An Earth Day Challenge to Gardeners and Designers
“Do gardens have to be so tame, so harnessed, so unfree? What’s new about our New American Garden is what’s new about America itself: it is vigorous and audacious, and it vividly blends the natural and the cultivated.” James van Sweden
My former boss and mentor, James van Sweden was always quotably evangelistic about the need for American gardens to loosen up. Founder of the New American Garden style, James van Sweden and Wolfgang Oehme created a legacy of projects that presented a beautiful and lush alternative to the typical American garden scene: a sea of lawn with overgrown evergreens stuffed under foundations.
James van Sweden is hardly the first or only voice advocating for an alternative to the typical American yard. Organizations like Lawn Reform, writers like Rick Darke, and landscape architecture firms like Andropogon have all offered compelling alternatives to the typical American landscape. But forty years after the first Earth Day, I have to ask: has the American garden style really progressed?
For home gardens, there are small signs of progress. In the last two years, there has been an increase in vegetable gardening, a renewed interest in native plants, and the occasional person getting rid of their lawn. Despite these glimmers of hope, there is little indication that the style of gardening has actually changed. The basic ratio of lawn (~90%) to planting bed (~10%) remains the same. And what makes up the paltry planting beds are mostly stiff evergreens.
What’s worse is how many professional landscape architects or garden designers still perpetuate stiff and formulaic designs. In the name of modernism, how many urban plazas or institutional sites arrange evergreens in rigid stripes? Or how many self-trained garden designers fill backyards with uber-wavy lawns (because curves are natural!) only to dot in twelve perennials and four shrubs?
Instead, let me present a case for a radically different landscape, a departure from the traditional obsession with fixed forms. My humble advice to gardeners and designers for Earth Day is:
1. Invert the Relationship of Lawn to Planting Bed: Think of your lawn as an area rug, not as wall to wall carpeting. Lawns are best when they are defined on all sides by hardscape or planting beds. This gives them legibility and definition and gives you an opportunity to show off loose perennials, grasses, and shrubs around it. If you’re lawn is more than 50% of your yard, it’s probably too big.
2. Use a Majority of Plants that Change Seasonally: There’s nothing more satisfying in gardening than watching a landscape change through the seasons. Watching plants emerge out of the ground in spring, fill up in volume and color in summer, and then dry in winter connects you with the cycles of the seasons. Dedicate a large percentage of your yard (at least 1/3) to perennials, grasses, and deciduous shrubs—mostly native—and enjoy the drama of the seasons.
3. Think Winter Interest, not Just Evergreens: While every garden or landscape needs some evergreens, most American landscapes use far too many. Most ornamental and native grasses dry beautifully in the winter, and many perennials yield stately seedheads that look stunning in the snow. Include native deciduous shrubs like Itea virginica, Cornus alba, or Ilex verticillata for colorful stems and berries in the winter.
4. Bulk up that Biomass, especially for Pollinators:
The amount of native biomass (the total mass of living matter in an area) is in severe decline thanks to development. But gardens represent one of the best opportunities to reclaim it. Carve out areas dedicated to wildness in your yard. Plant your borders with a loose mix of native shrubs; allow part of your lawn to convert to meadow; or let that low area become a rain garden or biofiltration zone. University of Delware professor Doug Tallamy has proven that native plants support an exponential number of more pollinators than do exotic plants. Plants that support butterflies, bees, and other insects invite birds and other wildlife into the garden. Check out Doug’s list of the most effective plants for Lepidoptera
5. Have fun: One of the first reactions I get when I tell people I’m a landscape architect is an immediate moan about how terrible their yard is. People don’t know what to do and are overwhelmed by the maintenance required of mowing lawn and clipping shrubs. While I believe in principles of design, and in the need for landscape professionals, I believe more strongly in people having a joyous engagement with their garden. No matter what that looks like. So get out there, start with a manageable project, and create the change that loosens up your yard. Be daring, be bold, and have some fun, for crying out loud.