Friday, May 7, 2010

Are Gardens Natural?

The natural and sustainable gardening movement is all the rage the days, and for good reason. Gardens represent a golden opportunity to create ecologically productive areas in a time of great environmental decline. But all the talk about sustainability raises the question: are gardens ever really natural? And if not, what does that mean for gardeners trying to be sustainable?

The very idea of a garden implies human intrusion. No garden is natural in the pure sense of the word, because no garden is permanently self-sustaining. Even Beth Chatto’s revolutionary Gravel Garden—which has never been artificially watered —would disappear in 30 or even 100 years from now without human input (pictured above). Nature changes constantly. Left alone, most gardens in temperate zones would end up as woodland.

Gardens are time arrested. The very acts we perform while gardening—watering, pruning, weeding, replanting—are acts against time. All gardening is an attempt to halt ecological succession and freeze it at a point that pleases us aesthetically. Gardeners are like referees, preventing plants from engaging in the warfare they would wage if left alone. Our obsession with benign happy flowers has blinded us to the barbarous combat taking place outside our doors. Plants smother, steal, poison, and invade their neighbors. While we may be oblivious to this conflict, we are nonetheless a part of it: gardeners ultimately pick which side wins.

If gardens are not natural, should we despair? Martha Schwartz, the celebrated and controversial American landscape architect said at a recent lecture, “We view the landscape much as the Victorians viewed women: as either saints or whores.” In an essay called “I HATE NATURE,” Schwartz goes on to say that Americans still exalt a mythical wilderness out there somewhere (the saint) and denigrate any man-made landscape (the whore). This mythology means we don’t see the potential of man-made landscapes to create ecologically productive landscapes. Schwartz writes:

“Our American wilderness paradigm keeps us from developing a clear idea about how to resolve our human activity upon our landscape and how to develop an attitude that can resolve this dilemma constructively. The Dutch, possessing a culture that is clear-eyed about the fact that their native landscape is a man-made artifact, have a much more pragmatic approach to building and development, resulting in healthier and more sustainable environments.”

So what should we do? My suggestions are simple. First, we drop the mythology that nature exists “out there” in some national park and understand that the human landscapes we inhabit everyday—the parking lots, streets, cities, and suburbs—are really all the nature we have left. Once that dirty little truth sinks in, we can stop treating the man-made landscapes as something to hold our nose and pass by, and start repairing the natural systems within it. The same industrial drive that conquered and obliterated the wilderness can lay the groundwork for recreating it within human landscapes.

Second, we make peace with time. Gardening is ultimately a conversation with time. All of our pruning, mowing, weeding, and planting are acts of defiance against the march of time. My suggestion is not to stop gardening, but rather engage with the natural processes working within our garden. Loosen up that landscape. Allow a little self-seeding to happen. Connect with the seasons. Use plants that channel the ephemeral such as light catching grasses or perennials that emerge and die. Understanding the beauty of the ephemeral opens us to see ourselves in time rather than against it.


  1. Enjoyed this post. Loved your design faux pas!


  2. I never thought gardens were natural, although the best and healthiest gardens work with nature. I live in the country, surrounded by meadow and woodland and there is a great difference between the 'wild' parts of our property and the garden, no matter how sustainably it is planned and planted.

  3. Commonweeder, you're one step ahead of the rest of us urban types who get confused about that distinction.

  4. Interesting post.

    I suppose "natural" often springs ideas of some higher power creating it (like a forest) as well as looking as though it *could* be created by a higher power. Perhaps it's a problem with the English language that we just have one word (natural) that describes both untouched by humans and fits into an ideal of untouched by humans? Or perhaps my vocabulary is sufficiently limited so that I only have one word to express both things.

    Thus, IMO, gardens can *look* natural but by definition they were created by man. Similarly, forests aren't necessarily "natural" either. I mean, that lovely path that we smugly hike on thinking "Oh! *This* is nature!"? Totally man-made and totally under man's guidance/maintenance. Mother Nature, after all, tends to not carve convenient paths through woodlands. We're experiencing "nature" then through a person's concept of how you should experience it: You should walk along this windy path that then leads you to a little stream where you hop over some rocks to cross, etc.

    Perhaps if no path was there, we would all take a different way. Although, that would probably be less sustainable.

    Anywho, our urban landscapes could certainly use a bit of "naturalizing." More trees, more flowers, more green stuff would make for just a more pleasant environment to live & work.

  5. I *love* this essay. I may quibble with the use of the word "whore" because there's so much cultural baggage associated with it. But issues of fecundity and sexuality are surely intertwined with the garden/Natual World. We use phrases like "raping the landscape" to describe the clear cutting of forests.

    As for your urging to urbanites to realize that that scrubby patch of plants *is* nature, and maybe all the nature you're gonna get, I say "Bravo!"

    I think it might be interesting to consider Americans' use of the land and the doctrine of Manifest Destiny. Or even the language in Genesis, discussing how God gave man "dominion" over the Natural World.

  6. lisa and robb,

    I hear you about the use of that word. I think she meant to be shocking. I've read her use that same phrase before, but instead it was "virgins" instead of "saints"--pushing the sexual analogy (and perhaps the offensive level) higher. My apologies if using that quote was offensive, I just thought her analogy was instructive.

    Thanks, as always, for the thoughtful and witty comments. One of the real treats of the blogging medium is getting to meet interesting and passionate people like you and Robb. Keep up the great work.

  7. Oh, I'm not offended in the least. I was just commenting -awkwardly - on the loaded meaning of that word. Nature does not actively sell herself, after all... We *take* from nature.

  8. Thought provoking post. And comments. It's good to see discussion of this knotty subject.

    So many people have written about the artificial separation between "wilderness" and everything else. In so many ways it has hampered both gardening and conservation.

    Environmental historian William Cronan edited an excellent anthology called *Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature*, which explores this very question. Much of what early settlers thought was "wilderness" was in fact managed by the native Americans, including that icon of the wilderness, Yosemite. Interestingly, some cultures have no word for "wilderness."

    And then there's Olmstead, "recreating" nature in his park designs...

    One could blame some of this on the Romantics, I suppose.

    Lisa and Robb: at the end of Genesis, God also made his covenant with all the creatures of the earth. To some extent the environmental movement misread Genesis, based on an otherwise intellectually perceptive essay by Lynn White in the 1960s. There is a discussion about it at the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology, posted in "Ethics."

    I often think about these issues as I "garden" in the forest preserves and "wildify" my garden. Thanks for posting this essay.

    ecological gardening

  9. This post, and subsequent readers' comments on it, raise the bar for garden-related dialogue on the 'net. I am pleased to see that erudite readers have discovered your site.

  10. This is a great, thought-provoking post. It seems to me that the assumption underlying this whole discussion is that humans are outside of -- and above? -- nature. What happens if we think about human beings as part of the natural world, like all the other species they share the planet with? Michael Pollan provides an interesting discussion of this in Second Nature, developed more in The Botany of Desire, where he argues for the coevolution of humans and plants. In making this argument, he reconnects the human activities of agriculture and gardening with nature. -Jean

  11. First, thank you for such a thought provoking blog!

    I work with an environmental non-profit eradicating invasive plants from the native forests they are rapidly destroying in Hawaii. While I think "natural" is a word which is abused about as much as "sustainable," these days, I think M. Schwartz has a somewhat limited idea of "wild nature."
    And this is probably why I hated design school.

    Sure people have romantic notions, and maybe that holds us back from seeing the reality of our "place in" (and impact on) nature. But I think you are spot on when you talk about systems and their function. Nothing romantic about runoff coefficients - just nuts and bolts. I think this is exactly the place where our profession can help.


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