Nature Abhors a Garden


Nature Abhors A Garden
A while back I did a presentation for a gardening organization about landscape design titled “Idealism meets Realism” and when they wrote an article for local newspaper about the presentation it was tiled it ” Nature Abhors a Garden”. My feelings were mixed about what they might have taken out of the presentation, yet maybe that what I was talking about, even with all the concepts involving design, plants and the physical, natural environment. I also felt proud in that title, for it really is the title of another article written before that has always struck me at my core.
The article was written by botanist Peter Del Tredici who is director of Living Collections at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University and a lecturer in the Department of Landscape Architecture, Har¬vard School of Design. He lectures frequently and his writing has appeared in numerous publications and has authored a recent book called ” Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast” published by Cornell University Press.
The article, which appeared in Pacific Horticulture, July/Aug./Sept. 2001, and in The Ecological Landscaper Winter 2006-07 edition and again in Dec of 2010.
So rather than me writing trying to do it justice, it might be best to just share it;


Nature Abhors a Garden
by Peter Del Tredici
Homeowners and horticulturists alike use the term ecological land¬scaping to express an awareness of the importance of environmental issues. Unfortunately their awareness does not extend into the realm of seman¬tics. The phrase “ecological landscap¬ing,” despite its popularity, is ambiguous, mainly because the word “ecology” itself has two distinct meanings. Within the field of horticulture, ecology generally refers to landscape maintenance techniques that are less destructive, polluting, or energy-consumptive than “traditional” tech¬niques—basically what is referred to as being “green.” From the biological perspective, ecology describes the structure, development, and function of ecosystems. The fact that people use the same word in different ways has led to significant communication problems among people who work with different aspects of horticulture. In the hope of bridging such commu¬nication gaps, this brief article high¬lights other important words and concepts that are bandied about in the literature without concern for their precise meaning.

While gardeners can learn many things from studying “natural” plant associations, there are clear limits to how far one can carry the comparison. The concept of succession is a case in point. In unmanaged landscapes, the processes that lead to the development of a community of plants and animals on any given piece of land are unpre¬dictable. The apparent stability of that community at any given point in time is an illusion; the reality is an ongoing change in composition induced by unpredictable disturbances.
In contrast, designed landscapes typically consist of a limited number of plants assigned to fixed positions. There is little or no room for dynamic interaction among the various species, and no provision for additions or deletions to the design. Most land-scapes are based on the assumption that the conditions that prevail at the time of installation will continue more or less unchanged into the foreseeable future. Gardening is essentially about humans controlling—even disregarding—the successional process to pro¬duce specific aesthetic effects, while ecology is about natural selection con¬trolling plant succession based on the principle of survival of the fittest.
Closely related to the concepts of ecology and succession, and equally ambiguous, is the concept of a “weed.” Deciding which plants to cultivate and which to eradicate is one of the most basic issues that a gardener faces. From the horticultural perspec¬tive, the concept of a weed is relative and a function of the purpose of the landscape: a weed is a plant that the gardener does not want. From the biological point of view, there is no such thing as a weed. The nearest equivalent would be a colonizing or early successional plant that requires some form of disturbance of the land to become established and survive.

The final element in this all-too-simple discussion of ecological landscaping concerns the crucial role that dis¬turbance (i.e., environmental change) plays in shaping the development and structure of all plant communities, managed as well as unmanaged. Two basic categories of disturbance can be recognized: that which is part of the “natural” disturbance cycle—includ¬ing wind, fire, ice, and water—and that which is a byproduct of human activity, known as anthropogenic dis¬turbance. In its broadest sense, this latter category includes the insidious effects of all types of pollution includ-ing acid rain, air pollution, road salt, and fertilizer runoff—as well as the large-scale effects of ecosystem man¬agement programs that modify the normal nutrient, fire, or water cycles of a given region. The issue of global warming, which has the potential to affect large-scale weather patterns, is making it increasingly difficult to keep these two categories of distur¬bance separate from one another.
The different meanings of the words ecology, succession, weed, and distur¬bance play out in the different ways people view the contentious issue of introduced species. From a conserva¬tionist perspective, exotic species are generally seen as disruptive elements that invade natural habitats and dis¬place native plants. From a biological perspective, exotic plant “invasions” can be viewed as symptoms of human-induced environmental degra¬dation rather than the cause of it. Invasive species, regardless of their nativity, typically display broad eco¬logical amplitudes (i.e., adaptability) that allow them to exploit the chaos that ensues when existing plant com¬munities have been destabilized by environmental disturbance, either natural or anthropogenic. As with so many things in life today, the ever-expanding human population is the real problem: exotic plants and animals are convenient scapegoats.
Like it or not, the world is con¬stantly changing, and the forests and fields of the future are going to look quite different from those we see around us today. Globalization seems to have taken over our environment in much the same way that it has taken over our economy. The minute we stop maintaining our gardens, the ravages of wind, snow, ice, droughts, floods, weeds, pests, and diseases transform them into something we never imagined. Basically there’s no such thing as a “natural” garden, even one that consists entirely of native species. Much as we might like to deny it, nature abhors a garden.

We cannot mimic nature in our gardens because nature is a process, not a product. The best we can do is stick to a few basic principles: get the right plant in the right place; practice consistent maintenance over the long term; and most importantly, know why we’re growing a garden and how we want it to look in the future. Indeed, being able to visualize the future is really the only thing that keeps us working on our gardens in the present.


4 thoughts on “Nature Abhors a Garden

  1. There is a “homeowner’s association” here that requires nice landscaping around the front of the houses.
    I am very careful what I plant….because deer like to eat many things.
    One person lost over $1,500 in landscape plants in just one night–due to hungry, passing deer in the night. His front yard must have been a wonderful buffet for them!
    I have a “deer don’t like to eat this” list, which I follow. I also make sure that there are many things around in my yard that the deer can munch on instead of the “landscape” that I was required to plant. So far, it has worked..

    1. Thanks Mary, The subject of wildlife and natural ecosystems is such a large, complicated issue and I have find that when hearing speakers talk about the subject it tends to be too general and winds up trying to discusss the topic in terms of what can we do in our gardens, which I don’t wholely agree with. I do want to add to the topic, but I’m not sure I can do it justice, yet I will try.
      As to deer I have found Rutgers has a detailed deer damage list , but I have also found deer to eat things that they aren’t suppose to, given bad winters and an ever increasing deer population. So good luck with your deer problem. Also I do enjoy your posts so keep blogging, Jon

  2. As far as my husband and I are concerned, the deer were here first and we are guests on their land. Since the HOA required that we put landscaping around the front of our house, I used a list (similar to yours) to choose the plants: We planted many different kinds of evergreens.
    Now we have been here for 10 years, and (so far) the deer have not bothered anything that we planted. I realize that, if the weather gets too bad and the deer get hungry enough, they will eat anything they can find. I certainly would not be upset about that, because I would do the same thing.
    I took a chance and planted 24 Rainbow Leucothoe along the edge of our property in the pine woods. It was on the list of plants rarely damaged by deer, but I thought (being in the woods) those plants would probably get eaten. However, over the years, the deer have not touched any of them.
    We have many oak trees. I read that the deer love acorns, so I leave lots of acorns on the ground at the edge of the pine woods. We have tried to grow grass in this yard, but we have more clover than grass. Seeing that the deer love to munch on clover, we let the clover grow.
    Anyway, what I am trying to say is that my yard is very deer friendly. That’s why I have so many photos of deer. Did you see the little baby fawn in my post “Curiosity with a Camera.” So cute. I might be wrong, but I think the deer know that I care about them. 🙂

    1. Hi Mary, it nice to read what you are doing I try to convince some of my customers what they should do too, and having deer is an opportunity to take some great pictures as you did. We living in a more urban setting still had a moose wander thru our yard.
      For me it’s trying to find that balance where doing something I enjoy, yet not destroy the thing I love the most which is life all around me on some many levels. I get excited observing and taking pictures of bugs, fungus, lichens and wildlife and not worry about how to deal with them.
      Thanks for your comments and thank you for your posts, it is a pleasure to read and see.

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