I’ll say that “life was much simpler once”; at least in a world of gardening and yet it most likely because of the theory that ” ignorance is bliss”. I once was a wooden boat carpenter who when I had my own business it was at my former home and I probability spend more time in my gardens than working on boats. I lived in the middle of the woods, where my gardens were, it was on the land that had been cleared by the former owner for fire wood to heat their little house in the winter. It was a joy to go from nursery to nursery picking out plants and then trying to find a place where they might fit, to spend hours weeding, creating new beds. My gardens were well tended, at least up to the time that I changed professions from a boat carpenter to a person working sales at a plant nursery and being part of their landscape crew, and then my gardens began to transform. For they began to have manage on their own, many of plants were lost, others grew with a vengeance and design and ideas what I had planted began to disappear and the forest started to reclaim its own. I wind up becoming an observer rather than a participant, for many hours are required to work in horticulture field during the season.
It has been a long evolution from a period of bliss to now where my feelings are much more confused; for as I have furthered my education about plants, designing and the natural native landscape I have developed a multi personality disorder. Why not start with lawns for it is a huge part of this profession, it a multi -billion dollar industry from those that provide seed, the chemicals, to the sellers of soil, compost to all of those that sale equipment from mowers, weed wackers, irrigation you name it, it’s out there; with new, improved products every year and to all of the landscapers who job it is to maintain it, keep it green, looking lush and free of undesirables. Then the question is what becomes of the chemicals with names we (or I) can’t even pronounce and wonder what harm they do to us and to all the other living things out there, or do we consider going organic? Even organic requires a lot of inputs, to offer organic the inputs are to feed the soil, that feed the grass. It certainly is a better option than what we call typical lawn care.
Yet do you ever wonder why have a lawn? Where did our idea of a lawn come from? Where it is largest portion of any landscape we might design. Now, I am person sadly that never gets that excited about lawns or cutting my own grass, I do it more so just to keep my neighbors from cursing me and I don’t my clients lawns. When I used to live in the woods I had very little lawn, only for paths and over my septic system and it was nothing I ever planted rather it was grasses and plants that stayed green after walking or cutting it. There were many stone outcrops which meant I couldn’t use a lawn mower instead I used a weed wacker and when it broke, my lawn quickly became a wildflower meadow, not something planned, but from the plants that were already growing there, but when not cut they grew to be 2 feet high, with all kinds of flowers mixed in;becoming a different kind habitat with insects, birds I had never notice before. I let it go for the season and then after I cut some parts and let other parts go, which made my ex-wife much happily. It is a nice idea of a creating meadow rather than lawn, but for where I lived it was landscape of transition for it never would remind a meadow without my intervention. What kind of meadow it might be depended on what was there to begin with, what might introduced by me or the surrounding landscape. What kind of meadow it might be also depended on the soil, water and how it was maintained. when is it cut would determine what would survive, what went to seed, what grows close to the ground that can take repeated cuttings. And if I stop cutting, it would move on to shrub land, then forest.
With this in mind and thinking of design, on a few occasions I have been ask by a client to create a naturalistic landscape, but when I look around the site maybe in the woods, that had been cleared of all vegetation for the house, driveway, septic system with the idea that there is a front yard, a back yard. The woods surrounding the lot has been clean of understory plants for whatever reason I’m never sure, and the client wants it to be natural with flowers, shrubs, maybe plantings with ornamental trees and it is a given that the rest is lawn, regardless of soils that remain. It hard not to tell them that if the site hadn’t been so disturb, with the smallest footprint of disturbance, it would have been easy to keep a natural landscape for it was already there, but what the client wants is not what was already there. For what was there, did flower, for all plants do, but it’s not the show that they or we come to expect. Nor would the client with few exceptions want their front or back yards littered with leaves, twigs, branches like the surrounding area. So we all want to create something that natural, we might think to use native plants, but were they there before or would they have shown up on their own if there had been a natural disturbance to the site? Are the soils, moisture, sunlight of the site either before and after disturbance appropriate for what are natives? This isn’t to suggest that using natives is something that doesn’t matter, it does, it should. But maybe it about much more.
A man-made landscape is never a natural landscape. Each has its own set of rules, and the conditions and outcomes of each are very much different. One is manipulated by us, the other isn’t. The design is the end, only allowing for growth and maturity. What plants started there remain, others are removed.
We’ll never go back with the introduction plants from all over the world, not knowing how they will adapt to a new environment and how they might change that environment directly and indirectly. I will mention Invasives for they are and will be very much a part of our profession and our environment. And we have opened Pandora’s box I’m sure that each of us has to deal with them now, just in the maintenance of our customers gardens. we work an area, yet just a few feet away are more that we’re not responsible for and they will be the problem of future maintenance. We in New Hampshire may have stopped selling those plants that are on the Invasive list, but there are already millions of them out there, each producing many more millions of seeds that will produce billions of offspring in the future. So as we design, using plants now not on a list, but may someday be on a list which future landscapers will be dealing with. Can a native that isn’t a native to this region or a ecosystem have the potential to act like an invasive someday?
So where my multi personality steps in is that there are some many different answers to the same question, what is, what isn’t; good, bad, indifferent? So when it comes to design and what is the best landscape, how do we judge? Is it color, form, texture seasonal value in our eyes and that of the customer? Does it serve the function the surrounding landscape does it supplement or compete with that landscape. Or going back to man-made verses natural landscape, at what point does one consume the other and make it nonfunctional?. We like to think what we’re doing is making it better, but it is the future that will tell. For now, I still working in peoples’ gardens, I try to design to what a customer might like. I try to suggest that less is more, native over exotic and yet another part of me is thinking let nature take its course. Why clean a garden when it’s might be best not too. Should a garden look kept and tended to? For it doesn’t seem to fit with that larger landscape that no one has designed.