(This is a rant, but it ends with links to delightful alternatives that are happening.)
What passes for “normal” landscaping practices is disgusting. As I type this, my neighborhood is being blasted with deafening noise and sickening fumes from tractor-mowers, blowers, and edgers. Giving the stupid grass and useless ornamental shrubbery a high-and-tight. Weren’t these people just here three days ago? Do they get paid by the hour or the visit or what? This is on city property (as it happens — our tax dollars at work!), but I’m not calling out any one entity, because the norm is pervasive, affecting the public and private domains alike.
With every little bit of this land we could be growing fruit trees! Vegetables! Shade trees! Native plants!! Instead, we pay big bucks to maintain ugly and useless, assault our senses, pollute the air, raise the ambient temperature.
I realize that as environmentalists, we focus a lot of our energy and angst on protesting the clearcutting of virgin land for development. And I certainly don’t want to discount the importance of preserving wild lands. But our landscaping practices on existing developed land, and our failure to make productive and ecologically sound use of existing developed land, are at least as big a problem.
As I type this, I am somewhat calming down, but this prevailing social norm to me is hideous, outrageous, and disgusting. The noise and fumes are still being spewed, and the nice respectable “landscaping” company will continue to earn a sh*tpile of money for this racket. “Racket” — Pun unintended but it fits. SMH. I seriously feel assaulted by our mow-and-blow culture, and if you don’t, maybe you have tougher eyes, ears, and lungs than I do.
Mark Lane, who writes a column in my local paper (Daytona Beach News-Journal), calls himself the “Darwinian Gardener.” His columns serve up a smattering of current topics along with his lackadaisical gardening philosophy. I always enjoy Mr. Lane’s column, but he really outdid himself this time, talking about things he’s noticed as a result of being home all the time because of the pandemic: “I learned that there are far more lawn services using far more powerful machinery operating before 10 a.m. than I would have guessed before. I also learned there are far more tree services knocking on doors than I would have guessed before. Some of them point out the hazards I am cultivating right in my front yard. I tell them I’m a man who lives a life of danger.”
All joking aside, I have friends who are constantly being harassed by the land-scrapers/scalpers. Their yard is a mix of fruit trees, vegetable plants, and a thick green carpet of multiple types of hardy ground-cover plants that thrive on minimal maintenance. These friends have literally had land-scalping companies sneak into their backyard and take pictures, then phone my friends and tell them why their yard needed to be “nuked” to kill off the ground cover so some nice lovely sod could be laid down. (My friends told them to never set foot on their property again or they would call the police.)
I don’t know how things are where you live. But here in Florida, it seems like a sizable percentage of the population has a vendetta against the entire plant kingdom (other than turf-grass). This is just one manifestation of our culture’s disconnect from nature.
One of my current areas of focus as an eco educator is attempting to get more of my fellow environmentalists to notice what a major chunk of money, labor, and fossil fuels we are expending for a bunch of busywork. Not to mention degrading the soil, a deadly mistake (topic for an upcoming blog post). And how much better things could be, probably for no extra money or labor if we take into account the monetary and social value of what we could be growing instead, like food or forests.
This is actually something that will have to start from the bottom up, with a shift in social norms. The same way that environmentally unfriendly standards in HOAs and local codes began. Trends, solidifying into norms. Natural gardening and food-growing is experiencing a rise in popularity; we just each have to do our best to contribute to their popularization. And de-normalize, de-popularize violent, rapacious landscaping practices.
We environmentalists are big on waving signs, writing letters, circulating petitions. “Speaking truth to power,” we call it.
Well, how about speaking a little truth to the yahoos who run our homeowners’ associations. Or speaking truth to our own husbands, for gosh sake (those of you who have husbands, and whose husbands are the lawn-obsessed variety). “Speaking truth to power” could be as simple as saying to your husband, “Honey, I’m putting my foot down. Your lawn obsession is bad for the environment. I want to be able to look my hypothetical seven-generations-great-grandchildren in the eye. You need to find a less destructive hobby.” And if you’re lucky, maybe the hobby he picks will be going hunting or fishing (apologies to my vegan or vegetarian friends here; I’m an omnivore making a plug for hyperlocal, non-factory-farmed meat). Or growing fruit trees!
(I know my comment about husbands and lawns might sound sexist, and I do know at least one couple where the wife is the one who wants a manicured yard, but honestly if I had a dime for every time I’ve heard a woman say she wants a natural non-manicured yard but “my husband won’t allow it”… well, I would have more money than I’d be able to spend in this lifetime!)
All of us, regardless of gender, need to strengthen our “Mama Bear” instincts; become bolder defenders of nature right where we live. We need to be a lot less shy; a lot less afraid of offending; a lot more fiercely protective. All of our lives depend on it.
I’ve posted a lot of links (on this blog, on my Deep Green Facebook page, and in various forums) about why lawns are bad for the environment. There are so many good articles out there, including many in the major mainstream papers. (And I’ve posted about how you can have a lawn that isn’t bad for the environment. #GinnyStibolt #FreedomLawn.) In my Further Exploration section below, I’m taking a different approach: highlighting lovely and desirable alternatives to entice people to loosen their attachment to the big flat monoculture lawn. Enjoy!
Tiny urban forests are boosting biodiversity; mitigating climate change: “Miniature forests are springing up on patches of land in urban areas around the world, often planted by local community groups using a method inspired by Japanese temples.” (from WeForum.org) And this page on saytrees.org has photos showing how fast a Miyawaki forest can grow in just two years.
30 tiny Zen-inspired gardens (Pinterest board). Inspiration station! Check out the breathtaking, exquisite little micro-worlds on this Pinterest board. “30 Magical Zen Gardens.” Landscaping can be so much pleasure!! So quiet and creative and restorative. So much more than the expensive ugly high-and-tight lawn-drudgery that we’ve made it. And you could easily choose edible, medicinal, and native plants for any garden you design, even an artsy little universe like this.
Church Forests of Ethiopia (National Geographic): “The forests provide a kind of ‘respectful covering’ for the churches at their centers and the riches they hold. Some of them are estimated to be 1,500 years old—tiny, ancient islands of historic habitat in a changed landscape.”