Crimes against nature? A garden rant

Baby and I visited the home of a potential customer yesterday, a woman about my mother’s age, that age when gardens tend to get away from one once and for all. She’d approached us at City Market complaining that the rain and heat had created a perfect storm of weeds in her yard, so as we drove up to her house–located on a lovely, secluded street of historic and newer homes shaded by towering tulip poplars, maples, and oaks–I kept looking for signs of disorder. You know, exploding hedges, overgrown flower beds, rioting weeds.

Crime scene tape. You might think I'm exaggerating, but seriously--I could string the stuff all over town.

Crime scene tape. You might think I’m exaggerating, but seriously–I could string the stuff all over town.

Well, it was a little like visiting the friend with the spotless house who’s always apologizing about dust. Her front yard was a vision of order. To the left of the front door were ranked rows of boxwoods, about three feet tall and wide, sheared into perfect snowcones. To the right was a mixed hedge of boxwood, azalea, and acuba, grown into a single mass and molded by hedge trimmer into a seamless, undulating cube roughly the size and shape of a camelback sofa.

Marc and I didn’t speak–we hardly dared meet each other’s eyes as the prospect marched us up and down a magnificent processional landscape, pointing out five or six areas, inaccessible by mower, where troublesome weeds or unwanted plants persisted. These seemed quite manageable and interested us very little. Our eyes kept returning, appalled, to those lovely, mature shrubs, some as much as eight feet tall and wide, that had been methodically, and for decades, sheared into shapes from a child’s Play-Doh kit.

A couple of times, I tried to speak up. Diffidently, I offered some thoughts about composting, buffering the stream at the back of the property, even (greatly daring) pruning the gumdrop shrubs. To no avail. She wanted weed whacking. We don’t even own a weed whacker. As the conversation progressed, it became clear we were having, as in that recurring bit from Cool Hand Luke, a failure to communicate.

This is not terribly uncommon in Marc’s line of work. He’s always complaining about the inadequacy of the language used to describe people who work with plants. “Horticulture used to be part of the American culture–not anymore. Tell someone you’re a landscape contractor, and they ask how many lawns you do,” I’ve heard him say with bitterness on more than one occasion. Indeed, the world of people who understand two-cycle engines is vast; that of people who understand the care and handling of plants is comparatively small.

Not only are these firethorn bushes (pyracantha) recognizable as such--they also no longer have flowers or fruit due to extreme shearing.

Not only are these firethorn bushes (pyracantha) unrecognizable as such–they also no longer have flowers or fruit due to extreme shearing.

Rarely, though, has the divide that separates the understanding he and I share from most folks’ been so clearly drawn as yesterday, when I stood on that dear woman’s lawn trying to explain that the plants her “yard man” had tended so sedulously over so many years had not, in fact, ever been pruned–they’d been sheared, but not pruned. Partly, it felt like a generation gap. My father looks at me with the same bewilderment when I try to talk to him about his obsession with the perfect lawn. Seriously, daddy, you are less than 1,000 yards from the marsh! All those fertilizers and herbicides? I promise you–they’re bad for the river! I’ve said the words more times than I can count. It’s so like talking to a wall that I’ve come to believe, somewhere in the Bill of Rights or the Declaration of Independence, there’s got to be something about the inalienable right to pursue happiness via the perfect lawn….

These junipers were planted way too close together, but the hedge trimmers run amok are adding insult to injury. Look closely and you can see the damage; those exposed stems may never leaf out again. And honestly, does this procession of green ottomans marching down a slope strike anyone as ... attractive?

These junipers were planted way too close together, but the hedge trimmers run amok are adding insult to injury. Look closely and you can see the damage; those exposed stems may never leaf out again. And honestly, does this procession of green ottomans marching down a slope strike anyone as … attractive?

Perhaps this encounter wouldn’t have struck me so profoundly had I not spent the last few days prepping for my fall class on “ecofeminism” by immersing myself in the life of Rachel Carson. You recall that name, of course–she was a marine biologist, one of the few trained female scientists of her era, who launched the modern environmental (and later the organic food) movement with Silent Spring (1962) about the dangers of our chemical romance with the powerful and now-banned pesticide DDT. I’d been marveling for days not just at the writing, which lit me up with envy at its eloquence, but also at the ideas, which were so fresh the book could have been published yesterday.

The "little lady who started the big war" over the environment, Rachel Carson.

The “little lady who started the big war” over the environment, Rachel Carson.

Carson had her foes, has them still. But chief among her contemporaries was Dr. Robert White-Stevens of the American Cyanamid Co., so “wild-eyed [and] loud-voiced” a critic that he seems to have been the chemical industry’s Wayne LaPierre. White-Stevens comes off a bit like a mad scientist in the 1963 CBS Reports documentary, “The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson,” when he asserts : “Miss Carson maintains that the balance of nature is a major force in the survival of man whereas … the modern scientist believes that man is steadily controlling nature.” [My italics.]

The words sounded so old-fashioned, so arrogant to me when I read and re-read them, but yesterday I realized, to see those words made flesh one need look no further than the average American yard, in which plants are placed in straight lines around buildings and property lines without regard for their mature height and spread, then sheared ruthlessly, continuously, and at great expense in time and fossil fuels for their entire lifetimes into cubes, lollipops, pincushions or whatever other shapes strike the customer’s fancy or the yard man’s skills… Nothing could be further from nature’s way. (“That’s not what azaleas look like…,” I heard Marc muttering under his breath during our walkaround.)

Driving home, we agreed we’d have to find someone with the requisite two-cycle equipment to help the poor woman out. But a fog of misgiving settled over the both of us and lingered; the blank wall of incomprehension we had encountered … was just so deeply disturbing. So I asked Marc, who’s not just my in-house horticulturist but a bit of historian, too, what he made of her yard–and the cookie cutter versions of it one sees, well, just about everywhere.

“Folks went in really big for that post-WWII. Pollarding. Topiary. All those European techniques you see on the grand estates,” he sighed. “But something got lost in the translation. People really didn’t understand the practices–and they sure didn’t understand the plants.” (Note to gardeners: Those growers’ tags in the nurseries, describing height and spread? They may be completely fictional. Always double-check with a trusted source, like Michael Dirr or one of the Taylor’s Guides.)

Marc thinks some folks who practice "crape murder"--or "topping" trees--may think they're "pollarding" them, a European practice since medieval times. The two have nothing in common--it's just mutilation and the plant may never recover.

Marc thinks some folks who practice “crape murder”–what I call “topping”–may think they’re “pollarding” them, a European practice since medieval times. The two have nothing in common–it’s just mutilation and the plant may never recover.

I chewed on that a while and thought about Marc’s gardens, which reflect a tectonic shift in taste and horticultural practice. Marc’s specialty is using native species and historic or beloved non-natives to create landscapes that recall the spontaneity of nature. It’s a design aesthetic of “dramatic artlessness” that may look as if it the garden “just grew,” but the trees, shrubs, and perennials are carefully chosen, deliberately placed, and periodically pruned to achieve their optimum size, shape, and health. Sure, hands-on care by the homeowner–or the yard man–is required in the hot season to keep down the weeds–but overall it’s a low-maintenance, no-mow approach that saves time, labor, and inputs of fossil fuel energy by simply … allowing the plant to be what it wants to be rather than forcing it into some preconceived mold.

We’re talking “naturalistic” vs. “formal” aesthetics, of course. But these aesthetics also express historical relationships as well as a philosophical/moral/ethical stance regarding humans and their relationship to non-human creation.

Unlike Dr. White-Stevens, I’m clear that I’m not–and that humans are not–“masters of creation.” Yes, I interfere with plants. I move them around and propagate them and even train them–grow them up into standard forms, create espaliers… OK, and I’ll be honest, sometimes I screw up–get busy with work or writing–and I kill them. But with the exception of the murders, which I deeply regret, these are things the plants and I do in relationship, to produce better flowers or fruit, to help the plants express their personality, their essence.

Sometimes there are justifiable reasons to grow or maintain a grand formal landscape–reasons related to historic preservation, for example, or instruction of the next generation of gardeners/nurserymen and -women in advanced horticultural techniques. What I object to is the blind, unthinking adherence to practices that are … just plain unnatural.

If you stop to think, really think about it, it requires an extravagant waste of time–an almost criminal waste of resources–to place nature under police state levels of surveillance and nuke it with chemicals, hack at it with gas-guzzling hedge trimmers, or lacerate it with poorly aimed weed whackers when the plants depart from an arbitrary human-imposed norm.

I want a partnership with Mother Nature, not a master-slave relationship. And I’m not the only one. Here are some great articles:

Note: The Stevens-White anecdote is from Arlene Quaratiello’s Rachel Carson: A Biography (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2010), pp. 129-30.

5 comments for “Crimes against nature? A garden rant

  1. August 7, 2013 at 5:42 pm

    Next time my husband complains that I’ve just plopped a plant down in the middle of the yard, I’m going to cite you & Mark and say I’m giving it room to be itself.

    Also, I should have you two over sometime for a wander through the yard to point out where I need to fix things.

  2. August 7, 2013 at 5:53 pm

    LOL! But that is the general idea. Give those babies room to breathe.

    Love to take a look. Marc’s specialty is evaluating the plants you already have and creating a design by moving them into the optimum location in the yard.

    A lot of times clients don’t have to buy a single new plant– unless they want to–because they’ve got such great stuff in the yard already. It’s just jammed up against the foundation where you can’t see it.

  3. August 7, 2013 at 6:19 pm

    I cannot believe those cone-like bushes. I just…there are no words. I come from a very live and let live method of gardening, which works quite well for herbs and flowers and much less well for my landscaping which, at the moment, is being menaced by pokeweed and kudzu. I do have some old boxwoods the were deeply damaged in the snow a few years back and I haven’t got ANY idea how/when to prune them to encourage them to fill out again. Is that the sort of question I could stop by the market with?

    • August 7, 2013 at 6:40 pm

      Love your blog, Meridith. And yes, boxwood repair is something Marc is very good at. What you have to do is prune out the dead, prune some more to encourage new growth, stake weaker branches to encourage them to grow where you want them to grow, then tie the whole thing together from the INSIDE with twine. Over the course of the following season the plant will knit together, the twine will rot off, and you won’t even be able to tell where the damage was. I watched him do this in Greenleaf Terrace with some boxwoods that were just ruined by those snowfalls in 2010. Three years on, they’re good as knew. You’d never know there had been a problem.

  4. August 7, 2013 at 6:45 pm

    Sometimes people leave comments on Facebook that just have to be shared. This is from my girlfriend Anjana who is wise in so many ways about so many things: “Forgive my lengthy response: Loved this blog and feel yours & Marc’s pain. However, I don’t think it’s as simple as being a generational thing. It may have something to do with class identification and the national shaming of all things “country/homey” during the post war capitalist expansion that was wed to a particular vision of modernism. I grew up in one of the larger NY area cities where many homeowners-black, white & other- grew veggies & often had fowl. In our working-middle class neighborhood, Mom traded tomatoes for concord grapes, etc. More upscale friends had lawns & unnatural hedges, but many still grew kitchen herbs & apartment dwellers grew tomatoes & herbs on the fire escapes or roofs, often the home of pigeon coops as well. People knew how to do things even when they chose not to, but they foolishly prided themselves on not passing down those skills. The Kool Aid was flowing, but a huge number of those kids started the back to the land movements.”

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