11-13-12 - Manifesto on American Gardens

The landscaping in my neighborhood is so incredibly ugly, it occurred to me the other day that it would actually look better if everybody just stopped tending their yards for 5 years and let it go back to natural; some blackberry, some sweet peas, oregon grape, and conifers. Wild, bushy, green, that stuff is beautiful. The un-tended strips along the highways or in abandonded lots look better than the damn city, which is covered with all these Home Depot plants that don't belong in the area.

American vernacular garden style is disgusting. It consists of a patch of lawn that's generally very dense and tightly mowed, then a hard edge at the border of the lawn, often even with something utterly unforgivable like a black plastic strip, then planted beds. The planted bends typically are a big expanse of mulch with scattered little dots of isolated plants. It's totally unnatural looking; it doesn't look right in its place, like it belongs there.

Just like with food, you should ask yourself, is all this stuff I'm doing actually making it better? If you go out to the woods around here and then walk around a neighborhood, how could you possibly think that the concrete pavers and decks and inappropriate warm-weather plants are an improvement?

Anyhoo, here's my manifesto about natural garden design :

1. Plants should look like themselves. Ferns look good green, not yellow or variegated. Daffodils look good yellow, not red or white. These days with advanced hybridization techniques you can get all kinds of crazy stuff, but DON'T, they are tacky as hell. They're like heavy makeup or plastic surgery, they sort of optimize a beauty goal but wind up being worse.

2. Your garden should match your area. Again with careful tending you can grow things from all over the world, but you shouldn't. The plants will look the most natural if they suit your area. Here in the PNW that means evergreens, ferns, rhododendra, etc. You can add some Japanese plants and such that have similar native climates, but things like tropical plants or hot/dry mediterranean plants do not belong here.

3. Mulch is fucking disgusting looking. One of the worst possible things you can do to your garden is to spread a huge field of mulch and then dot it with a sparse scattering of shrubs. Mulch is a necessary evil (actually some modern thought believes that mulch is overrated, but that's a digression) and should be invisible as much as possible. Mulches should, like the plants, match the area, not be some weird imported thing. So the modern cocoa and coco (coconut) mulches are both inappropriate everywhere. Here in the Northwest, pine bark is a semi-natural forest floor mulch and so looks okay in moderation.

4. Fertilizers, weed killers, grass treatments, etc. are all massive poisons, they flow into our natural water ways and fuck up the environment. You are a huge fucking selfish asshole if you use them beyond the bare minimum that is absolutely necessary. If your yard or plants require large amounts of chemicals to be happy, then change your fucking yard you asshole, plant something that works better in your environment; poisoning the damn lake is not a good tradeoff for you having a nice lawn.

5. Moss is a very natural and beautiful part of a Northwest garden and should not be removed. (BTW on a semi-related topic, the idea that moss can damage your roof is basically a myth here in the northwest (we very rarely get a major freeze, which is what makes moss harmful (because freezing makes it expand which rips up the shingles)) - and certainly pressure washing is guaranteed to do more harm than the moss ever could). Removing moss in the northwest is like polishing the patina off antique metal ware, it shows a complete lack of taste.

6. Concrete, manufactured stone, plastic, cast pavers, etc. have no place in a garden. Landscape fabric, plastic path/yard edging, etc. can be used but only if they will stay invisible, which they won't (they always work themselves out into sight), so probably just shouldn't be used.

7. A sort of general issue I've been thinking about is that there is a conflict between what looks good in a photo, or in a first impression, vs. what looks good to live with. This is true of gardens, houses, lots of things. Basically for a photo or a first impression (like a realtor visit) what looks good is simple, clean, and above all coherent; for example flowers should be all of one color or two colors. Many people now design gardens with this in mind, optimizing for a single view. However, that is quite different from what is enjoyable to live with on a regular basis. The scene that looks great in a photo will get boring if it's all you have to look at every day. To live with it's nicer to have lots of variety, unusual specimens, lots of little bits of interest you can walk around and look at. It's sort of like the overall impression vs. the density of interest; it's the "macro" vs "micro" optimization if you like. (the same is true of house decor; magazines and realtors favor a very clean, unified, almost Japanese simple interior, but living in that is quite boring; it's more interesting to live in the very cluttered house full of curios and covered with paintings and photos that give you lots of little things to look at).

The ideal Seattle house should have big Doug Fir beams, a cedar shake roof, and a big fireplace made of natural boulders. There should be a stream on the property and french drains that route groundwater to the stream.

The ideal Seattle garden should be like a woodland meadow. Obviously you don't actually want a "house in the woods" actually because it's too dark, what you want is that feeling when you're walking through the dense woods and you get to a big meadow and suddenly the sun appears and there's this lovely clearing of grasses and flowers with trees all around.

An ideal Seattle garden should always include some big evergreen trees, since they are the true masters of this landscape. A forest garden around the evergreens could include rhodendra, ferns, blueberries, etc. A good Seattle garden should always include moss and boulders; a truly lucky site would have one of our magnificent ice-age glacially deposited boulders.

(Seattle used to have lots of amazing giant boulders in the city. They were deposited by the glaciers that cut the sound, and were usually granite, giant 40 foot diameter things that just plopped there randomly. The vast majority of them have been destroyed, clearing space for houses and roads and such, and also to create smaller rocks. If you drive around Seattle you may observe all the rockeries used as retaining walls, made of large boulders (2-3 foot diameter typically); those boulders were usually made by dynamiting the original huge glacial boulders. There was one of the giant glacial boulders right on my street up until quite recently (the 1950's or something like that; the old neighbor was alive when it was still there); it's a shame that more weren't left and used as interesting city landscape features; of course it's an even bigger shame that more stands of old growth forest weren't left, we could have had stretches like the Golden Gate Park Panhandle running all over the city, and Seattle would then have been a unique and gorgeous city instead of the architectural garbage heap that it is today).

I've realized after buying this house we're in now that when shopping for a house, if you want to be a gardener, it's actually a liability to buy a house with a nice existing garden. The problem is you will want to work with what's already there, to respect those plants, and to save yourself work. But most likely the previous owner did some dumb things, planting big trees in bad places, or picking bad species or whatever. It's hard for me to just pull the trigger and rip out a garden that's already pretty nice, but if I had a crap garden I could plan it from the beginning and get more of what I want.

Typical "American Vernacular" style, taken from a real estate listing in my neighborhood :

Contrast with a Seattle park (Llandover Woods) that has very minimal sculpting, but is sticking to what this area should look like :

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old rants