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Home > Products > Grass Page > The Grassman

  The Grassman - Can John Greenlee do away with the lawn?

An article by Wade Graham
from The New Yorker, August 19, 1996

It would be hard to find a more problematic index of what being American means than our feelings about lawns. Lawns cover some fifty thousand square miles of the surface of the United States--an area roughly equal to Pennsylvania, and larger than that occupied by any agricultural crop. Spread thick like margarine over the landscape from sea to shining sea, the lawn--more than cows, corn, or blue hydrangeas--is the key ingredient in the Stepford-like biological monotony that defines suburban America. Ideally, it looks the same in Palm Springs and Bangor: soothing, orderly, reliable, and, above all, green.

Each year, to maintain this American quilt, we spend thirty billion dollars, an investment whose complexity is in inverse proportion to the monoculture it sustains. The lawn industry is only tangentially about grass. At base it is a stunningly elaborate enabler of petrochemical addiction. Most lawn grasses like to get a foot or two tall, flower, turn brown, and then either die or lie dormant at the end of each season. To keep that from happening requires assiduous abuse. We provoke the grass to grow, which happens to make it susceptible to invasion and disease, then we cut it. Then we start again. Consider the network of petrochemical inputs we use to keep the national sward green: the gasoline-fuelled tractors and bulldozers that first scrape the topsoil off the home site; the genetically engineered seeds and sods; the fertilizers; the pesticides that keep it free of insect life; the herbicides that keep it free of "bad" plants, like dandelions and clover; the mercury-based fungicides that kill the microbes and the earthworms and keep the dirt under the grass from becoming soil; the mower, the blower, the edger, and the trucks that haul the crews and the clippings to the landfill; the power plants that pump the water through the deserts to the sprinklers. In the East, an estimated thirty per cent of municipal water ends up on the lawn; in the West, about sixty per cent. In 1990, we poured an estimated seventy million pounds of -cides (not counting fertilizers) on our lawns. Most end up in the water supply.

By one measure, the lawn is a triumph of the diversified American economy, and we should therefore be proud of it, even if the regime of lawn culture is a bit sadistic. Fertilize, sterilize, mow--forever, Or, as John Greenlee, a leading critic of lawn culture and a spokesman for what has come to be known as the natural-gardening movement, described it to me, "Jack it, gack it, and whack it." This was the approach dinned into him when he was a horticulture student in the mid-seventies at the California State Polytechnic University, in Pomona.

"When I was in school, it was definitely Better Living Through Chemistry," he told me early this summer as we drove through the fields around Oxnard, California, one of the richest vegetable and lawn-sod farming regions in the country. In the billiard-table-flat sod fields zipping by the window, Rain Hirds shot tracerlike spokes of water into the night. Overhead, a gray plume from a Procter & Gamble factory twisted, glowing with the lights of the freshly minted housing tracts that nibbled at the margins of the fields like misshapen teeth. "My instructors at Cal Poly taught us to use every chemical known to man--methyl bromide; Treflan; Surflan; 2, 4-D; 2, 4, 5-T--by the ton," Greenlee recalled. "One of our responsibilities in the greenhouses was spraying soil pesticides: suited up head to toe in rubber with a hose, like a fireman, you just blasted away at everything in sight.

America has not always been a lawn. Walt Whitman called it "the grassfields of the world!" in "Leaves of Grass." The young nation's newly acquired continent was covered in the stuff, and Whitman was quick to see its larger significance: the limitless expanses of waving prairie defiantly promised freedom from European strictures and small-mindedness. Grass was rampant, pungent, musical; it was an untamed, unrestrained, self-renewing _force_. "The smallest sprout shows there is really no death," Whitman wrote. And one thing is sure: his leaves of grass were not hacked off at the base; they were not mowed.

But, while Whitman sang, others labored, mapping the suburbia that would fill up the spaces left by the slaughtered buffalo and the plowed plains. In 1830, the first practical lawnmower was patented, and it was quickly put to use to shape grass into a new emblem of civic virtue. Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, Frederick Law Olmsted and his architect Calvert Vaux got rich taking the artificial, labor-intensive greenswards of English estates and bringing them to the masses, making them the central conceit of their planned suburbs and Gothic-theme city parks. Frank J. Scott, in his influential 1870 book "The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds," prescribed a "smooth, closely-shaven" lawn as "by far the most essential element of beauty on the grounds of a suburban house." In defiance of the English custom of walling or hedging home gardens, Scott ordained that the lawn serve as a tablecloth on which to present an unobstructed view of one's house to passersby--a guarantee of democratic candor and transparency. "It is unchristian," he wrote," to hedge from the sight of others the beauties of nature which it has been our good fortune to create or secure." Nature? Scott's formula consummated the perfect Puritan repression of the wild landscape: no privacy, no sex.

When John Greenlee finished his academic horticultural studies, in 1978, he started a landscaping-and-lawn-care business. At first, he stuck with the conventional routine--what he now calls "Mow, blow, and go"--and pumped on the chemicals, just as he'd been taught. Before long, he got bored with trying to achieve the greenest, most velvety tablecloths in the neighborhood. His epiphany came one summer evening in 1984 at a nursery in Baltimore owned by Kurt Bluemel, a German who specialized in bringing garden grasses, many developed in Germany, to this country. Bluemel was growing _ornamental_ grasses: gigantic, multicolored creatures that could go toe to toe in the periennial border with the gaudiest rose or peony. And they were environ- mentally friendly, needing fewer chemical inputs and sustaining far more biodiversity than most ornamental plants.

"It just hit me," Greenlee recalls. "I got it. I understood. I saw the flowerheads, saw the plant as a whole and not just as Astroturf. It was an incredible cultural leap." Forget about chemically addicted lawns and flower borders, he decided; we can make gardens with the grasses--or better yet, we can make flowering meadows instead of gardens. Greenlee dropped everything to begin growing ornamental grasses commercially at his home in Pomona. He took to the lecture circuit, preaching the new grass gospel to garden clubs and anyone else who would listen. In 1992, he published "The Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses," and in horticultural circles he became known as "the Grassman."

During these years, in Washington, D.C., a dynamic pair of landscape architects who had trained in Germany and Holland, Wolfgang Oehme and James van Sweden, were causing a stir with untraditional gardens that featured tall flowering grasses. Even more unthinkable, they insisted that these should be left standing, skeletons dusted with snow, throughout the winter months. Oehme and van Sweden's naturalistic style was heralded as "the New American Garden," and their grasses could soon be seen waving boldly in the nation's capital along Pennsylvania Avenue, and in lower Manhattan at Battery Park City.

A revolution was in the making, and nonprofessional gardeners, too, began to raise their voices. Michael Pollan, in his 1991 book, "Second Nature," wrote, "The democratic system can cope with the non-voter far more easily than the democratic landscape can cope with the non-mower. A single unmowed lawn ruins the whole effect, announcing to the world that all is not well here in utopia."

The message of the anti-lawn movement was simple: get rid of the damn thing (preferably with Roundup, the first good chemical defoliant, because, after it kills everything it touches, it conveniently biodegrades) and plant something else. Or just let it all revert to wilderness. Some landscape designers followed this prescription. "Wild" gardens were planted in which no straight lines were tolerated. Instant-prairie seed mixes were spread in the back yard. Martha Stewart--naturally--got into it. In her 1995 cookbook, she instructed us to bake our hamns over a bed of grass "cut... very early in the morning while the dew is still evident." Inevitably, the lawn patrol fought back. Non-mowers were taken to court by indignant neighbors under local ordinances that declared grass exceeding twelve inches to be a "menace to public health."

Meanwhile, John Greenlee has moved on. Three years ago, he addressed a lawn-industry convention in Las Vegas, during which he bluntly disparaged the perevious speaker, a dinosaur-era Turf Man. When Greenlee stepped down, he was confronted by his nemesis, who turned out to be the vice-president of a major lawnmower manufacturer. Spittle flying, the vice-president demanded, "What about the _snakes_?" The Grassman's defiant reply was "Exactly! What _about_ the snakes? Where have all the toads gone? And the songbirds? We need snakes--snakes are nature. But everything is dead, for Christ's sake. You've killed it!"

Afterward, sitting at a table ready to sign copies of his book, Greenlee was a pariah: no one would come near him. He began to wonder if maybe the guy had a point about the snakes. There were a few problems with the meadow thing: Sure, you din't have to mow it, but there _was_ nastiness lurking in all that tall grass--if not snakes, then deer ticks. And, as a Westerner, Greenlee had to admit to the danger of fire. Many grasses, especially when dormant and dry, are highly flammable. Fire is part of their ecology. Grasslands are firelands, holding competing woody plants at bay.

Eventually, it came to Greenlee: Americans have to have some sort of lawn. How, in tinder-dry August, could you grill hot dogs on the Weber in your meadow without incinerating the house? Perhaps, he reflected, the natural- gardening movement had become too absolutist. There had to be a third way: a way to reinvent the lawn, to bring it back _into_ nature. The botanist in him asked, If grasses can be big and floriferous, why can't they also be the opposite: low, self-effacing, and well-behaved? He knew that grasses in nature were extraordinarily tough, thriving in some of the harshest nvironments imaginable. Why were our lawn grasses--strains selected as the result of hundreds of millions of dollars in research--so perpetually thirsty, hungry, and disease-prone? Then it came to him: Our pampered lawns are not plants, they're _animals_. The distinction was crucial. Animals don't generate their own food, but plants do. Plants combine carbon dioxide, water, and sunlight to make a simple sugar. Photosynthesis. Either you can do it or you can't. If you can, you're a plant. If you can't, you're an animal.

Somewhere out there in nature, he reasoned, there had to be a grass that wasn't an animal, a grass that would be naturally low-growing, drought-tolerant, evergreen, and trapleable: a _natural_ lawn grass.

All this was explained to me while I was driving with Greenlee through the golden, oak-dotted hills of central California, in the early morning, looking for what seemed to me a nearly vanished species. When America ground its way westward, Grenlee pointed out, we devastated an enormously rich tapestry of grass ecologies, particularly since grasses tended to dominate the most attractive land: flat, fertile floodplains. We burned them off, plowed them under, skinned them with grazing animals, and spread aggressive, imported fodder grasses in the new pastures--species that had evolved for centuries in Europe with intense grazing, and consequently were able to overwhelm American species unused to such stress. Our native greasses, en masse, have largely disappeared.

Pointing at a parched hillside deeply striated with cattle trails, Greenlee said, "It's all gone. It's hammered." The severly munched tufts of grass clinging to the slope, he assured me, were "invasion species." Only a narrow strip of grass between the fence and the road--ungrazed--harbored any natives: tiny remnant patches, which he identified in Latin as we sped by. "There's _Elymus_, there's _Stipa_." That little piece is about the most you can expect to find." It all looked exactly alike to me: blond, dead grass, waving in the breeze. "It's the same all across the country," he continued. "Either overgrazed or plowed. If it was flat, it was plowed. If it was plowed, it's gone." Worst of all, he said, was the loss of the riparian areas, because in flood-prone, meandering rivers and strams were a host of interesting grasses. These included--most important--sedges (genus _Carex_), a group of hundreds of mostly unassuming, short, conventioanally ugly little things, chaotically niche-adapted but, more than most other groups of grasses, cabable of standing up to the stresses faced by a lawn grass. These, Greenlee said, are the "grails." "Mother Nature already has it figured out, she's on top of it. An ideal grail says, 'I'll just sit here, low to the ground. You can step on me anytime. Just give me some water.'" He pointed out a slight green line in a cleft between the hills, which was greener than the surrounding brown stubble. "That's where you'll find them, in the seeps, in the drainage ditches. You have to look in the soft bosoms of the land; the grails are in the swales."

For several years, Greenlee and a group of like-minded botanists and nurserymen, who call themselves the Prairie Dogs, have been engaged in what he describes as "missionary work in the devastated ecologies." They are looking for the toughest holdouts that might have survived the general slaughter. They are looking everywhere, because the grail will not be a single species-- it will be different in each region of the country, as it has adapted to distinct climates, soils, and stresses.

The Prairie Dogs look in streambeds, in ditches, and railroad sidings, in spaces in subdivisions where the builders might have neglected to stuff a house, in piles of sand behind shoppinng malls. Everywhere they go, they stumble over it. In Atlanta, while admiring someone's perennial border, Greenlee noticed that the lawn he was standing on was in fact a clean panel of sedge. He asked the owner, a knowledgeable horticulturalist, what it was, but the man had no idea. All he knew was that he almost never had to mow it. As it turned out, the houses had been built before the era of bulldozers, and so the site had never been stripped clean. The local sedge had survived intact and, in time, had taken over the lawn as its own domain. It was beautiful. The Prairie Dogs found _Carex_ Balitmoe, or Hilltop Sedge, hunkered down in the lawn of an old church in Towson, Maryland. It was a small miracle of benign neglect: the caretakers had never taken enough interest in the state of their turf to spread herbicide on it. In strips of left-over scrub between million-dollar Malibu beach houses, Greenlee has encountered lonely tufts of native salt grass, _Distichlis spicata_.

At his Pomona nursery, Greenlee has started the long process of turning the specimens he's collected into actual lawns. Without the resources to mass-produce them by cloning, he has had to proceed by division, sometimes starting by tearing each clump into several clumps, then waiting patiently until he can divide them again. Most of the time, he simply plugs the tufts into the ground and purposefully forgets about them. Over time, he hopes, the tufts will become panels. "In evaluating a specimen's hardiness," he says, "you have to torture it in the nursery to see what it will do for the average homeowner." Durability is not the only criterion. "The lawn is a state of mind. It's cartoon nature, Disney nature. It has to be the right color. No one wants to look at a grass that isn't green. It has to be low; it can't flop over like a bad-hair day. It has to be inviting, lush, romantic: it has to call you into its bosom. It can't be invasive. And it can't be susceptible to invasion."

By the aesthetic standards of traditional lawn culture, even the grail grasses may, in the end, seem less than ideal. Greenlee conceeds that for the natural lawn to become the national lawn, a seismic shift in our subconscious turf ideal will become necessary. Before we can fully welcome nature back into culture, we will have to learn to accept more of it into our lawns, and this will mean being able to appreciate a certain amount of eccentricity-- irregularity of blades, motly shades of green, even a little crispy dormancy in winter.

For this to happen, Mother Nature may require some outside help. "There's nature, and then there's horticulture," Greenlee says. "Maybe the grail won't be in nature, maybe we'll get it by crossing the Seattle sedge with the Baltimore sedge and back-crossing it with something else." As we picked our way throught the overgrazed hills, the Grassman had a brief reverie. "We'll get the lowest, darkest, cyberuber, dog-urine-proof _Carex_," he muttered. "Then we'll tissue-culture it and produce it by the billions. Or maybe we won't. But I'm an optimist."