Guest Rants

On the Industrialization of Gardening

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Guest Rant by Sheera Stern, who gardens in Metuchen, NJ

As fall segues into winter, we are all relieved that the whine of the gas-powered leaf-blower has finally ceased. (By the way, the electric Ryobi is at a lower decibel, but a higher pitch, and possibly even more annoying, like a giant mosquito in a hot room with torn screens.) Who are these people who descend on our neighborhoods all week to make this racket? Certainly not the homeowners.

We call ours a culture of narcissism, and nothing says I am the center of the universe like being too busy to pick up a rake or run our own lawnmower. So Mr. Homeowner calls a service and poof! the lawn is mowed, the leaves disappear, and the “chores” are done. (I’ve actually only known one person for whom raking leaves was a chore, and he had twenty oaks on a third of an acre. Lovely high shade in summer, but a blizzard of leaves in autumn. He raked.)

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Leaves are big business here in Central NJ. How would you like to live next to Mr. Homeowner?

Mr. Homeowner parks his BMW in the driveway on Friday night and there truly is nothing to be done until Monday morning. He certainly isn’t going to spend any time in his yard over the weekend. The sole purpose of the yard is to conform to an ideal standard of success: it looks neat to people driving by—not a fallen leaf out of place. The experts have handled it.

The experts may not know anything about horticulture, but they know what makes less work. A ride-on mower sized and powered for a golf course makes quick work of a 50 x 100 in-town lot, and you can ride it on and off the truck. Pruning shrubs into a vase shape makes it easier to mulch in the spring and blow leaves in the fall, so everything is pruned into the same shape with the same tool: a gas-powered hedge trimmer.

In my neighborhood every plant has an identical shape, whether it is a rhododendron, a willow, a rose, even, in one case, a Chinese dogwood. The silhouette is smooth but the leaves are ragged where they have been mangled by the saw. Eventually, of course, the shrubs die, whereupon they are replaced by some new victims and the cycle repeats. Over the past ten years I’ve watched as a lovely garden of very old azaleas was massacred and eventually replaced. Among the replacements is an Atlas cedar, destined to spread twenty feet in diameter, planted a snug two feet from the house.

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Overspray turned the boxwoods brown. Worse yet, substantial die-back on the Cercis Forest Pansy required me to have the center pruned out.

The prime motivators behind this carnage are ignorance and fear. As we move ever farther away from our agrarian roots, not only do we know less as a culture about how the natural world works, but we also have less curiosity and tenacity. Fearful of exposing his ignorance, Mr. Homeowner hires someone who pretends to know more than he does. The results speak for themselves, but he has no aesthetic against which to judge.  Since he isn’t planning to spend any time outdoors, he doesn’t really care as long as the homeowners association doesn’t fine him.

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Did you really want that tree in front of your window? Did you really want that cedar so close to the house?

Should those of us who garden care about those who don’t? Yes, if it contorts us into ever more defensive postures against the industrialization of gardening. The standard of perfection is a 2-4 D lawn with no fallen leaves in autumn. After escorting a leaf blower out of my yard—very much against his will—I am resigned to fencing in my front yard, although it goes very much against the design. If normal is the roar of leaf blowers, do gardeners have to wear ear and eye protection in the autumn?

Sheera Stern teaches English to speakers of other languages, primarily in the Middle East, online, when the sound of industrial landscaping equipment does not interrupt her classes.

Posted by Sheera Stern on November 28, 2016 at 10:46 am, in the category Guest Rants.
15 Comments

15 responses to “On the Industrialization of Gardening”

  1. Perry Mathewes says:

    This phenomenon is even older than that. Think about Antoine-Joseph Dezallier d’Argenville, who wrote “The Theory and Practice of Gardening” in 1709 that codified the practices of French gardening or Philip Miller’s “Gardener’s Dictionary” that instructed gardeners on various techniques about how things should be done. There has always been a standard by which people judge gardens and gardeners. Many follow these ideas blindly, while others ignore or challenge the norms. That is how landscape styles change over time.

    Laura was not wrong in noting a concern for hygiene, but historically it was not a misplaced idea. Tidy yards helped keep pests and vermin out of the home. Foundation plantings (used to hide bad architecture) is really a 20th-century idea now that we are so much more proficient at killing pests. Upper class homes had a staff to maintain a lawn and garden, while poorer folks swept their yards. The mid-20th century suburban garden was a small scale way to achieve that upper class ideal thanks to industrialization.

    Ultimately, gardening is about controlling nature at some level. The ideal of how much control we exert has ebbed and flowed over time. You see a lot of control in the 17th-century French gardens as well as 20th-century American suburban gardens. The 18th-century English “landskip” movement favored by Capability Brown was a reaction to that control as much as the post-wild world now. But in all cases, we still insist on managing nature at some level. We pick winners and losers – we pull weeds and select plants we want to see in the garden. We place them where we want them, although we may magnanimously let some volunteers stay where they show up. I have yet to see a native plant enthusiast suggest we plant poison ivy in our back yard and I only know one person (a botany professor) who intentionally grows smilax in his front yard. As much as we appreciate nature, we still want to control it when we garden.

    • Sheera Stern says:

      Gardening is editing nature, not obliterating it. I think what many of us are seeing in our neighborhoods is complete, utter obliteration. The 2,4 D lawn; the lack of flowering plants so there are no nasty bugs around; the sterile soil in which no worms grow because their food has been carted off in an industrial process; the whole low-maintenance, junk-food garden thing. For every gardener who is raking his leaves off his lawn and onto his shrub border, there are probably five who subscribe to a service where I live. This is considered upscale.

      I’m not disagreeing with you, Perry, and I appreciate your comment. My original post was about the landscaper industrial complex, is all.

  2. Loved your article. I understand your point so well.
    I think it is a matter of being aware that we are part of nature, not in charge of nature.
    The problem has roots in the nineteenth century garden industry.
    In 1884 the Vick Seed Company from Rochester, New York wrote in its garden magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly, “What we do in the gardening way is done for the appearance, the respectability of the thing, done for the same reason that we have a coat of paint put on the house, or renew the wall-hangings.”
    That view of nature, unfortunately, continues.

  3. anne says:

    To this day, my 91-year old mother gets excited to see a classic sterile lawn-n-shrub landscape with no leaves or weeds in it, finding it “beautiful”. She can’t stand to see flowers that need deadheading or branches that need pruning around her senior community, and will do the job herself if the gardeners don’t get there quick enough. For years, she compulsively sprayed the s**t out of any stray bug or weed that popped up in her yard. Her generation is that much closer to a time when people were surrounded by wildlife and wilderness and fought to keep them at bay. Now, we know more about our place in nature and try to find ways to bring it into our lives. Perhaps our tastes in landscaping sometimes reflect generational differences and priorities?

    • Laura says:

      It is a peculiarly North American thing too, I think. I’ve heard it called a kind of ‘hubris’ where man must exert his control over the landscape. I would love to learn about how we arrived here and why.

  4. Laura says:

    I live on an older street where the mulched, manicured, cedar cultivar, daylily, hosta, one tree, weed-free lawn seems to be a must. The saving grace is that there are many mature trees, despite the loss of our town planted Ash trees.

    I think of it as a weird and misplaced obsession with hygiene. The meticulous lawn maintenance, sheared every Saturday no matter the length, watered regularly, sprayed and fertilized, and the list of ten to fifteen ‘neat’ garden plants that are acceptable, is related to some fear-of-mess hangover from 1960’s burb mentality, as far as I can tell. Last weekend, my neighbour spent an hour blowing leaves on Saturday AND Sunday each (his lawn cannot be more than 25′ square with no deciduous trees). After my husband mowed our leaves, my neighbour went out and hand picked the three leaves that had blown on his lawn and put them on the street.

    After all this obsession, I have never once seen one of these mow and blow neighbours actually use or enjoy their front yard. I assume that it might mess up the lawn. I don’t get it.

    Goodness, I have come to hate leaf blowers. (…and lawnmowers, and snowblowers)

    • Sheera Stern says:

      One of my neighbors came over to tell me my front yard was a jungle. She also complained that the creeping thyme in my hellstrip was creeping onto the sidewalk. I said, well, that really is the concept, isn’t it. Took the wind right out of her sails. She’s still mad because I used to help at her place harvesting leaves and no longer do so.

      I have a place in my front yard for visitors to sit, or wait, which used to be the custom here, or for me to be alone with a book. and a porch for gatherings. On the rare occasions the mow and blow guys aren’t out, in all seasons, I actually use my front yard. It is floriferous and fragrant. My neighbors hate it because it is not neat. Someone described it as having a lot of plants.

      And I completely agree that it is some misguided attempt at hygiene, at holding back rather than embracing the natural world in all its messiness. I have repeatedly heard young women complain about dogs marking with pee on their yards “where my children play.” They seem oblivious to the facts: That fertilizer? Cow pee. This neighborhood is home to deer and raccoons and skunks and possums; they are not litter box trained. And besides, pee is sterile.

      I love your story about the neighbor taking three leaves to the street. Seasonless gardening seems to have taken hold, like seasonless dressing.

      I’m sorry but I do use a small power lawnmower. Takes about 20 minutes for a small patch of lawn in the back. And I am no longer capable of digging out of 2 foot snowstorms, so I made a concession to age and arthritis and bought a blower.

      • Laura says:

        Sheera, your plant-filled yard sounds just lovely. I know exactly the moments you speak of: when the motors and engines cease and you suddenly realize you can hear the breeze in the trees and flowers, the birds calling, and the buzz of bees. I savour those times, like you.

        Unfortunately, I do have to mow too and have been grateful for the odd snowblow help when my daughter was an infant. No one can be perfect! I am planning on ditching my front lawn soon. I have had trouble getting information from the city on bylaws, as concepts like ‘rain gardens’ seem alien to them. I’m hoping not too many feathers get ruffled, but am trying to cover myself in case they do. (3 leaf neighbour will likely be horrified)

        BTW – You wouldn’t believe the dismay of some folk seeing my daughter in bare feet and playing in dirt (the danger!). We sometimes puddle in a nearby creek in the summer, and while it gives most spectators fond smiles, others both young and old seem to think it is tantamount to licking a toilet. I regularly clean up any trash so she can feel the mud between her toes without shoes on. It feels pretty good on my adult feet too… :)

  5. marcia says:

    You are ringing my chimes! I work in a CA big box next to a gated community with a oppressive HMO. Dead shrubs in the front yard Must be replaced with the same shrub, also destined to die after its sculpted into a cylinder or cube by the Mow and Blow guys.
    By the way, is that a redwood on the right side of the picture? Big mistake, really big mistake ! I see lots of them here,
    ve44

    • Laura B says:

      Even if that isn’t a redwood, that is a big, probably expensive mistake. In a few short years the branches will be up against the house, the windows, and the roots will be diving under the foundation. Amazing that folks plant trees and don’t realize they grow!

    • Sheera Stern says:

      My buddy, Rich, the landscape architect, tells me it is an Atlas cedar, and I believe everything Rich say.

  6. skr says:

    That weeping japanese maple in front of a window is a cliché these days. I saw so many of them like that went I went back east to visit my mom.

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