Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Spontaneous Gardens: The Next Frontier in Green Design?

Is the ultimate strategy in green garden planting not to plant at all? The concept of spontaneous gardens--gardens that emerge without human intervention--is a relatively new concept in America, but one that has potential to change the way we garden.

Most gardeners spend quite a bit of energy combating "spontaneous vegetation." Unless it happens in a forest or a meadow, spontaneously occuring vegetation in human landscapes is not welcome. I spent an hour last weekend mercilessly attacking Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) and Yellow Woodsorrel (Oxalis stricta) in one of my gardens. But earlier this morning, I was blown away by the most beautiful drifts of purple-blooming Henbit and Ground Ivy along the George Washington Parkway. In the urban setting it was a pest; in a more pastoral setting, it was a wildflower.

When you strip away the cultural baggage and consider these plants purely from their ecological function, a new picture emerges. Spontaneously occuring vegetation reduces urban temperatures, provides food and habitat for wildlife, prevents erosion, builds soil, and often performs phytoremediation. In addition, the act of creating and maintaining a spontaneous garden is a completely sustainable process. It requires almost no soil preparation, allows the plant to pick the site, needs no fertilizers or other inputs, and is ridiculously low maintenance.

While the concept of spontaneous gardening resides at the fringes of the American gardening scene, Europeans have worked at the concept for decades. The book The Dynamic Landscape, edited by Nigel Dunnett and James Hitchmough, is a collection of essays that teach strategies for manipulating spontaneous vegetation to create more pleasing human landscapes. A central theme of the book is allowing spontaneous to flourish, but selectively adding or subtracting species to create desired effects. Very similar to the maintenance strategies of meadows (River Farm meadow pictured below). The planting strategies are based on strong ecological research into meadow and grassland maintenance.

When it comes to planting design and gardening, I am a control freak. The idea of waiting for weeds to take over my prized lot, and then only doing minor tweaks to it makes me insane. But two recent revelations have started to change my mind. First, I used to pass an abandoned yard in Capitol Hill on my way to work every morning. It was a lawn that had gone fallow. Left alone, it was by far the most interesting and beautiful yard I passed. The drifts of clover and buckhorn plantain floated gracefully among the inflorescences of grasses. Pollinators swarmed. I spent more time staring at that dumb lot than any of the other skillfully maintained gardens.

Second, as a planting designer, I spend several hours a day meticulously designing planting plans to look natural. It's hard. In fact, it's damn hard to pull that off without looking contrived or ridiculous. It takes thoughtfully developing strong gestures, then carefully creating layers of interest, balancing grasses with forbs and woodies, creating texture and contrast, then thinking through the seasons of bloom. And to be completely honest, the end result fails as often as it succeeds.

One of the more inspiring landscapes I've seen recently is Piet Oudolf's design for the Highline. He uses a highly designed planting to mimic the quality of the spontaneous vegetation that dominated the abandoned rail track. It is remarkable precisely because it is so reminiscent of the abandoned rail tracks.

It's the realization that all of my efforts at planting design--even the most inspiring planting I've seen--are all aimed at having that certain quality, the je ne sais quoi, of naturalness. Not an imitation of nature, mind you, but an effervescent interpretation of it. The great irony is that creating easy, loose-looking landscapes requires working a design to death.
So maybe there's something to this spontaneous garden thing. Maybe my great crusade to get American gardens to loosen up should start with me. Let those weeds go. Create a "Freedom Lawn." Or a spontaneous green roof. Or throw some seed bombs and see what happens. The lessons from the mean and gritty world of urban ecology might just teach us how to flourish in the future.


  1. Hi Thomas,

    I have to admit that I'm loosening up, but only because I can't keep up the meticulous approach I've had since I began to garden 'seriously'.. being a Type A and a plant geek. I've always photographed my gardens - small plots, both of them - for articles and columns, and felt the pressure for the garden to be ready for a photo op on any given day.

    I'd assume as a landscape architect that you'd be a 'control freak.'

    Enjoying what you have to say here - pondering the notion of becoming more spontaneous. Although the jury is out, I may just be getting to the point of letting spontaneity into my life as a garden-maker.
    p.s....thanks for the 'faves' on Blotanical. Alice

  2. A more-sustainable garden has fewer inputs and fewer outputs than a less-sustainable garden.Practice rainwater harvesting. Water should be collected from roofs and pavements, stored in gardens and infiltrated into the soil, slowly.Making compost should be part of the routine in every garden, even if it is no larger than a window box. Items which cannot be composted domestically (eg wood) should be composted municipally.
    Cheap Web Design

  3. Oh, thank you. I can now call my lawn a 'Freedom Lawn' which it is and has been. Released from chemicals and just a mowing here and there, the ajuga flourishes along with a bit of bluegrass, fescue, clover, and dare I say it, crabgrass. Freedom grass. I will give you credit for the term.

  4. My husband is intent on purchasing chemical weed killer for the front lawn, but it's so small, I'm all about hand-pulling. Besides, there are sweet little blue flowers appearing randomly.

    Today he mowed it (ridiculous since it's not even growing) and I'm trying to figure out how to talk him out of the weed killer. Already told him last season that I prefer dandelions over breast cancer; he seems to have forgotten that.

  5. I have recently discovered your blog (thanks to Garden Designer's Roundtable) and am loving the questions and observations that drive your design. As a designer trained specifically in Sustainable Design (less sure what that means these days), I am loving the questions and less willing to provide the answers. In my own gardens when spontaneous vegetation arises, I ask the question- why here? and sometimes that evolves or devolves into a conversation with the plant and the site and then my design becomes judicious editing at best. Thanks again for your thought provoking blogging.


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