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A Stick in the Spokes

Seeing Every Garden as an Intervention, Rejecting the Eco-Purity Pledge, and Embracing Compromise

By Laura Kuhn

If humans vanished tomorrow – ping! just gone! – landscapes in much of the northeastern US would revert to temperate forest. Our dutifully engineered infrastructure would be overcome. Flora and fauna would saunter out, investigate with a hoof (or toe, or root), and then inhabit the ball fields, front lawns, driveways, and parking lots. Eventually, plants and animals would occupy the building interiors that are currently impervious to them, as participants in the long, open-ended vegetational shift of succession. The process would be restorative and long but not slow. In March and April of this year, mere weeks into our pandemic-provoked shutdowns, humans peeked from windows as wildlife deigned to explore our newly evacuated spaces: mountain lions in playgrounds in downtown Boulder, CO; coyotes on the eerily quiet streets of Somerville, MA; and sheep (sheep!) visiting a shuttered McDonald’s somewhere in Wales. 

Our landscape activities are interventions in an ecological system that “wants” to revert to that temperate forest. We plant vegetables, remove storm-damaged trees, and rake leaves as caretakers of “our” environment, constantly intervening in a system that would exist just fine without us. Witness how much effort it takes to keep it “ours,” year after year. Arguably, this environment would be healthier or at least more balanced without us, given the general toxicity of our species’ choices: our addiction to fossil-fuel, our convenience-mindset, our collective consumption ad nauseam, and the packaging to keep it all looking tidy and slick. Though we continue to poison this ecological system that sustains us, it would thrive without us. One day, it will. 

The Dilemma

As ecologically-minded landscapers, many of us strive to acknowledge and restore this damage to our home planet, dedicating our careers to stewardship, planting as many trees as we can, promoting native plants, converting lawns into meadows, and designing for pollinators. Though these are essential acts of dedication and defiance, they also represent the evolving expression of the long human tradition of gardening. Every garden is, by virtue of human influence, an interventionist act. Each intentionally planted,  naturalistic meadow is artifice, if not strictly “artificial.” 

As ecological designers, we manage the tension between homeowner requests and ecological health. More so: we exploit that tension. It’s a volley, with money and property rights operating on one side, and patience, climate change, and “the last word” countering from the other side. Even if we reject oppositional thinking, it is our work to make the most of a complex set of competing desires and end goals. We do our best as eco-stewards, but if we operate as purists, not many of us will eat very well. Or, produce/provide enough for our businesses to be sustainable. As a result, as social creatures with a need to feed ourselves, we compromise.

Embracing Change

We heartily encourage the use of more native plants among colleagues, clients, and our beloved growers. But we stand aghast when cottontails – starved for habitat and breeding multiple times per year – find the buffet. We chase them out with natural deterrents, cocktails of garlic, chili peppers, blood, and bone (that package says “natural,” not “vegan”). We’re not Elmer Fudd toting a rifle, but we’re not that far off, either. I can’t imagine what the rabbits think of this practice, to see those fresh Aster sitting there – finally! – to find them later covered in unpalatable sludge. What to do? Should we plant more Aster every year, recasting them as annuals, hoping that a few escape detection, and otherwise being content to donate to this ravenous, housing-insecure species we’ve ushered in? Or should we plant more non-natives again? This is a real problem. The rabbits on my clients’ properties eat a greater diversity of species every year now, including not only the Aster, Echinacea, Helianthus, Hosta, Rose, and Yarrow that I expect, but also Deschampsia, Eupatorium, Hydrangea, Itea, Ruellia, Salvia, Sedum, and so many more. 

Faking succession: This naturalized planting of non-native Scilla inspired the conversion of a small home landscape to an urban wild. The bulbs have not persisted. After the removal of several invasive canopy trees, the Solomons Seal that had been spotty throughout the property has flourished. In one area, Sassafras is taking hold, though we may limit its spread. The process of converting this area of the property to a mostly-native planting started with these imported bulbs.

The natural ecological system that inspires us to commit to native plants also inspires squirrels to plant acorns throughout our lawns and plant beds. Then once the oak seedlings pop up, striving for light, we destroy them. If we favor more sustainable practices, we plant micro-clover lawns or Pennsylvania Sedge in lieu of conventional turfgrass. But we still pull the oak seedlings: they do not “belong” there – and who better to determine this than lawn owners, lawn users, and lawn installers? So, we arrest succession, freeze the frame, hit the pause button, to enjoy that lawn a bit longer, nurturing it for the kids, or the dogs, for its relative ease of care in our rainwater-rich region. Eventually, we think “the lawn was always there.” The same goes for perennial beds, and even for meadows. Few of us want our personal oases filled with the competition of whatever tree species are seeding around the neighborhood. And that is ok. We are gardeners, after all – our job is to make places for humans. We jam that stick in the spokes every year when we replace whatever the rabbits just ate, pull the oak seedlings, and rake the leaves. We just like to think we’re doing this all with good hearts and a light footprint. 

Our clients hire us to transform their properties into personal oases, designed and groomed to provide beauty, amusement, food, and especially this year, refuge. We are paid to “make magic” – and for ecological designers this means walking that line between “It’s sustainable!” and “Now you’ve gone too far!” Some of us are artists, others are artistes, some are neither, but all of us are dealers in artifice. Those of us who are ecological designers would do well to honestly embrace the artifice of our cherished profession. If we think of our work as a frank intervention, rather than pure, or worse, moral, we might have an easier time with the rabbit dilemma. We need to accept that non-native plants may help save us and our home planet, by virtue of still providing ecosystem services once the rabbits have eaten so much else of what climate change leaves behind. 

About the Author

Laura Kuhn is a self-taught designer, who brought her experiences in theatre arts and choreography to the design of outdoor spaces in 1997. After initially working in the nursery business, she started her own business in 2000. Laura Kuhn Design Consultation creates custom artistic and wild spaces for private clients in the New England region and beyond. Ms. Kuhn offers services in landscape design strategy and restoration; project coordination and construction; oversight for urban oases, small parcels, estate gardens, and rural landscapes; edible gardens; and outdoor dining spaces. Her certifications include MCH, MCLP, and NOFA AOLCP. She currently serves on MNLA’s Government Relations Committee. In the past, she enjoyed serving as Advocacy Chair for the Association of Professional Landscape Designers (APLD), serving on the MCLP certification committee for Massachusetts Certified Landscape Professionals, and most of all, teaching at the Landscape Institute.