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
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
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