last 22 years, as a nurseryman, garden designer and writer, Greenlee has emerged as the single most recognizable voice of the Western anti-lawn movement.

As voices go, it’s a cheeky one. If you recall a quote in the L.A. Times in which homeowners with lawns were called “eco-terrorists,” that was Greenlee.

The signature flippancy is muted in this new book. In its stead, he asks, “Why plant a bad lawn when you can plant a good meadow?”

Given the rising recognition of the role of lawn in region-wide water shortages, the time has never been more ripe for Southern Californians to finally listen. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is even paying homeowners $1 per square foot to rip out lawn. The potential savings on mow-and-blow fees alone should send Southern Californians clamoring for this new book from


Timber Press.

Yet “The American Meadow Garden” has a problem. It isn’t aimed at most homeowners. Page after page, photo after photo, Greenlee celebrates parks and park-like estates from California to Maryland. This isn’t a book for those of us with a tract house on an eighth of an acre. This is a book for people who live in “residences” in Montecito, Malibu and Napa Valley and whose massive grounds have been treated by $200-an-hour garden designers.

There is so little attention given to urban Southern California homes that you could miss the few photographs of smaller, sedge-matted green spaces whose captions identify them as city gardens. These are featured without any of the context of sidewalks, parking strips and, most tricky of all when challenging lawn culture, the neighboring properties.

Greenlee’s recommendations of invasive plants such as Mexican feather grass will drive conservationists nuts and fill homeowners with regret. Invasive plants are not just a wilderness-protection issue, unless you live to weed.

There are informational boxes with genuinely useful notes on the plants in this book, but for a text on how to choose grasses and grass-like plants, and to understand their habits and qualities, a far better source is the 1992 Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses. That it is also by Greenlee only underscores the slightness of the new volume.

Maybe it should not be surprising that after more than 20 years of leading a movement, Greenlee has missed an opportunity. Just as his ideas about moving away from lawn to more natural grass-scapes gain mainstream acceptance, his new book fails to lead the transition. Trailblazers — and Greenlee was surely that — often don’t implement their ideas. They inspire.

Whatever the reason, those looking to switch from lawn to meadow will be far more profitably served elsewhere. One excellent source is the website of the Lawn Reform Coalition. This alliance isn’t embarrassed by our lack of acreage, parkways, telephone poles and limited means. It’s out to help.

Note: Before using any ornamental grass, be sure to check the California Invasive Plant Council reference.

-- Emily Green

Green’s column on low-water gardening appears here weekly on our L.A. at Home blog. She also writes on water issues at www.chanceofrain.com

Photo: John Greenlee in 2005, when he operated his nursery in Pomona.

Photo credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times


Experimental Pomona landscape closes.

Photo gallery: A secret garden in Pomona.

Comments () | Archives (6)

The comments to this entry are closed.

A dry garden makes sense for water conservation, but isn't that just another chance for wildfires to burn down houses or spread quickly from one spot to another.

I am the photographer who partnered with John Greenlee and I must take exception to your comments that imply there is little information for urban Southern California gardeners. Not only do I take exception, I am rather astonished you do not notice that for a book with a national audience, it is almost embarrassingly biased toward California. In fact Southern California has the highest percentage of garden photographs of any area in the country.

If you were reviewing for a newspaper in Seattle, Chicago or Atlanta your concerns that the book does not give enough attention to local readers would be a valid one, but for a reviewer in Los Angeles to not see the relevance makes me think there is some other reason you are not thrilled to see a book with such an obvious California bias. Perhaps you would rather the book was written by a conservationist or native plant enthusiast rather than a designer and nurseryman ?

And there are many small meadow gardens to inspire Southern California gardeners with limited space: pages 20, 23 , 24, 27, 34, 38, 58 , 61, 64 (2), 68 . . . and that is only up to chapter 4. True, not all the captions tell the reader where the photos were taken, but someone as knowledgeable as yourself should recognize these examples to better benefit your audience who might not be able to tell what region the photographs represent.

I admit there are few photographs the parking strips and sidewalks, which CAN provide useful context, but my job is to inspire readers with success stories not snapshots on a website. The photo on page 61 for example (in Calabasas), I am literally on the sidewalk looking into a garden about 12 paces from the street to the house. I often use wide angle lenses that tend to make gardens look larger than they are; but rather than criticize this technique, I would hope a reviewer would recognize the potential to inspire rather than think the reader must see sidewalks and parking strips to get relevant information.

I believe you have done a disservice to Southern California gardeners who too seldom get to have a national book give them any useful advice, a disservice by not recognizing The American Meadow Garden is a book that can inspire the crusade against the American lawn, especially the Western lawn.

I think all comments are relevant, including the article itself. Sure the article may be biased towards the wealthy elite but like Saxon says, showing the sidewalks and strip malls does not inspire the imagination. While this notion of the crusade against the American lawn is new to me I think books like Greenlee's should be viewed with a certain amount of lattitude-- because this is NOT a book about conservation or native plants-- it is a book of design.

Emily Green is so far off base on her review of the book that Saxon Holt and I have just released I feel compelled to respond.

Yes Emily, I do work for a lot of rich people. The wealthy have always been patrons of the arts and thank god for it! But why should only the rich have meadows? Since the big box stores don’t seem to be motivated to promote meadows over chemical requiring, water guzzling, pollution causing lawns, I thought I would contribute to solving these problems. Emily, you’ve got to start somewhere. I really cannot believe you are criticizing me for trying to help southern California get away from lawns.

All that aside, Emily Green is like the many other well-meaning native plant zealots, who cannot see the forest for the trees. Too often native plant kooks, on a quest for botanical Jihad, shoot themselves in the foot by focusing on a negative finger wagging, instead of picking and choosing their battles. Its clear that Emily has not read the book, because Mexican Feather grass has appropriate use throughout the southwest and is far better for the environment than pollution causing lawns. Come to think of it, she even criticizes Saxon Holt for trying to inspire people with pictures of nature. Emily Green and her misguided ilk are doing nothing to help change the paradigm. They are only contributing to people’s rejection of ecologically sound gardening by being so negative. Sorry Emily, you cannot turn Mr. Peabody’s way back machine to pre-European settlement. Natives have their place, but you need to admit that natives alone are not going to fix our ruined ecology. Our book is full of native California grasses and sedges that can help transform Southern California gardens. But it also has non-native solutions and they have their roles to play as well.

Next time you review a book, I suggest you read it and look at the pictures.

P.S. Since you are name dropping for the record I was the one who talked Robert Irwin out of using Pennisetum setaceum at the Getty Museum.
(Remember this is the guy who bragged he knew nothing about plants.) I talked him into using our native deer grass, Muhlenbergia rigens.

P.S.S. There are several photos of Sam Zell’s Los Angeles garden. In case you did not know, he owns the LA Times. At least he is trying to help!

P.S.S.S. If you and any of your native plant bullies want to debate, you’re on! Seriously, you come off like Glen Beck.

I am very disappointed in the review of John Greenlee's wonderful new book on meadows. I love that it begins showing examples of meadows from all over the United States, some on public and some on private land. Then it provides directions for creating and maintaining a meadow, along with recommended plant lists with photos.

I have already recommended this book to many people and find it the perfect guide to converting a space of any size into a beautiful garden. Personally I found it filled with great advice on how to maintain our meadow garden. The photographs are clear and precise. I believe that John's experience teaching and working with media such as Sunset magazine is reflected in the complete directions.

I had wanted to make a meadow garden for 15 years. When we had the chance to convert our back lawn in Fullerton, CA I took out my thick file filled with articles on lawn alternatives. Guess what? All of the articles were about John's quest to replace lawns with alternative grasses and flowers.

We live on slightly less than a quarter acre, filled with the typical small house, two car garage with driveway, and covered patio. Three years ago we were lucky to be able to hire John as a consultant on our design, and found him encouraging and inspirational. He taught us how to remove the lawn, prepare the soil, and plan plant placement. Now we have a beautiful meadow filled with 15 types of ornamental grasses, the shortest is 6 inches, and the tallest is ten feet. Interspersed are wildflowers, bulbs, and native plants. The property is edged with roses, shrubs, and trees.

You can see for yourself because Saxon Holt photographed plants in our garden and they are in The American Meadow Garden pages 202, 210, and 216. John's ideas worked great in our small space. We love it!

"Feather grass has appropriate use throughout the southwest and is far better for the environment than pollution causing lawns." Really?

Are there any research-based studies to support this claim?

I refer you to the web site of the Nevada Cooperative Extension.


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