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A Gardener's Manifesto

Let's take back nature from stuffy 'landscape architects.'

By Don Gayton 12 Mar 2008 |

Don Gayton is the author of three books of non-fiction (The Wheatgrass Mechanism, Landscapes of the Interior, Kokanee) and numerous technical articles. Gayton has received awards from the Saskatchewan Writers Guild, the U.S. Outdoor Book Association, and the Canadian Science Writers Association. He was a range ecologist with the B.C. Ministry of Forests for 10 years. He has also worked as an extension specialist in forage and range with the Saskatchewan Department of Agriculture.

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Would Che push a mower?
  • Interwoven Wild: An Ecologist Loose In the Garden
  • Don Gayton
  • Thistledown Press (2007)

[Editor's note: The following is excerpted from Interwoven Wild: An Ecologist Loose in the Garden]

Landscape architecture was born amongst the estates and mansions of Victorian Europe, and seems inextricably bound to long, gracious sightlines, and a full-time gardening staff. There is literally nothing in the patrician history of landscape architecture that we 40 x 100 suburban wage slave mortals can relate to. Not yet anyway. What we need is a Leon Trotsky -- nay, a Che Guevara -- of landscape architecture, who can invade its aristocratic domain and pillage principles and pleasures that rightfully belong to us common folk.

It is no wonder that landscape architecture has no currency for the average person. The discipline has gone from serving the estates of the idle rich to being the complacent lapdog of corporate high-rise and big-box architecture, where a lonely strip of bedraggled cotoneaster drowning in bark mulch and surrounded by vast tectonic plates of concrete is called "landscaping." Corporate views of landscape architecture often approximate S&M: the emphasis is on restraint. Some examples are so bad they literally suck the oxygen from the streetscape.

Frozen foliage

One of the hallmarks of corporate and subdivision landscape architecture is that it is designed not to evolve. The isolated shrubs and single specimen trees and geometric lawns will look the same in 10 years as they do now, and the buildings they are designed to complement will still look just as disconnected from the neighbourhood and the earth -- as if they accidentally fell off the loading dock of some giant prefab factory in space.

When a new and unwanted commercial development goes into a neighbourhood, landscape architects are invariably brought in to soften the blow of the mega-mall or high-rise tower. And then suddenly, a curious thing happens: we go mute. If a trained professional is telling us the landscaping is esthetically pleasing, ties the structure to the site and softens the angularity, when all we see is the cotoneaster-and-bark-mulch disaster, then we obviously just don't understand. So we tend to think there is something mysterious and complicated about landscape architecture, which we can't see with our untrained eyes.

Not true.

Most people would never dream of dignifying their humble yard and garden work by calling it landscape architecture, but that in fact is what it is. We create assemblages, we mix colours and seasons of colour, we contrast textures, we soften hard edges and build structures with plantings, we anchor our homes to the lot, and apartment balconies to the earth. There are a couple of objective principles to landscape architecture, borrowed mostly from art that deal with perspective, complementarity and harmony. Then there is the matter of plant requirements and adaptation, knowledge simply borrowed from the disciplines of horticulture and arboriculture. And like the ecologist, the landscape architect must have empathy for plants and the patience to learn how they relate to each other in groups. Add in a basic understanding of human behavior and perception, and that's it. Beyond that, the rest of landscape architecture is as subjective as art, and as capricious as fashion. So it is a discipline open to all of us, demanding only simple engagement and sustained attention.

When we arrive at a new place, our eyes automatically seek the horizon. "View lots" that look out on distant views of mountains, lakes or oceans always have a real estate premium attached, because we crave that long view. We tend to scan the perimeter, not the core. Community-level ecologists like myself attempt to suppress that natural impulse, and shorten our focus to key on that zone between the close-up and the long vista.

One of the keys to the gardening short eye is to substitute complexity for distance. By building layers, gradations, interruptions and switchbacks, the gardener creates a landscape of visual density and possibility, a yard in which you can take a twenty-minute walk and not leave home. Think of domestic, 40 x 100 landscaping as an exercise in hobbitization.

Lawn and garden

Looming in the background of landscape architecture is the awful question of the lawn. A traditional favourite for parks and homes, the omnipresent flat lawn has recently come under intense criticism. It is seen as a monoculture, an energy pig, an English colonial anachronism, a chemical addict and an environmental suspect. I will add another personal complaint to this list: a flat, featureless lawn is an esthetic zero. It is the sightline, without the sight. I further dislike lawns because they harken back to the stately days in Europe when the grand manor loomed above acres of manicured and leisurely grass. My ancestors did not participate in this manorial tradition; they probably lived in the grimy hovels around back. I can carry a grudge for a long time.

A student of the lawn must turn to anthropology to explain its pervasiveness. One writer suggested the lawn is a means of flaunting one's wealth. The grassy expanse trumpets the fact that the owner is so wealthy he can devote productive land to useless ornamentation instead of using it for food crops or a livestock pasture. This might seem a very primitive motivation, until one looks at women's fashion magazines, which are about as current as you can get. One of the plausible explanations for the bizarre obsession with thinness in women's fashion is that it also trumpets wealth. The skinny body image says "look at me, I live in such an affluent milieu that I don't need stored fat to survive. Food will always be available for me."

When we lived in one of the prairie cities, we had a very practical Ukrainian neighbour who devoted his entire front yard to potatoes. Others on our city block were offended, and looked for bylaws that might prohibit front yard potato production. Compared to their underutilized and over-watered lawns though, I thought the neatly arranged hills and lush potato foliage made a nice esthetic statement.

The lawn is often the white-bread, dumbed-down, token solution for a lack of genuine interest in plants and landscaping. A painter approaches a blank canvas with a mixture of passion and trepidation; as we democratize and re-invent domestic landscape architecture, lawns should inspire us in the same way.

An indigenous landscape architecture, based on North American climates and vegetation, designed for the suburban lot that is 50 per cent occupied by a house, and that acknowledges the time and financial pressures of the two-breadwinner household, and that resonates with nature, has yet to be created. It still awaits its Che Guevara. Maybe that will be me, when I can't mow the lawn anymore.