One - A POLEMIC
who would take over the earth
And shape it to their will
Never, I notice, succeed.
The earth is like a vessel so sacred
That at the mere approach of the profane
It is marred
And when they reach out their fingers, it is gone.
Lao Tzu (The Way of Life, ca. 550 b.c.)
terribly wrong with gardens. We apply harsh chemical fertilizers
to make plants grow, then we laboriously cut them back and
haul the trimmings to the dump. We plant things that arent
suited to local conditions; then we wonder why our water bills
are so high and gripe about having to spray for in-sects.
We struggle with weeds when an inch or two of mulch would
stop them. We poison our surroundings with pesticides, chemical
fertilizers, the exhaust from power equipment and other unnatural
substances, virtually none of which have been adequately tested
for human or animal toxicity. We destroy forests to make decks,
and mountains to make paths, and rivers to make gravel. We
plunder nature and force our bounty into unnatural forms that
require more and more resources to keep them going, becoming
more unstable and consumptive as they mature. To add insult
to injury, we create crudely imitative "naturalistic"
gardens that make a mockery of that which we have destroyed
to create them.
The sad fact is
that much of what we do in the garden is upside-down and backwards.
We use non-renewable resources first rather than last. We
whip out the pesticides before letting natural controls go
to work on insect problems. We escort precious rainwater off
our property as quickly as possible and replace it with an
expensive, inferior imported substitute. Our gardens waste
so many resources, create so many undesirable impacts on the
environment, demand so much extra care, and squander so much
money that only love can explain why we put up with them.
If our cars performed the way our gardens do, wed all
In blindly following
misguided traditions and in looking the other way at the impacts
of our efforts, we have created a situation that, though it
seems appealing enough to the casual eye, is unnecessarily
dysfunctional. Think about your own garden for a moment, and
ask yourself if it truly operates as an efficient system,
providing rich rewards with minimal demands. Think about the
things youd rather not have to do in your garden and
consider whether there might be a way to eliminate them. Even
the most enthusiastic gardener has a dreaded task or two thats
always waiting to be done. For some its weeding, for
others it might be shearing the hedges or mowing the lawn,
but in all cases, its some part of the gardening experience
that is perceived as being tedious, disheartening and minimally
What if those tasks were suddenly gone? In many
cases, if not most, they could be.
DID THIS HAPPEN?
history of horticulture would acknowledge that the art of
gardening began as a minimalist endeavor in a time when there
were no synthetic chemicals, no smog-belching lawn mowers,
no dioxin-saturated PVC pipe, and no industrial infrastructure
to bring a diversity of highly modified materials into the
garden and haul away its waste products. The garden was perforce
organic rather than chemically-dependent, simple rather than
complex, and productive rather than consumptive. It was operated
on a cyclical basis, making use of locally-available materials
and looping resources on the site through practices like composting
and water harvesting. Gardeners had an innate understanding
of natural systems and how to make them work to their advantage.
In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, "If you are a good organic
gardener, looking at a rose you can see the garbage, and looking
at the garbage you can see a rose."
As the industrial
revolution began to inform the garden, something started to
happen to the attitudes of gardeners. Suddenly it seemed easier
to waste than to conserve. After all, the garbage truck came
every few days, so why compost?
Besides, fertilizer was so
cheap that it seemed to make no sense to sift and spread and
muck about with smelly manure teas and all that bother. Gardeners
made a gradual and unconscious shift to the linear mode that
had begun to poison our relationship with nature: plunder
a resource, use it once, throw it away and go get some more.
The worlds bounty seemed so great that we felt freed,
by the grace of modern industrial processes, from ever having
to conserve anything again.
By the fifties
the transformation had become bizarre, and most gardeners,
along with most ordinary mortals, had gone completely incoherent.
They could be found telling one another to spray DDT every
week as a preventative measure, they planted things they had
no business growing in their soil and climate, and they kept
them alive with an arsenal of devices and potions that would
have made the Pentagon proud. The subsidization of the garden
was now nearly complete and it had been transformed from a
bucolic natural system to a rushing riverbed beneath the spillway
of American industrial output.
freed from the inconveniences of natural law, gardeners turned
their attention to appearances and began to construct ever-more-rarefied
gardens that placed an emphasis on beauty at the expense of
function. Good design came to mean "looks good,"
not "works well." The garden became a place of caprice
at any price, where displays of virtuosic plantsmanship and
ostentation to the point of ludicrousness could be carried
out in oblivious isolation from the real world.
Rather than coming
to their senses, gardeners on the whole seem to have grown
more self-indulgent over the passing years. Indeed, the situation
appears to become worse by the day as the fleeting robustness
of our economy drives the "garden as theme-park"
engine at ever higher RPMs.
As might be expected,
this approach has only worked up to a point, and over the
past few decades, the heavy hand of Gaia has parched our gardens
with cyclical droughts, burned them with passing wildfires,
visited upon them plagues of insects and diseases, and sent
us more than a few times to the mirror to face our follies.
Yet what have we really learned? We have made the odd adjustment
here and there, it is true: the science of "xeriscaping"
(apparently now moribund in the wake of El Niño) taught
us valuable lessons about water conservation; the development
of the "fire-wise" landscape has, in the rare instances
where it is truly practiced, saved houses from destruction;
and the impending dyspepsia of our bloated landfills has forced
gardeners back to the compost pile for the first time in many
Yet, none of this
addresses the real issue, which is, "How do we make the
garden function as a system?" Until we answer that question,
we will go on struggling, polluting, plundering and feeling
vague if not acute disappointment at the results of all our
work. Indeed, until we change our attitudes as well as our
practices, we cannot even begin the transformation to sustainable
I recently saw
a TV advertisement for a major chain of home improvement centers.
The protagonist was a suburban male poised at the beginning
of his weekly bout with the garden. Armed with every variety
of powered equipment -- a string trimmer, a blower, a mower,
a chainsaw, a hedge trimmer and all the snarling rest -- he
dove headlong into the vicious tangle that was his back yard.
After a pitched and noisy battle, he reappeared grinning in
the now-tamed-and-sanitized landscape, which he had once again
beaten into conformity with his middle-class sensibilities.
The ad closed with a pitch for the tools, of course, and a
dazzling array of corporate logos.
Is this the Shangri-la
that we dream of? Is it necessary to submit to this kind of
frantic indignity in order to have a garden? The answer, I
believe, is no. With the application of a bit of common sense
and some respect for the elegant workings of nature, which
we can turn to our advantage rather than stubbornly continuing
to fight a losing battle, we can have beautiful gardens that
give more than they take. That is the future of gardens. That
is the dream I want to share with you.
TWO-IMAGINING A BETTER GARDEN
Other Articles by Owen E. Dell