What If There Was No Landscaping?

What if there was no landscaping . . . only wild plant communities? 

If you have a freestanding house in America, you probably have a yard. And if you have a yard, you probably have a lawn, some foundation shrubs, and perhaps even a few flowering plants. It's a simple set of givens: house = yard = landscaping. This formula is so ingrained in our cultural DNA that it is hard to even imagine an alternative. Think about where you live. Now try to imagine all of the lawns, shrubbery, and planting stripped out of it. What could possibly replace it?

This past week, I was in coastal Alabama to see my sister get married. We had a wonderful time visiting with family and enjoying the beaches and fresh seafood. We stayed in a rented house near Fort Morgan, an isolated peninsula that separates the Gulf of Mexico from the Mobile Bay. The thin peninsula is a beautiful, yet brutal natural landscape. The soil is entirely sand; desiccating winds batter the shoreline daily; fires regularly burn large portions of the landscape; and sea surges from hurricanes inundate large portions of the peninsula every few years. 

A house partially enshrouded with sand live oaks, sea oats, & pennywort
In spite of the harsh climate, a rich mosaic of grassy dunes, woody scrub, and maritime forest plant communities thrive. These are some of the most beautiful and endangered native plant communities in the U.S. The plants literally hold the thin peninsulas and barrier islands in place. Without them, the land would literally wash away in the next hurricane, making the bays and populated cities they protect entirely vulnerable. While not as diverse as other plant communities in the southeast, the dune and scrub communities are remarkably resistant to invasions of exotic species. For once, the native plants appear to be more adaptive than exotic generalists. But more on the plants in other post.

What I found entirely interesting is the fact that the neighborhoods built in these dunes were almost entirely devoid of landscaping. It is almost as if the native dune communities swept through, around, and under the houses. Wild beach grass, dune scrub oaks, and cabbage palms cover the ground right up to the base of the houses.

Of course, landscaping is utterly pointless in these developments. Owners live in the houses only a few weeks of the year. Fresh water is scarce. And getting lawn or other exotic landscaping to survive would require enormous effort. And don't let me give you the impression than these developments are somehow sustainable or environmental best practices. These over sized cottages are literally carved into the existing dunes.  They probably should have never been allowed to be built in such a sensitive environment.

But it does provide a rare example of a typical American neighborhood development without any landscaping. It is perfect mix of a wild and human habitat. And what is especially interesting is how the wild plant communities are actually part of the culture of the place. In a state not particularly known for its environmental progressivism (with a few notable exceptions), these beach communities actually embrace the vegetation as a part of the charm of the place. 

And it is entirely charming. Who misses the lawn, the shrubbery, the annuals? Not me . . . 

Would this integration of residential development and wild plant communities work anywhere else in the country? Could this be a model for a new kind of American landscape? Would there be cultural acceptance of this anywhere beyond coastal, tourist towns?

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