Glenn Johnson & The South Pacific Greens

Words by
Sally Wilson
Images by
Nicole Reed
| May 10, 2016

Glenn Johnson’s head appears through a thick curtain of Spanish moss: first you notice the white bucket hat, then the outdoors tan, a reflective pair of aviator sunnies and a Ned Kelly beard and moustache. Based on appearances you’d probably take Glenn as the star in this mid-air collision of man and plant. But if you did you’d be mistaken.

“I’m the guy who collects huge bags of leaves to throw under a car so they swirl up as it drives away,” he explains in deadpan fashion. “I’m the guy with the leafy branch to put over the lights to give a dappled effect. I’m the guy with a handy shrub to cover up a road sign off in the distance. I’m the guy who dulls leaves with spray paint if they’re too shiny under lights.”

In other words, it’s the weedy, silver moss hanging from a string tied between the metal posts of a lean-to side verandah that can claim real stardom, and multiple on-screen roles in TV and movies. Glenn’s more like the man in the middle, the stage parent, an agent to the A-list – which in this case are his collection of 3,000-odd potted and hanging plants, all kept in the backyard of the Johnson family home in Preston.

But let’s go back a few steps, because a plant collection of this magnitude needs to start somewhere. For Glenn it all began on the fairways and greens of a golf course in Sydney, where he worked as a horticultural apprentice from the age of sixteen. Later he moved to Melbourne, joined the team at Fitzroy Nursery, and there amid the espaliered lemons and the Japanese maples he was first charmed by the individual character traits of plants. He began collecting, very seriously.

I have lots of small collections of ‘things’ but they just collect dust. My plants are different. They’re living things that need my care. They grow and evolve. They change with the seasons. They have the ability to completely change a space, and bring it to life.”

Three thousand plants and two kids later, Glenn and his wife Beth run South Pacific Greens, which is perhaps best described as a talent agency for plants. “South Pacific Greens is a way to incorporate all the numerous, creative plant-based projects I do,” says Glenn by way of explanation. “Starting work on films as a greensman opened my eyes to the fact that not everyone needs perfect nursery-new fashionable plants. They also need rough, old gnarly pot plants with shitty grass clumps and weeds hanging out of them. Often. So I have a home based nursery, in Preston, with a variety of interesting stock you can’t find in a retail nursery, available to hire.”

Old gnarly pot plants and shitty grass clumps are highly sought after in the film industry – fact. Have you ever wondered how Baz Luhrmann achieves on-screen authenticity? It’s not thanks to Nicole Kidman and her rakish good looks, but one or two well-placed character plants will do it, along with a skilled greensman to primp and preen them. On film sets, Glenn is that man, a lesser-known member of the art department concerned wholly with set building using dirt, rocks and plants.

In the past he’s created outback scenes for Luhrmann, wild backdrops for Spike Jonze, built worlds for Hugh Jackman (as Wolverine) to rage within, and raised entire cornfields using only cordylines, in the middle of a Melbourne winter.

But most days you’ll find Glenn up at the crack of dawn in his garden, watering and tending to his unruly gang of plants. “Then the two apprentices wake up and demand Weet-Bix, so the dad hat goes on for a while,” he laughs, leaving the impression it’s the plants, not the kids, that are the high maintenance members of this extended family unit. The kids are Jed – four-and-a-half, as he’s quick to emphasise to his mum, Beth – and Manny, who’s nineteen months.

If the Johnson’s backyard, frontyard and interior is anything to go by, Glenn’s profession really carries over into their home-life. This is the kind of environment where bird’s nest ferns outsize lady finger palms and fiddle leaf figs, where potted African natives go trunk-to-trunk with Javanese rainforest trees, and philodendrons with tremendous aerial roots stand guard on the porch. A great place to be an apprentice, as Manny proves with a determined smile, black singlet top on and green watering can in hand.

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Beyond film work and his broad offering of hero plants, Glenn also keeps more standard hire stock, and occasionally works with cut flowers and foliage for events and creative installations. “In between big jobs, I love re-working domestic gardens,” he tells me. It’s a chance to keep the hands dirty and the mind alive, but often presents itself as a source for new additions to the plant collection too. “My favorites are my rescues, my salvage plants. I love giving them a second chance after someone else has given up, or lost interest.”

One is an olive tree I salvaged from a garden clean up that I did years ago. The client said it was dead. It only had 3 leaves. Now it produces beautifully. And I shaped it into the most amazing little tree. It makes me happy whenever I look at it.”

Another is a kapok tree (Ceiba pentandra) Glenn planted in the garden of their previous rental home. “Our landlord decided to sell and we shifted out after 12 years. We drove past months afterwards to see renovations in progress and my kapok tree sticking out of a skip from under a bathtub. I managed to get it out, and got cheers from the neighbours, which was nice. We brought it home, and a year later it’s looking fantastic again.”

There’s more than one tree out there that owes its life to Glenn. He’s one who revels in the challenges of working with plants, both on and off-set: providing the constant water they need, the liquid fertilizer, dealing with their growth spurts, their tantrums, silence and seasonal mood swings. “People generally come to me with an idea, and I make it happen,” says Glenn. “Sometimes they ask for the impossible, but I always find a way.”

Glenn and Beth Johnson own and operate South Pacific Greens. You can visit their website and also follow them on Instagram.

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