Cutting through some dogma

Front-yard prairie planting in Plano, TX

We are never ones for dogma, especially when it comes to landscapes and native plants, which is why we dig this post on the Plano Prairie Garden blog. A bona fide prairie lover, he writes on why prairie gardens are not 100% maintenance free. It’s a refreshing read that acknowledges the grey areas within the quest to infuse more native plants of the prairie into the landscape. Read here.

The artificially two-sided debates rage on

Souther Salazar

It increasingly seems that the US is fast becoming the epicenter of artificially two-sided debates where no grey areas exist. Taxes vs. cuts, native vs. non-native, private vs. public, “productive” landscapes vs. ornamental ones, urban design vs. gentrification, red vs. blue. It is as if we as a nation have become completely and wholly incapable of thinking for ourselves and of drawing our own conclusions about the reality we live in. We decide on an “agenda,” and then we pick and choose what we want to hear so as to reinforce that agenda, grey areas be damned. The latest and greatest is an article in the NYTimes that extolls the virtues of non-native plants and draws comparisons between the native plant movement, and nativism with regards to race and immigration.

What could have been a tonic to the dogma of the native-plant movement instead reads like the same but in reverse, a dogmatic manifesto of the non-native, invasive movement. Instead of writing about, say, ‘blue glow’ agave and how it, while not native to California, is a lovely, drought-tolerant plant that won’t run amuk in the wild, the author picks the most invasive non-natives he can think of, eucalyptus, and ice plant, and writes about how great they are, despite the fact that they choke out all other native vegetation within their reach. As such, the essay reads more as provocation than invitation. It ruffles the feathers of the native plant purists, while making those on the fence ask themselves why they would plant ice plant in their garden if it’s just going to take over. No new converts to a cause, just fodder for each side to further polarize an already artificially two-sided debate.

We need to come up with a a name for these artificial debates: Twinkie debates? Aspartame debates? Vanallin debates? Velour debates? Chime in with suggestions.

Sterile or weedy: the false dichotomy

Conventional American front yard of turf and a few shrubs

There is very much a history of formality when it comes to the American front yard. A swath of freshly mown lawn, plus a few evergreen shrubs hugging the house or building, still endures as the overarching landscape aesthetic of the age. However, with growing concerns over sustainability and natural resource conservation, there has naturally been an increasing number of people calling for a modification of this water- and fertilizer-intensive approach to the front-yard landscape. New books such as Lawn Wars, by Lois B. Robbins, and John Greenlee’s The American Meadow Garden, advocate for a wilder, less tamed approach to the front yard. And enter the front yard that has been converted to a prairie or meadow, or some variation thereof.

On the opposite end of the spectrum

The challenge of this endeavor is not pushing the formal aesthetic too far in the opposite direction to a weedy or scrubby aesthetic, which is so often what the front-yard conversions end up looking like. As a result, people equate less lawn with weedy, and the mass appeal of the endeavor has been intensely diminished. There are those who counter that wild is good, manicured bad, and that people need to simply accept that that will be the future state of affairs. It is as if we were given only two options: water-thirsty lawn and dull evergreen shrubs, or overgrown weedy hot-mess that is good for the environment, so therefore you should like it. We are thinking human beings, capable of solving multifaceted problems, and don’t buy into this artificially two-sided argument one bit. The enjoyment and challenge of the front-yard landscape is merging the formal and wild and coming up with an aesthetic that is a hybrid of what came before and what is to come. These hybrid landscapes can potentially have infinitely more mass appeal than the purely wild and weedy ones, and if the objective is to reduce water consumption and chemical fertilizers on a large scale, mass appeal should very much be the objective, not buying into a rarified aesthetic that is tough to swallow. After all, these are landscapes, spaces that are supposed to delight the eye and the senses, not be exercises in difficulty.