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.
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