by Flora Cordis Johnson
“Worms,” he said. “What you need is worms…. Bring a truckload in here and dump ‘em.” The burly arborist and I were standing in about an acre of mud. A few weeks earlier, this had been lawn. The site was a former orchard located in what had become a very upscale neighborhood near Seattle. For decades, a professional arborist had kept the fruit trees pruned to perfection while a groundskeeper mowed the lawn that set the trees apart.
Then my colleagues and I showed up. We killed the grass by covering it with a layer of cardboard and, on top of that, two inches of compost. This being Seattle, rain happened. That converted the compost to muck—the slimy, shoe-sucking kind of muck that made even me wonder whether I was losing my mind along with my gardening clogs.
But the big guy wasn’t worried. He gazed out over that acre of mud with evident satisfaction, all those worms dancing in his head. It turned out that he had been a worm-farmer in a previous life. He liked worms. Worms like muck. He figured that we needed worms. And, as a matter of fact, he was at least half-right.
Thus begins one of many stories from my brief but colorful career as a Seattle-area garden designer. I learned many lessons during my seven or so years in this business. One is that what homeowners do with their property is important, both for the health of the neighborhood and for the future of the planet. Another lesson learned—an apparent paradox—is that homeowners, especially gardeners, really need to stop worrying so much.
Let me backtrack a bit and tell you my story. Burned out after more than 20 years in Chicago as an editor and writer, in 1993 I moved to Seattle and veered into a 90-degree career change. I became a garden designer. Specifically, I began designing and sometimes installing natural landscapes.
As a natural landscaper, I tried to create a healthy ecosystem rather than just a collection of plants. To do this, I worked largely although not exclusively with native plants—that is, plants that might have been present on a site when European settlers arrived. Along with animals present on the site at that time, these plants would once have formed an ecological community ideally suited to the soil, water, and weather of the site. By reintroducing original plant species, I hoped to attract enough of the original animal species so that the community could begin to knit itself back into a whole again.
The resulting landscape would never be an exact copy of what had been there hundreds of years before. But with any luck it would be teeming with species of plants and animals, mostly native to the area, that can’t survive in most human-made landscapes—and the landscape would, once again, be the one best suited to the site. It would also, at least in my opinion, be serene and beautiful—a lush space full of blooms and foliage changing with the seasons and forming a backdrop to visits from animals as varied as the red-and-black lady bug, the secretive but songful wren, and the boisterous Pacific treefrog.
Natural landscapes are good for native plants and animals, for the environment generally, and for the homeowner who doesn’t want to have to do a lot of work. Natural landscapes rarely require fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides, all potential pollutants. Natural landscapes rarely have to be mowed, raked, or pruned, which not only means less work for owners but also helps to prevent air, water, and noise pollution. Once they’re established, natural landscapes generally don’t need supplemental water, which is a huge benefit in areas subject to drought. When water does fall from the sky, natural landscapes soak it up, which prevents flooding; natural landscapes filter pollutants from air, soil, and water; they hold soil in place, preventing erosion and mudslides; they can help to offset the release of climate-changing gasses.
For all these reasons, regional and local governments often promote natural landscaping in order to mitigate the adverse impact of development. When I was living in the Seattle area, several levels of government encouraged natural landscaping. I got a couple of my biggest jobs because of a county program that promised a substantial reduction in property taxes to certain property owners who agreed to protect or create landscapes full of native plants.
With all this in their favor, you might think homeowners would be jumping like salmon at the chance to install natural landscapes. I certainly expected as much. But if you thought that, you would be wrong, as I was. Homeowners who were willing to “go native” were a minority.
A surprisingly large number of homeowners seem to think that nature wants them dead. This is reflected in a large number of questions that a natural landscaper must learn to answer cheerfully and with a show of sympathy for the anxiety that lurks beneath.
Will a natural landscape cause allergic reactions, make the home vulnerable to forest fires, or attract criminals who will lurk in the shrubbery and mug/rape/murder anybody who walks by? Will children or pets be scratched by thorns or poisoned by delicious-looking (but deadly) berries? How about venomous yellow-and-black insects (referred to almost universally as ‘bees,’ although only some of them are)? Won’t they sting and, as day follows night, bring on respiratory failure followed by cardiac arrest? How about snakes? Bats? (Snakes and bats don’t have to do anything; their mere existence causes fright.) How about rodents? What’s the name of that disease you can get from mice? Avian influenza hadn’t hit the headlines when I was doing this kind of work but I’m sure that birds have now joined the list of potential assassins.
Now, the hazards these homeowners fear are mostly real, and a well-behaved natural landscaper is quick to say so. But they are unlikely. Except in rare circumstances, you are about as likely to be killed by a natural landscape as by any other environment in which you find yourself (except possibly your bathroom—which, according to reports, is a lot more dangerous). There is no more reason to worry about being killed by your naturalized front yard than to worry about being run down by a car when you step into the street. Yet even the most devil-may-care pedestrian may blanche at the thought that planting a flower might, in turn, attract a ‘bee.’
Eventually, the majority of homeowners find reason to not practice natural landscaping, no matter how many inducements they’re offered. They retreat behind closely clipped lawns with perimeters of shrubs that have been pruned into geometric shapes. Do I need to explain just how unnatural this is, how few animals can live here, how much environmental pollution the maintenance of these spaces can cause? Let me make just one point before moving on: A manicured landscape can be as hazardous as any other. Many of these hazards involve the very pesticides, herbicides, and power tools used to keep these spaces looking—and I use this word in its most ironic, air-quotes sense—safe.
Which brings us to gardeners, the last best hope for the natural landscaping movement. Gardening is a multi-million dollar business these days. Gardeners routinely justify and even romanticize their hobby as a love of nature expressed in concrete terms. The well-known author Michael Pollan, for example, has called gardens a “middle ground between the lawn and the forest—between those who would complete the conquest of the planet in the name of progress, and those who believe it’s time we abdicated our rule and left the earth in the care of more innocent species.” The garden, he says, “suggests there might be a place where we can meet nature halfway.”
I couldn’t agree more. But, in practice, does this happen? Does the average garden “meet nature halfway?” Sadly, it does not. The average garden crosses to the other side of the street when it sees nature coming, and then refuses to make eye contact.
Here’s an example that may help to illustrate this point: In nature, plants are constantly being chewed by insects. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. Plants are adapted to being eaten—you could say that being eaten is in their job description. As long as a plant isn’t under stress from some other source, it can usually handle substantial loss of foliage with no loss of vigor.
What’s more, once plants start to attract plant-eating insects, the plant-eating insects soon start to attract the things that eat them. Birds, predatory insects, and other animals all come to the feast. These new arrivals help to keep the population of plant-eating insects down. As a result, the plants may be slightly damaged, but the damage rarely escalates beyond a level the plants can handle. In addition, the animals that eat the animals that are eating the plants will usually help the plants in other ways as well—pollinating them or fertilizing them, for instance—so the plants gain more than they lose by being nibbled.
Nature is full of circles such as this, in which plants and animals help other plants and animals that help them back. Soil, air, and water also are drawn into the dance, circles within circles and circles overlapping with circles until, finally, you have achieved that glorious knot of interconnectedness we call ecological balance or, more poetically, the web of life.
Most gardeners see foliage damaged by insects and what do they do? They arm themselves with a spray bottle full of pesticide and wage an all-out attack.
By killing the plant-eating insects, gardeners deprive the animals that eat the plant-eating insects of food. So the animals that eat the plant-eating insects never show up—or, if they do show up, they soon move on. Next time the plant-eating insects come to town, there will be no birds, predatory insects, or other non-human animals around to keep their populations under control. As a result the human animal—the gardener—is now in charge of insect control, a job nature would gladly have taken on if the gardener had left well enough alone.
Gardeners commonly complain about how much work they have to do, even as they do chores the garden doesn’t need done. Tasks such as pruning, raking leaves or removing dead and dying branches or entire trees are rarely necessary for the health of a landscape, and may be downright harmful. The gardener who rakes leaves deprives the soil of a protective cover and trees of the fertilizer that is best suited to their needs. Removal of dead and dying trees denies nesting sites to cavity-nesting birds and other animals. Pruning destroys places where animals can shelter from storms, hide from predators, and raise young. Almost everything gardeners do tends to reduce the number of insects in the garden; many birds and other animals rely on insects as a source of food.
These interventions tend to drastically reduce the variety of species that can survive in a given landscape. They often have other environmental costs. And they put humans in the position of spending money and time in order to spend even more money and time, for instance by raking leaves only to then come back and fertilize the trees. The end result, a typical garden, is no more natural than the house it’s sitting next to, and completely dependent on the gardener for its survival.
Some observers suggest that a human love of certain landscapes, such as lawns, and our distrust of other landscapes, such as forests, may arise from our evolutionary history. Our species arose on the African savannah, so the theory goes, and it is the open savannah we are trying to re-create. In contrast, dense growth at one time did harbor dangerous animals—hence our tendency to think there’s always something hazardous lurking in the shrubs.
This certainly would explain why homeowners are often so anxious in the presence of natural landscapes, while far more dangerous environments that haven’t been around so long (been scared of your bathroom lately?) don’t frighten them anything like so much. Maybe raking, pruning, mowing, fertilizing, watering, and clipping is how gardeners rid the garden of beasts that go “bump” in the brush.
But I prefer to take gardeners at their word, if only because this gives me hope. I’m willing to believe that gardeners love nature as much as they say they do. I prefer to believe that primping and fussing is not just some oddball form of self-defense. I prefer to believe that gardening is an act of love.
The hazards gardeners fear aren’t, for the most part, threats to gardeners themselves, or to children and pets. The threats gardeners fear are those that, at least in the gardener’s imagination, nature poses to itself. Leaves are raked because the gardener fears they might kill the grass. Shrubs are pruned because gardeners fear disease. The gardener who greets every insect with a spray bottle may be no different, in principle, from the parent who fills every electrical socket with a plastic plug. If making a home safe for children is called child-proofing, a garden can be thought of as nature-proofed.
Mind you, I’m not saying that nature doesn’t need our help. Repairing the damage humans do to nature is quite a lot of work. Eradicating a lawn can take a lot of cardboard and a lot of compost, if you’re not willing to use herbicides. But lawn grasses spread aggressively and compete ferociously for water and nutrients. So, if native plantings are going to have a fighting chance, the lawn has to go. And that’s just one example of the heavy lifting natural landscapers have to do in order to get a natural landscape on, rather than off, the ground.
It takes a minimum of three years to establish a natural landscape. Even after that, the landscape will have to be watched. Sometimes nature does need help. Sometimes a prized plant must be saved from a suffocating cover of leaves. Sometimes insects (often non-native ones that have no natural predators) do threaten important native plant species. Natural landscaping is both an art and a science; a big part of the science is knowing when a threat really is a threat, as well as when it’s not.
Nor am I saying that gardeners shouldn’t enjoy their gardens. Many natural landscapers include paths, mowed areas, even small lawns in their designs. These features make natural landscapes easier for humans to navigate and enjoy. Along with benches, garden art, and other signs of human activity, they bring the natural landscape to that halfway point between human-made and entirely natural, that point recommended by many—myself included—as ideal.
For a garden to be able to reach this point, however, gardeners need to ease up. Like good parents, they need to know when to be protective and when not. They need to practice that paradox known to good parents everywhere, the one that tells us, sometimes, to let go of what we love.
In illustration of which, let me finish the story with which I started—the one about me, the arborist, and that sea of mud. The arborist, if you recall, wanted to bring in a load of worms by truck.
This was an enlightened idea. We did need worms. Worms eat muck and, when they eat, they poop. What they poop is high-quality soil—crumbly without being sticky and just what we needed to make that property look less like a set for The Hound of the Baskervilles.
What we didn’t need was to bring worms in by truck. We, the gardeners, had done our job when we put down cardboard to kill the grass and covered it with two inches of compost. Now it was time to step back and let nature do her stuff.
After eating and pooping, what worms like to do is procreate. Feed ‘em, and you can have worms by the truckload, free of charge.
Even as the arborist and I were discussing the matter, the population explosion had already begun. The evidence—a bright-eyed robin bopping around the mudflats in search of worms to eat—was already visible for anyone who had eyes to see.