Ministry of Controversy

Agree or Disagree?

“This concept that gardening puts you in harmony with nature is a
big lie,” says Peter Del Tredici, a botanist at Harvard University in
Cambridge, Massachusetts. “Gardening is really about preventing nature
from doing what it wants to do, which is to destroy your landscape, and
gardeners know this at their core. Climate change is just another
challenge.”

via Nature

Posted by on December 13, 2007 at 5:07 am, in the category Ministry of Controversy.
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30 responses to “Agree or Disagree?”

  1. layanee says:

    He sounds cranky to me! ‘destroy your landscape’? Gardeners are an integral part of nature. Shall we all leave the earth so that nature can just take its’ un-manipulated course? Let’s take all the other animals with us so that they can’t eat the grasses and grains. It should be a balanced system which includes the human equation. We have been tipping the balance though haven’t we!

  2. susan harris says:

    Read this for more provocative observations by Peter Del Tredici:
    http://www.gsd.harvard.edu/research/publications/hdm/back/20_ontechnology.html It’s about what he calls neocreationism.

  3. Colleen says:

    Disagree. Even if you allow his precept that gardening is the prevention of nature, you still have to understand what exactly it is that nature wants to do in order to prevent it. Therefore, you understand more about nature than the vast majority of people. But, I don’t agree that gardening is merely preventing nature from doing what it wants. To my eye, it’s a partnership between the gardener and nature.

  4. jim says:

    I agree. Gardening is a matter controlling the nature within our little plots on earth. We add, edit, clip, water, stake, amend, seed, mulch, and more, in contrary to nature, to ensure we have gardens to please ourselves.

    Nature, left to it’s own devices, will create a “no maintenance” garden – like a forest or a field – that have their own systems and timing for adding, editing, clipping, watering, staking, amending, seeding, mulching, and more.

  5. tulipa says:

    I think the man’s got a point. Recent posts have highlighted that most of us need to shift our gardening practices to support nature–see our recent natives discussions–and re-think our impositional Industrial-age gardening traditions. Or however one wishes to put it in a less stuffy way. We all know that most of the elements of “landscape” are an impositional control of nature. The imperative now would seem to be to create pleasing landscapes that are more helpful to their own natural systems.

    I’m not sure, though, that I can myself warm to the idea recently mentioned in various media, that climate change is “just another” challenge to gardeners. This “oh, we’ll come through it just fine” acceptance seems to put global warming on a par with a passing gardening disaster–twenty-year locusts or a pulverizing hailstorm–rather than an occurrence requiring a fundamental shift in our perspective. I think, however, that the fellow quoted above may have meant that part of his remark to illustrate the hardiness of gardeners more than as a condescension to our global disaster and with that I would agree.

  6. Tibs says:

    great link, Susan.

  7. Reading Dirt says:

    Well… yeah. I don’t agree with the “destroy your landscape” part, but really, planning, tilling, planting, weeding are all things we do to keep the garden looking the way we want it. To be totally natural, wouldn’t we just stand back and watch succession take its course?

    On the other hand, without an understanding of natural cycles and a little basic botany, it’s hard to be successful in the garden. Gardening may not be “natural” in the sense that we’re intervening with nature, but it’s not a battle with nature, either.

    Unless, of course, one goes to war against bugs and weeds with the entirel chemical arsenal available at your local Home Depot. Maybe that’s what he’s thinking of.

  8. George says:

    The only humans who are anywhere close to living in harmony with nature are the hunter-gatherers. If you grow your own food you are defying nature.

  9. George says:

    The only humans who are anywhere close to living in harmony with nature are the hunter-gatherers. If you grow your own food you are defying nature.

  10. Dave says:

    To me a gardener should be the buffer between man and nature. We have housing, commercial and industrial developments going up everywhere in our country. The gardener, at least on the home front, can help to minimize the impact of housing developments. Bringing nature into your yard can be an excellent and rewarding aspect of gardening. Growing your own food may be a part of the human influence on nature but the hunter-gatherer concept is pretty much impossible for society today. I would rather grow what vegetables I can at home so I don’t have to buy them at the store which would help to eliminate use of gas and fuel for transportation of the store bought veggies. Let’s face it as a population we have destroyed and removed much of what would be here naturally. We as gardeners can lessen that impact and maybe reverse the effects to some extent.

  11. Bob Vaiden says:

    Well…yes and no.

    I have neighbors whose whole concept of “gardening” is the establishment of a pristine patch of alien weed grass (bluegrass:).

    We have WAY too much of that.

    And… a natural landscape replaced with an “everbloom” display of alien perennials may be pretty, but doesn’t do much for the native wildlife (where else CAN it go?)

    But gardening can also fit into the environment…even enhance it. It does have a “control” aspect to, but when not carried to excess can provide beauty, food, habitat, and make everybody happy!

  12. Can I be on the fence? In some way, humans are perfectly natural–even our defiling the planet is, in some ways, natural; it’s who we are (doesn’t mean it’s good). If it weren’t for gardeners and gardens, nature could suffer more–ala the recent posts on the book by what’s his name. But of course gardening is cultivating and subduing, but provides more opportunity for harmony than bulldozing forests and erecting skyscrapers. I feel that without my garden, I wouldn’t have an “in” to the world around me that’s quite as visceral; but I realize, too, having anything natural anymore is impossible, so I’ll do my best and make SOMETHING semi natural and connected.

  13. I have to head back to Michael Pollan’s brilliant premise in Second Nature–man has already irrevocably changed the landscape. There is no such thing as an untouched wilderness anymore. So the best possible way to see our relationship to nature is that of gardener to garden.

    Doesn’t mean we don’t shape nature and sometimes defy it–but we do these things respectfully, and make the world more beautiful and fruitful in the process.

    As to whether hunter-gatherers are the only ones who live in harmony with nature, well, let’s ask the many birds who hang out on the arches in my vegetable garden about that. I think they are mighty pleased that I’ve enriched the soil to the point that it is teeming with life–and even more pleased that I’ve planted white currants.

  14. george says:

    Based on reading that Neocreationism article (good read) I would guess that the key word in the quote is “harmony”.

    He argues convincingly that there is no “balance” to nature, that plants and climate and the landscape are in constant dynamic flux with patches of stability. So the whole concept of “harmony with nature” is impossible.

    I think using his logic you could argue that gardening teaches you a lot about nature, puts you in touch with nature in that you jump into the process and experience nature. However, you can’t rise above being just another player in a large complex game that you have no fundamental control over.

  15. rayvel says:

    “If, as I believe, gardeners are the elect of the earth, cured in humility and grace and other good things, it is because Nature herself hammers in upon us the lessons of patience, and reminds us far too frequently how little our skill and experience are worth.”
    –Henry Mitchell

  16. Don says:

    Del Tredici’s quote links two topics, a gardener’s relationship to the garden and nature, and climate change. On the face of it, yeah, OK, gardening changes as the climate changes. Nothing controversial there, though I don’t see the deeper linkage.

    The gardener/garden/nature relationship he talks about depends on the gardener and the garden, doesn’t it? We each make a separate peace with nature in our gardens. Our garden schemes don’t always work out – of course not.

    But it is a leap of faith (and oddly close to personification) to reduce “nature” to a hostile force (being? satan?) who “wants” to “destroy” our “landscape.”

    OK, I feel that way at times, granted. Cankerworms come to mind (I’m currently banding trees, and Tanglefoot is part of my wardrobe). But if the truth be told in full, “nature” underlies all we gardeners do, the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the hopeful and the hopeless, whether we are feral hardcore pre-Columbian habitat restorers or passionately persnickity topiary artistes.

    Del Tredici has some interesting ideas (I liked the link Susan posted, thanks for that!, and agree with much of it), and I’d sure buy him a few beers to hear him hold forth on ginkgos, which he apparently knows a lot about.

    But I agree that the post Amy shared sounds “cranky”, damned cranky at that, like the poor guy spent too many years fretting about keeping Harvard’s botanical garden looking tidy for the Lowells and Cabots. Maybe he needs to spend more time with the beans and the cod (and Michael Pollan).

  17. susan harris says:

    Don, here’s an early Michael Pollan article that touches on this subject:
    http://www.michaelpollan.com/article.php?id=31

  18. He does sound like he needs an enema, doesn’t he?
    There are all kinds of gardening and levels of it — you can work with nature or fight it — or something inbetween. I think on the spectrum I’m toward the “work with” end – letting reseeding and volunteers stay, encouraging wildlife visits, etc.

  19. Lisa says:

    I think I’ll simply describe a garden, any garden where any human effort is expended to make it a garden, as a far-from-equilibrium state and leave it at that.

  20. I’m feeling kind of cranky and could probably use a good enema so I disagree.

    If there is one thing you should learn about Nature that is true, it is that it is a constant competitive struggle for survival. The very act of gardening, the struggle to make headway in your environment, to garden long and prosper that he decries as fighting Nature is the essense of the life force that is Nature. That struggle is Nature’s harmony.

  21. I agree and so does my aching back after pulling weeds and raking leaves all day. As a gardener, I’m a tinkerer. Without my guiding hand, nature rules but there is no garden.

  22. Peter del Tredici is the furtherest thing from being cranky.
    As a former student of his at both the GSD and at the Arnold Arboretum I can personally say that he was one of the most insightful , educational and fun filled professors that I ever had in my educational sojourn.

    It was these exact types of deep thought provoking environmental and horticultural debates that he was famous for bringing to the classroom table.

    Cranky ? – No way .
    Intellectually challenging and thought provoking ? – You bet your hot hort bottom.

    I agree with Peter in his final analysis that one should not limit their planting palette to native species alone thus limiting the bio diversity.
    Consider your ‘site specific location’ – ” site specific” .. a word much used by landscape architects that should be used and understood by more gardeners.
    If more gardeners understood how to best choose and use site specific adaptable plants we would be working in concert with and adapting to the evolving nature of our climate.

  23. Don says:

    First, thanks very much for the links to Pollan, Susan. He is a gift.

    Second, breathe, brother Christopher (NC? You from down here in Tar Heel country, too?).

    Although I agree with you that Del Tridici’s notions trip over contradictions when you think about them, I think it is also worth remembering that the “competitive struggle” metaphor is a cultural view, not a scientific one. Fortunately, we get to choose our narratives.

    Personally, I prefer Kropotkin’s take on things (“Mutual Aid”) to Herbert Spenser’s, or Thich Nhat Hahn’s to Donald Rumsfeld’s. Or bonobo politics to chimp politics, to get our relatives into the act.

    Nevertheless, I appreciate your point that “struggle is Nature’s harmony” -that’s beautifully put, and it certainly appears true at times. I think of Gesualdo’s madrigals.

    On a genetic rather than cultural values level, however, I don’t think the natural selection process is as much a “struggle for survival” as a vast improvisation based on fundamental physics, chemical complexities, unforeseeable accidents, and no small amount of absurdity and humor, at least when viewed through a human lens. Charlie Parker meets the uncertainty principle, or something.

    Sorry, honestly, about that crankiness, and I hope the enema helps. Hot baths work for me. I have to believe the universe wouldn’t provide such solutions, or pink lawn flamingos like Felder Rushing sticks in his front yard, if things were so bleak.

    “In struggle…”, as we used to say long ago in my collective household.

  24. Thanks for the concern Don. The hot bath helped.

    I do not view the struggle or the life force as bleak. I view it as the journey.

  25. Luci says:

    There is powerful evidence that even the hunter/gatherer societies manipulated the “nature” around them to produce more food. Actions as simple as dividing bulbs and deliberate, small-scale burns to regenerate certain types of vegetation were practiced by the indigenous people of California. It would certainly be interesting to hear this gentleman’s views on the production of food, which before the advent of big lawns and landscaping to impress the neighbors, was the primary function of gardens. In order to garden (at least in the absence of miracle gro), one needs an understanding of the cycles of nature before one can manipulate them to our desires.

    As humans we have an innate desire to nuture and tweak the world around us. As infants we could not survive without the intervention of the adults of our species. How then is it not within our definition of harmony to continue these actions in the world around us? As a steward of two riparian acres in the Sierra Nevada foothills which previously supported mining activity, I believe just as strongly in the conservation work I do around the property as I do planting my food garden and various native and non-native plants to enhance local biodiversity. Sure, I could just leave things be, and eventually the natural succession would take over. However, two acres of natural succession mixed oak/pine/chapparel would not support my family of three. The small garden supplements our food needs, while the perennials are carefully chosen for the site specific needs of soil, climate and fauna. I think the variety of bees that joyously harvest the nectar of the brassicas I deliberately allow to flower in February when nothing else is blooming would have very different views of my manipulations.

    I also have a distinct feeling that the original post, which has certainly stimulated more discussion than other recent posts, was perhaps taken out of context. It might indeed be interesting to hear what he likes to eat everyday after a quote like that!

  26. Perusing these types of arguments I’m always struck by how no one ever considers humans as a part of nature.

    Humans are animals. We even have our very own genus and species, Homo sapiens. We are as much a part of nature as ants or hummingbirds or elephants.

    From this standpoint, anything humans do — gardening, native plant restoration, building asphalt parking lots, or causing oil spills — is “natural.” The good we do, and the ill we do, are all a part of nature.

    Birds build nests. Humans build houses. They are one and the same.

    It is the widely held, stern verdict that humans are not to be included in nature’s roll call that leads inevitably to the creation of organizations such as Peta, the Earth Liberation Front, and other extremist groups that cause very real harm while attempting good.

    If one adjusts one’s viewpoint to understand that Homo sapiens are a part of nature, at the very least it joins us together as one in our efforts to alter and amend the activities by Homo sapiens that endanger our planet.

    The concept that gardening puts you in harmony with nature is an absolute truth, can be nothing else. For better or for worse, we’re nature, too.

  27. George says:

    Humans are part of nature only in the broadest sense of the word (see the Wikipedia entry: Nature). In common usage we omit humans from nature. Nature is someplace we go to get away from it all. To scientists, especially, what is natural is that which exists without human interference. Ergo gardening is artificial and unnatural.

    Humans are not merely players in the world of nature. They are an overwhelming force unto themselves, with an effect on the environment way out of proportion to their numbers. By comparison, other organisms have very little impact on their environment. Any changes they cause are exceedingly slow and never the result of conscious effort.

    Dr. Del Tredici is not suggesting that gardening is not a good thing from a human point of view, or that humans should commit mass hari-kari and allow the world to return to normal. He does argue (see the link provided by layanee above) that gardening cannot restore what has been irretrievably lost but can be used to develop a sustainable alternative.

  28. John says:

    Agree, mostly.

    However, possibly exceptions include gardening by way of restoration efforts, such as removing invasives from a woodland plot; and the simple act of planting some shrubs that attract wildlife and watching what happens. Some harmony there.

  29. Commonweeder says:

    Nature is a collection of competing forces, humans being one. As I gardener I don’t feel that I am harmony with nature,exactly, but I do feel I am always learning about nature and the other forces at work in nature. I want to be thoughtful in the way I use my ‘force’.

  30. Steve Dores says:

    He got it exactly right. The plant will try to produce seeds to produce more plants and then die. It’s what they do.

    We breed varieties, and nurture the plants to produce larger, tastier veggies and keep picking so the plant produces all season.

    Yes, we work very hard to subvert the natural processes of the plant for our enjoyment.

    As for keeping nature at bay, animals can’t compare to plants as predators. And they are relentless. Give a pasture or a back yard a few years and the gum trees and Eastern Red Cedar (actually Juniper) will take over.

    And for anyone who is unfortunate enough to have “running” bamboo on their property, well the best control is a backhoe and a bulldozer.

    People who “live in complete harmony with nature” have never stepped off concrete.

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