On the Industrialization of Gardening

On the Industrialization of Gardening
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Guest Rant by Sheera Stern, who gardens in Metuchen, NJ

As fall segues into winter, we are all relieved that the whine of the gas-powered leaf-blower has finally ceased. (By the way, the electric Ryobi is at a lower decibel, but a higher pitch, and possibly even more annoying, like a giant mosquito in a hot room with torn screens.) Who are these people who descend on our neighborhoods all week to make this racket? Certainly not the homeowners.

We call ours a culture of narcissism, and nothing says I am the center of the universe like being too busy to pick up a rake or run our own lawnmower. So Mr. Homeowner calls a service and poof! the lawn is mowed, the leaves disappear, and the “chores” are done. (I’ve actually only known one person for whom raking leaves was a chore, and he had twenty oaks on a third of an acre. Lovely high shade in summer, but a blizzard of leaves in autumn. He raked.)

Leaves are big business here in Central NJ. How would you like to live next to Mr. Homeowner?

Mr. Homeowner parks his BMW in the driveway on Friday night and there truly is nothing to be done until Monday morning. He certainly isn’t going to spend any time in his yard over the weekend. The sole purpose of the yard is to conform to an ideal standard of success: it looks neat to people driving by—not a fallen leaf out of place. The experts have handled it.

The experts may not know anything about horticulture, but they know what makes less work. A ride-on mower sized and powered for a golf course makes quick work of a 50 x 100 in-town lot, and you can ride it on and off the truck. Pruning shrubs into a vase shape makes it easier to mulch in the spring and blow leaves in the fall, so everything is pruned into the same shape with the same tool: a gas-powered hedge trimmer.

In my neighborhood every plant has an identical shape, whether it is a rhododendron, a willow, a rose, even, in one case, a Chinese dogwood. The silhouette is smooth but the leaves are ragged where they have been mangled by the saw. Eventually, of course, the shrubs die, whereupon they are replaced by some new victims and the cycle repeats. Over the past ten years I’ve watched as a lovely garden of very old azaleas was massacred and eventually replaced. Among the replacements is an Atlas cedar, destined to spread twenty feet in diameter, planted a snug two feet from the house.

Overspray turned the boxwoods brown. Worse yet, substantial die-back on the Cercis Forest Pansy required me to have the center pruned out.

The prime motivators behind this carnage are ignorance and fear. As we move ever farther away from our agrarian roots, not only do we know less as a culture about how the natural world works, but we also have less curiosity and tenacity. Fearful of exposing his ignorance, Mr. Homeowner hires someone who pretends to know more than he does. The results speak for themselves, but he has no aesthetic against which to judge.  Since he isn’t planning to spend any time outdoors, he doesn’t really care as long as the homeowners association doesn’t fine him.

Did you really want that tree in front of your window? Did you really want that cedar so close to the house?

Should those of us who garden care about those who don’t? Yes, if it contorts us into ever more defensive postures against the industrialization of gardening. The standard of perfection is a 2-4 D lawn with no fallen leaves in autumn. After escorting a leaf blower out of my yard—very much against his will—I am resigned to fencing in my front yard, although it goes very much against the design. If normal is the roar of leaf blowers, do gardeners have to wear ear and eye protection in the autumn?

Sheera Stern teaches English to speakers of other languages, primarily in the Middle East, online, when the sound of industrial landscaping equipment does not interrupt her classes.

Posted by

Sheera Stern

on November 28, 2016 at 10:46 am, in the category Guest Rants.


    • skr
    • 24th February 2016

    That weeping japanese maple in front of a window is a cliché these days. I saw so many of them like that went I went back east to visit my mom.

    • Sheera Stern
    • 4th September 2016

    Actually–I think it is a cherry. I promise you it will get a Beatles haircut in spring.

    • admin
    • 11th November 2016

    You are ringing my chimes! I work in a CA big box next to a gated community with a oppressive HMO. Dead shrubs in the front yard Must be replaced with the same shrub, also destined to die after its sculpted into a cylinder or cube by the Mow and Blow guys.
    By the way, is that a redwood on the right side of the picture? Big mistake, really big mistake ! I see lots of them here,

    • Laura B
    • 15th November 2016

    Even if that isn’t a redwood, that is a big, probably expensive mistake. In a few short years the branches will be up against the house, the windows, and the roots will be diving under the foundation. Amazing that folks plant trees and don’t realize they grow!

    • Sheera Stern
    • 22nd November 2016

    And in ten years. . . .

    • Sheera Stern
    • 7th December 2016

    My buddy, Rich, the landscape architect, tells me it is an Atlas cedar, and I believe everything Rich say.

    • Laura
    • 8th December 2016

    I live on an older street where the mulched, manicured, cedar cultivar, daylily, hosta, one tree, weed-free lawn seems to be a must. The saving grace is that there are many mature trees, despite the loss of our town planted Ash trees.

    • Sheera Stern
    • 9th December 2016

    One of my neighbors came over to tell me my front yard was a jungle. She also complained that the creeping thyme in my hellstrip was creeping onto the sidewalk. I said, well, that really is the concept, isn’t it. Took the wind right out of her sails. She’s still mad because I used to help at her place harvesting leaves and no longer do so.

    • Laura
    • 9th December 2016

    Sheera, your plant-filled yard sounds just lovely. I know exactly the moments you speak of: when the motors and engines cease and you suddenly realize you can hear the breeze in the trees and flowers, the birds calling, and the buzz of bees. I savour those times, like you.

    • anne
    • 9th December 2016

    To this day, my 91-year old mother gets excited to see a classic sterile lawn-n-shrub landscape with no leaves or weeds in it, finding it “beautiful”. She can’t stand to see flowers that need deadheading or branches that need pruning around her senior community, and will do the job herself if the gardeners don’t get there quick enough. For years, she compulsively sprayed the s**t out of any stray bug or weed that popped up in her yard. Her generation is that much closer to a time when people were surrounded by wildlife and wilderness and fought to keep them at bay. Now, we know more about our place in nature and try to find ways to bring it into our lives. Perhaps our tastes in landscaping sometimes reflect generational differences and priorities?

    • Laura
    • 9th December 2016

    It is a peculiarly North American thing too, I think. I’ve heard it called a kind of ‘hubris’ where man must exert his control over the landscape. I would love to learn about how we arrived here and why.

    • Thomas Mickey
    • 9th December 2016

    Loved your article. I understand your point so well.
    I think it is a matter of being aware that we are part of nature, not in charge of nature.
    The problem has roots in the nineteenth century garden industry.
    In 1884 the Vick Seed Company from Rochester, New York wrote in its garden magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly, “What we do in the gardening way is done for the appearance, the respectability of the thing, done for the same reason that we have a coat of paint put on the house, or renew the wall-hangings.”
    That view of nature, unfortunately, continues.

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