by Owen E. Dell

This article originally appeared in Pacific Horticulture magazine, Winter 1998. Reprinted by permission.

Part One – A POLEMIC

Those who would take over the earth

And shape it to their will

Never, I notice, succeed.

The earth is like a vessel so sacred

That at the mere approach of the profane

It is marred

And when they reach out their fingers, it is gone.

Lao Tzu (The Way of Life, ca. 550 b.c.)

There’s something terribly wrong with gardens. We apply harsh chemical fertilizers to make plants grow, then we laboriously cut them back and haul the trimmings to the dump. We plant things that aren’t suited to local conditions; then we wonder why our water bills are so high and gripe about having to spray for in-sects. We struggle with weeds when an inch or two of mulch would stop them. We poison our surroundings with pesticides, chemical fertilizers, the exhaust from power equipment and other unnatural substances, virtually none of which have been adequately tested for human or animal toxicity. We destroy forests to make decks, and mountains to make paths, and rivers to make gravel. We plunder nature and force our bounty into unnatural forms that require more and more resources to keep them going, becoming more unstable and consumptive as they mature. To add insult to injury, we create crudely imitative “naturalistic” gardens that make a mockery of that which we have destroyed to create them.

The sad fact is that much of what we do in the garden is upside-down and backwards. We use non-renewable resources first rather than last. We whip out the pesticides before letting natural controls go to work on insect problems. We escort precious rainwater off our property as quickly as possible and replace it with an expensive, inferior imported substitute. Our gardens waste so many resources, create so many undesirable impacts on the environment, demand so much extra care, and squander so much money that only love can explain why we put up with them. If our cars performed the way our gardens do, we’d all be walking.

In blindly following misguided traditions and in looking the other way at the impacts of our efforts, we have created a situation that, though it seems appealing enough to the casual eye, is unnecessarily dysfunctional. Think about your own garden for a moment, and ask yourself if it truly operates as an efficient system, providing rich rewards with minimal demands. Think about the things you’d rather not have to do in your garden and consider whether there might be a way to eliminate them. Even the most enthusiastic gardener has a dreaded task or two that’s always waiting to be done. For some it’s weeding, for others it might be shearing the hedges or mowing the lawn, but in all cases, it’s some part of the gardening experience that is perceived as being tedious, disheartening and minimally rewarding.

What if those tasks were suddenly gone? In many cases, if not most, they could be.


A revisionist history of horticulture would acknowledge that the art of gardening began as a minimalist endeavor in a time when there were no synthetic chemicals, no smog-belching lawn mowers, no dioxin-saturated PVC pipe, and no industrial infrastructure to bring a diversity of highly modified materials into the garden and haul away its waste products. The garden was perforce organic rather than chemically-dependent, simple rather than complex, and productive rather than consumptive. It was operated on a cyclical basis, making use of locally-available materials and looping resources on the site through practices like composting and water harvesting. Gardeners had an innate understanding of natural systems and how to make them work to their advantage. In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, “If you are a good organic gardener, looking at a rose you can see the garbage, and looking at the garbage you can see a rose.”

As the industrial revolution began to inform the garden, something started to happen to the attitudes of gardeners. Suddenly it seemed easier to waste than to conserve. After all, the garbage truck came every few days, so why compost?

Besides, fertilizer was so cheap that it seemed to make no sense to sift and spread and muck about with smelly manure teas and all that bother. Gardeners made a gradual and unconscious shift to the linear mode that had begun to poison our relationship with nature: plunder a resource, use it once, throw it away and go get some more. The world’s bounty seemed so great that we felt freed, by the grace of modern industrial processes, from ever having to conserve anything again.By the fifties the transformation had become bizarre, and most gardeners, along with most ordinary mortals, had gone completely incoherent. They could be found telling one another to spray DDT every week as a preventative measure, they planted things they had no business growing in their soil and climate, and they kept them alive with an arsenal of devices and potions that would have made the Pentagon proud. The subsidization of the garden was now nearly complete and it had been transformed from a bucolic natural system to a rushing riverbed beneath the spillway of American industrial output.

Perceiving themselves freed from the inconveniences of natural law, gardeners turned their attention to appearances and began to construct ever-more-rarefied gardens that placed an emphasis on beauty at the expense of function. Good design came to mean “looks good,” not “works well.” The garden became a place of caprice at any price, where displays of virtuosic plantsmanship and ostentation to the point of ludicrousness could be carried out in oblivious isolation from the real world.

Rather than coming to their senses, gardeners on the whole seem to have grown more self-indulgent over the passing years. Indeed, the situation appears to become worse by the day as the fleeting robustness of our economy drives the “garden as theme-park” engine at ever higher RPM’s.

As might be expected, this approach has only worked up to a point, and over the past few decades, the heavy hand of Gaia has parched our gardens with cyclical droughts, burned them with passing wildfires, visited upon them plagues of insects and diseases, and sent us more than a few times to the mirror to face our follies. Yet what have we really learned? We have made the odd adjustment here and there, it is true: the science of “xeriscaping” (apparently now moribund in the wake of El Niño) taught us valuable lessons about water conservation; the development of the “fire-wise” landscape has, in the rare instances where it is truly practiced, saved houses from destruction; and the impending dyspepsia of our bloated landfills has forced gardeners back to the compost pile for the first time in many years.

Yet, none of this addresses the real issue, which is, “How do we make the garden function as a system?” Until we answer that question, we will go on struggling, polluting, plundering and feeling vague if not acute disappointment at the results of all our work. Indeed, until we change our attitudes as well as our practices, we cannot even begin the transformation to sustainable gardening.

I recently saw a TV advertisement for a major chain of home improvement centers. The protagonist was a suburban male poised at the beginning of his weekly bout with the garden. Armed with every variety of powered equipment — a string trimmer, a blower, a mower, a chainsaw, a hedge trimmer and all the snarling rest — he dove headlong into the vicious tangle that was his back yard. After a pitched and noisy battle, he reappeared grinning in the now-tamed-and-sanitized landscape, which he had once again beaten into conformity with his middle-class sensibilities. The ad closed with a pitch for the tools, of course, and a dazzling array of corporate logos.

Is this the Shangri-la that we dream of? Is it necessary to submit to this kind of frantic indignity in order to have a garden? The answer, I believe, is no. With the application of a bit of common sense and some respect for the elegant workings of nature, which we can turn to our advantage rather than stubbornly continuing to fight a losing battle, we can have beautiful gardens that give more than they take. That is the future of gardens. That is the dream I want to share with you.


Other Articles by Owen E. Dell