Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Adversarial Horticulture

I don’t watch TV much. I’m too busy and TV makes me restless, and besides I enjoy the smug feeling of being able to act as though I’m above all that. But now and then when I’m in a hotel room and there’s nothing better to do, my dark side comes out and I find myself watching tacky cop shows and other lowbrow dreck. I'm not too proud of that, but there it is.   

A few springs ago I made a visit to a local desert and got severely rained out as soon as I arrived. There was nothing to do except hole up in a cheesy motel until the wicked storm passed. Surfing through the channels I came upon an ad for power garden equipment. The sponsor was one of the large national home improvement store chains. Like so many ads, this one was a little 60-second play in which the Happy Suburban Homeowner (a 30-ish white male) ventures out to the far corners of his lot, his sturdy shoulders hung with a goodly arsenal of power tools – weed whacker, lawnmower, chainsaw, etc. 

Looking like he's bound for Iraq, HSH disappears into the shrubbery. Soon a cacophony of snarling motor noises emerges from the greenery, and bits of hedge and grass fly up as the foliage quakes and shivers as if it were being devoured by a giant gopher. After a while, HSH emerges, a bit soiled, with his hat askew and his t-shirt hanging out. But he has a happy grin because he has once again prevailed against the enemy that is his garden. Cut to the logos of Toro, John Deere and Green Machine.   

Such is the relationship many of us have with our yards. We accept, and are even eager about, the apparent necessity to engage in a fierce war with the garden as part of our Saturday domestic ritual. Thus a place intended to be a peaceful refuge from the world’s troubles becomes a chlorophyll-soaked battleground strewn with the severed branches and mutilated grass blades of a suburbia in mortal conflict. 

I call this Adversarial Horticulture. I also call it unnecessary. It is not what we really have in mind, is it? Truth is, if you take a little extra time to design stability into your landscape you won't need to struggle. The garden you create will be on your side and stern measures won't be needed.

Gardeners are pathetic control freaks. We really are. I include myself in this. We cultivate a benign image that is utterly at odds with our truly vicious nature. The Gentle Art of Gardening? My foot. If weeds are to be counted as plants then we kill far more than we grow, do we not? If insects are among the wildlife we claim to love, then we must include genocide among our activities. We pinch, prune, shear, slash, chop, dig up, bury, squash, graft, coppice, espalier, pollard, girdle, tie up, tie down, stake, eradicate, poison, drown, trap, suffocate, and just plain murder. The monstrous things we do to plants and insects would land us in prison if we did them to a puppy. So much of gardening is about control and so little is about truly nurturing. (Gee, I hate to get political here, but a recent study revealed that Democrats spend most of their gardening time nurturing plants, while Republicans, if they garden, spend their time tidying up and shearing plants into unnatural shapes. Not to cast any aspersions or anything.) 

Why do we behave this way? Do we use the garden to act out our frustrations at being otherwise out of control at home, at work, on the street? When we can’t deal with our teenagers or our spouses or our boss, does the garden serve as a surrogate? If so, we have a great deal of work to do on ourselves. On the other hand, if all this is made necessary by the condition of our gardens themselves, then we had best get to work on creating a better garden. I'll share more in future posts about how to make this happen. For now, know that help is on the way.


  1. Great post, Owen...I was thinking along those lines just today when I was tidying up the one shrub in my lush back yard that needed a little shaping, using a pair of scissors. That's my idea of a sustainable garden; one where every plant can grow to its natural size & shape, and green waste is limited to the foliage, flowers & fruits of seasonal plants as they go through their yearly cycles (and even those go into the compost!) What little I need to do (including early intervention w/timber bamboo) can be done with hand tools during a garden stroll. Peace reigns in a stable, sustainable garden, thanks for reminding us why!

  2. You're right, Laura. Giving plants room to grow to their mature stature without the need for pruning to control size is one of the best kept secrets of sustainable gardening. When the garden book says Plant X grows to 20 feet tall, believe it. If you happen to want a 20 foot tall plant, you're all set. But if you want a 6 foot tall one, choose something else. Simple, right? But how often this basic truth is ignored. Oh, the hubris!

  3. Owen: I just posted this at my Facebook page. Call me your pimp daddy.
    My colleague, TV-cohost and dear friend Owen Dell has launched his blog. Crap - now there's another handsome, brilliant, funny, smarmy blogger out there. No, I didn't mean Owen; I'm thinking of this other guy. But as long as you're on line, I guess you might want to check out Owen also.

    Oh yes, he's also the author of Sustainable Landscaping for Dummies and if you don't own it already, you'd better find it soon. It's your rosetta stone to sustainable landscaping. I'm using it as the textbook for my college class.

  4. Hey Owen! Haven't seen you for a couple of years (lunch at the LA Landscape Show). Love your new blog -- and your musical masterpiece video with Billy!