A recent visit to the 40-year-old, 3.5-acre Ruth Bancroft Garden brought home the capacity of a mature stroll garden to serve up mystery and awe.

Here’s one of my beefs with lawns: where is the mystery? We live within this awe-inspiring natural world, teeming with diverse creatures and plants. We have a built-in fascination for other living things (1). Why would we construct our daily environments in such a way that we avoid being fascinated by them?

Instead, why not kindle this fascination in our everyday, ordinary experience? Research shows how important the experience of natural landscapes is for children’s healthy brain, body, and emotional development (2). Wouldn’t our adult lives be richer from these experiences as well?

As I gaze across a vast, unbroken sea of lawn, it practically shouts out a need to rein in wild nature’s unpredictability and mystery. Why would we want to do this?

Perhaps we are acting instinctively to create open spaces that give us an uninterrupted view, because that feels safer. But does it really? The groundbreaking work of architect Christopher Alexander, among others, shows we are more likely to feel safest with foliage at our backs, standing at the edge of a clearing (or, indoors, in a doorway or alcove surveying the room). That would mean we need, somewhere on our property, foliage substantial enough to provide us with shelter.

For many of us, especially those not used to spending time in wild places, too much “nature” in a place can prompt fears of getting lost, of encountering snakes or mountain lions, of being unsafe or uncomfortable. During the course of giving my talks about lawn alternatives, I’ve spoken with many a person who is reluctant to walk in ankle-deep turfgrass, much less ducking inside a thicket of head-high shrubs.


Does this picture of a bare foot partly obscured by ankle-length grass make you uncomfortable?

Avoiding any wildness does restrict our chances of contact with these perceived dangers. But in accepting denuded landscapes, shorn carpets stripped of life and diversity, what are we giving up? What potential experiences are we trading for our certain safety?

We are not only trading the satisfactions of exploring and observing other forms of life (3), but also the truly awe-inspiring experiences that nature can offer: of feeling tiny and inconsequential in the face of its grandeur and of feeling a splendid sense of belonging as part of its expansiveness.

I say this is an extremely poor trade.

When we explore a natural landscape, we get the satisfaction of solving small-m mysteries, such as “hmmm, I wonder what’s behind that hedge?” But that is just the beginning of our fascination. Spending time in such a landscape, opening ourselves to its surprises and unpredictability, we start to form connections with that place and its flora and fauna. We begin to learn their quirks and characters, and in knowing them, to see ourselves in relation to them. This fosters a sense of belonging, a certain possessiveness.

Now we are talking about big-m Mysteries, as in arcane knowledge of how the world works—including some knowledge about how we ourselves (being part of nature) work. This knowledge cannot necessarily come from scientific study, but from personal experiences that prompt a more emotional/spiritual understanding of the world’s patterns and lessons and our place in it.

So here’s my convoluted logic in a nutshell: we do not form attachments to simple, easily legible, overly familiar landscapes like lawn; it is the mysterious, diverse, complex landscapes—those we must expend effort to make familiar, and that may prompt some discomfort along with pleasure—that prompt us to send down our roots.

What do you think?


Someday I hope visitors will stroll through my garden (newly laid out with lawn paths and mulched islands) and wonder what’s around the bend.



  1. Famed ecologist E.O. Wilson termed this human affinity for other living things “biophilia”; learn more about his hypothesis.
  2. See, for instance, these extensive downloadable research summaries.
  3. Environmental psychologist Rachel Kaplan has studied the importance of mystery and legibility in our environments. She writes that we prefer landscapes that offer some chance for us to explore over those that hold no surprises, and that we favor complex landscapes over simple ones as long as they have a coherence that makes them navigable.