Our new front yard, part 4: a digression on the new paradigm


Detail from Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, c.1500

A couple of comments have come in on my last post remarking that this way of designing a yard (inspired by Planting in a Post-Wild World) seems really complex. And I’d say to that, it is! And yes, it’s kind of a pain to figure out. But (fingers crossed) I think it is a worthwhile thing to do.

What I’m talking about here is moving from seeing our yards as outdoor rooms, and our plants as furniture to be arranged and re-arranged at a whim. Instead, I’m talking about seeing our yards as communities, or as systems. You can pull a chair out of a living room, or paint the walls a new color one day, and these changes won’t effect the the other furniture. In a living system or community, though, changes to parts of the community ripple through the whole community.

I used to buy plants to suit my needs. These needs came in two general categories. The first was the need to fulfill a limited function: “I need a bush over there to hide that section of fence.”  The second was acquisitive lust: “That plant is beautiful.  I’m going to buy it and find some place to put it.”

Both of these ways of thinking are, to go back to the first simile, very much like doing interior design. I need a curtain for this window. I found a great clock at a swap meet, and now I need to fit it into the living room. In approaching planting this way, I’m pretending that plants are inanimate objects subject to my will, and I am placing my needs ahead of theirs.

Sometimes this approach “works” and the yard looks good. What this means is that I make some right calls and the plants play along. Sometimes it doesn’t work, and the plant dies, or fails to thrive, or conversely, grows unexpectedly large and tries to take over the yard. When this happens, I cast blame around, against myself for being a poor gardener, against the soil, against the drought, against the nursery which sold the plant, against the plant itself. In all cases, though, I’m considering the plant as an isolated individual, and I’m evaluating its success or failure in myopic terms.

Now, I’m not a botanist or any other kind of “ist” and I sometimes I suspect all I know about plants would fit in a thimble. Yet I don’t think that the point of viewing the yard as a system means that I have to understand the intricacies of how the system works–I just have to respect it. That’s why I prefer the term “plant community.”

System implies something we could pick apart using logic. Community is more mysterious–it gives agency to the plants. In other words, they are doing their own thing, they have their secrets, their alliances and their agendas– and I, twitchy, chatty primate that I am, can only understand a little of what goes on in their elegant, sessile world.

If I’ve learned anything recently, from books like Planting, from talking to Masanobu Fukuoka’s student Larry Korn, and from hearing Suzanne Simard speak, from studying the aboriginal idea of the kinship of all things is that we should be humble before plants. As Fukuoko-san said, we know nothing. Starting from a place of humility, I’m trying to find a new path. I’m trying to develop a new relationship with plants, and as a result, a new approach to landscaping. This is the path of the post-wild.

New paths often run rough. Meanwhile, the lawn n’ shrub is a path worn into smoothness. In fact, it is a rut.

So yes, learning to view the yard as a community takes some mind stretching and extra work. We are changing the lens by which we view our relationship to the natural world. (Dare I say we are becoming wise?)

This is work, but it is rewarding, because as we engage with this process, we realize that we’re a part of the community, too.  Instead of being a petty overlord, mowing and blowing the world into submission, we are partnering with the life in the yard to make the world a better place. Re-connection with nature is its own reward, because lets face it, it’s lonely being a despot.

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  1. I read, and enjoy, your posts but rarely comment. This one struck a chord with me as both my husband and I are horticulturalists and after inherited 4 acres after my father died, we moved our 900 (ish) pot plants that we had collected and grown over the course of our horticultural studies eagerly to the property and started planning how we were going to change this landscape. It turns out the landscape changed us instead. First came the possums that showed us that growing roses was a tenuous business to say the least. They left the flowers and ate everything else so I gave away my Pierre de Ronsards and focussed on the banksia roses that they ignored. Next we discovered that the wallabies loved to eat EVERYTHING so we had to fence off the small orchard around the house to protect it. After 5 years of trying to plant things out that were just not suited to this climate (Mediterranean and very dry over summer) it suddenly dawned on us that there were, indeed, many edible and other plants that would be perfect for our growing conditions and that would grow well here. We have since embraced the same mentality as your own and are using what we know (not much more than what you know) to effect change here. Growing edibles for the native animals is the first stage and planting out grasses (tough drought loving) and working with our conditions and more importantly, observing what we have and how it naturally works, has been the saviour of our sanity. We learned the hard way that nature always wins and that you work against her at your own peril. Looking forward to seeing how your garden starts to integrate and how wonderful it is going to look in a few years. We have similar growing conditions.

  2. Wonderfully thought-provoking. I’m grateful to be reading this in November BEFORE I make my plans for next year’s garden and hope I slowly take in the implications over the winter months – the reading season, as I like to think of it. I’ve been thinking about trying to create bird habitat, which not coincidentally supports the “messy” garden I always tend; also about trying to visualize my little space as part of a post-suburban neighbourhood. I don’t even know if I know exactly what I mean, but I feel that your post might help me move forward. Thank you!

  3. I’ve really been enjoying your posts on this topic and honestly wish they were longer :). I love seeing what you guys have done so far and I’m grateful you’ve chosen to document it here. Yes, it’s complex and a lot of work, but part of the reason for that is because we aren’t used to thinking like this. I have a feeling it gets a bit easier as you go. Plus, it’s worth it! Either way, these posts are great food for thought and I totally get where you’re coming from and what you’re trying to do, and I think it’ll be a great day when everyone’s on board and our communities and habitats reflect these types of values. Thank you!

  4. One of the big shifts in thought for me from the book was to stick with plants from each type of area. So, in my case, don’t expect plants from the meadow to look cohesive as ground cover in my woodland shrub hedge. Even though they might cover the ground and initially not look half bad, there is a reason it hasn’t worked long-term.

  5. It is quite startling when we realize we don’t run the show, that we never have been masters of anything. We work so hard to change the world and in doing so we break the communities(ecosystems) around us.

    Are you in any way relying on the seed bank in the soil or from local wild places? I’m really interested to see how this works out for you! Only time will tell how the “community” will accept your plantings.

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