Letter to America: Diversity, a Garden Allegory with Suggestions for Direct Action
By Camille Dungy
When we first moved into our house, the yard was tame and orderly. There were three aspen trees in the rear corners of the backyard, but mostly the plant life consisted of severely trimmed juniper bushes and a substantially weed-free lawn. Beds of river rocks, so uniform in size and shape as to seem manufactured, edged these expanses of green. It was a well-manicured yard.
This was the first thing about the house I set out to change.
I’ve been pulling rock for four years now. Every spring before the heat comes on and again in the fall before the cold settles, I rip out a new section of river rock and landscaping fabric. This is a slow process. The rock and plasticized landscaping fabric deplete the soil. Efforts to reduce natural diversity nearly always result in some form of depletion, and this certainly has been true in my yard. What I find beneath those repressed beds would be of little use to a garden. It’s hard clay I have to amend with the compost I produce from kitchen scraps and fallen leaves. I also add topsoil hauled in from a landscaping supply store called Hageman Earth Cycle. I love the environmental vision inscribed in the name “Earth Cycle.” I also love climbing their small hills of topsoil to shovel some into my wheelbarrow and haul with me back home. It’s the full-bodied participation in promoting an ecologically vibrant landscape that excites me.
I try to salvage native earthworms I find under the river rocks, tossing the wrigglers back into my newly-enriched beds. The work might go more quickly if I hired a Bobcat to scoop the rock, but I work slowly, extracting and replanting desirable vegetation whose roots have grown into the landscaping fabric. I spare centipedes and pill bugs, do my best to avoid spiders. Once, I found an anthill teeming with creatures who were busy tunneling into the difficult dirt. I left them where they were. Proceeding this way, it may take me 12 hours to prepare a satisfactory three-square-foot plot. I’ll sow this with wildflower seed, perennial starts, tulip bulbs, and irises’ gangly rhizomes. Within months, I will enjoy a riot of color where once there was nothing but a hard, grey expanse.
In the center of my lawn, and also in poorly irrigated corners that had been overtaken by crabgrass and purslane, I’ve started more flowerbeds. Making these, too, is a difficult process, but not the kind of process that takes place on my knees as does the reclamation of the rock beds. The object on the lawn is to turn turf into rich soil. I cover the grass with layer on layer of cardboard, kitchen scraps, topsoil, compost, newspaper, and mulch. At the end of the long winter, I’ll turn it all with a shovel and pitchfork. Then I will plant my seeds. I begin around Halloween and must wait until nearly June before I can start to see any results. The process of changing my environment from homogenous to diverse is rewarding, but slow.
Because I garden by scattering seed, I never quite know what’s going to appear, or where. If, as Michael Pollan writes, “a lawn is nature under totalitarian rule,” my yard reveals a very different sort of possibility. My property yields an explosion of color come mid-summer. You never know exactly what you’ll find on my little patch, or whom.
The August we moved into this house, I found canister upon canister of herbicides and pesticides on the worktable in the garage. That first summer, very few pollinators braved the poisoned turf. They’d flit from one rare dandelion to the next, then buzz away, seemingly forlorn. But this year I’ve counted numerous species of bee, more than two dozen different kinds of birds, and a slew of moths and butterflies, including monarchs. I’ve planted milkweed in many places around the yard. I’ve planted other native plants as well. In some of this year’s reclaimed beds, I planted handfuls of sunflower seeds left over from last year’s crop. These have grown as high as 13 feet, delighting many species of neighbors, humans included.
The brilliant goldfinches that hang out near our feeders eat my sunflower petals. I would prefer if they didn’t eat my sunflower petals, but the sunflowers are there for them as much as they are there for me, and I’m learning that birds eat flower petals, not just the seeds from the middle of the plants. Next year, to continue to attract these beautiful birds, I’ll sow more sunflower seeds. The sunflowers, and the birds who eat them, fill me with joy I could not have imagined.
The covenant for our homeowners’ association specifies that what I’ve done around my house is technically prohibited. There should be fewer wildflowers in my yard. Banish the milkweed. Banish the tall grass. Banish the front yard onion patch, the sad squash trials. When the sunflowers have finished flowering, rather than leave the dried stalks and seed heads for birds to perch and munch on as they stock up for their winter migrations, I should pull all remnants of the summer plants out of the ground. There should be nothing brown like that around the yard. Nothing that might be construed as aesthetically unsavory.
Did I mention that my family is the only black family on our block? That we’re some of the only black people in our neighborhood? That, in fact, we’re one of the few black families in our entire town? I say this now because it may help you to understand that my resistance to the particular brand of suburban American monoculture my HOA promotes is also a resistance to a culture that has been set up to exclude people like me. A culture that—through laws and customs that amount to toxic actions and culturally constructed weeding—has effectively maintained homogenous spaces around houses like mine.
But, I’m lucky. My neighbors claim to be grateful I’ve moved in and cultivated the most heterogeneous environment on our street. And the bees love the flowers. And the sunflowers shade the low-growing plants at their bases, some of which flower and some of which don’t. A whole new ecosystem is thriving in my yard. Hardly anyone used to visit, but now it is alive and full of action. Birds I don’t see on any of the neighboring lawns have taken up regular habitation around our place. Several mating pairs chose spots in our various trees and bushes to nest and raise their young. The worms I so carefully preserved provide tasty snacks for robins. I released 9,000 ladybugs to help with an aphid infestation on my rudbekia plants. Now I’ve seen an increase in creatures feeding on the healthy black-eyed susans (and probably on some ladybugs as well). Swallowtails, painted ladies, and the occasional monarch pass through the garden in late summer. When our aspens succumbed to the scale that struck many of the trees in the neighborhood this year and we had to cut them down, there were still plenty of places for bugs and birds and squirrels to congregate, places that did not exist before I began the work of diversifying the landscape I found in my backyard.
Though it fills me with joy to be surrounded by such vibrancy, keeping up with all of this isn’t easy. This spring, it was as if every dandelion in the county called its neighbor to join them in our yard. I spent countless hours with my old-fashioned weed remover, pulling weeds at the root. It occurs to me, doing this work, that one of the reasons we prefer homogeneity is that it can seem much easier. There is a man who comes to my house and fixes things. He’s handy, smart, and strong. He has an eye for order and structure, and I defer to him when it comes time to decide what type of stain to use on the deck. He recently offered to help me out with the weeds. A couple applications of chemical herbicide and my yard will surely look neat as a magazine photo. I will admit I have been tempted. My flowerbeds are spectacular, but the mounds of clover and bindweed scattered around the unimproved sections detract from the overall grandeur of my lot. It’s difficult to strike a balance between acceptance and dominance. I have to come to terms with the fact that maintaining a poison-free yard will mean revising some of my opinions about what plants I want around me and which I do not.
This is one of the key glories of cultivating diversity: when we cultivate diversity, we learn things we never knew we might want to know. Things we may even need to know one day. Neither our river rocks nor our turf grass are edible, but the dandelions, purslane, sunflowers, coneflowers, California poppies, and curly dock I either cultivate or tolerate all have some nutritive value. The vibrant variety in my yard can provide sustenance in all kinds of ways!
Our first winter in this house was hard on me. The killing frosts did what they do and then there were the months without flowers. February came, then March, and then April and, because of all that rock and turf, there was nothing to look at but gray and more gray until May came and, with it, some green. As I’ve spent the past years planting bulbs and seeds, and as I’ve put in perennial starts, and as I’ve swapped plant cuttings with friends, planting plots in their honor, and as I’ve divided and rearranged tubers, and as I’ve cultivated the diversity of my garden, I have grown happier earlier and earlier each spring. I didn’t know I was that dependent on color, on variety, on watching so many different kinds of life being lived but, evidently, I am.