Let the landscape Go

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I am going to piss some of y’all off here because the concept of ownership seems to be very important to people, especially in the United States. But you don’t really own your land. I don’t care how much you’ve paid into your mortgage. I don’t care how many generations your family has resided on your property. Your land is not your own to do whatever you want with.

Now, of course, you have the freedom to do almost whatever you want on your land. You can spray all just about all the pesticides you want, especially in a residence. You can create perfectly manicured landscapes that look more like the insides of a pinball machine than they do a natural landscape. You can kill the insects and birds, and plant an American flag and say, “It’s my liberty to do what I will with my space.”

But you will die. And even if your family resides on the land for sometime after you, they will also die. Even if the land is outright torched with fire and poisoned with soil sterilizer, it will recover and return to a state of relative peace after humans have either learned their lessons and altered their behavior, or succumb to a disease, or made the planet uninhabitable...for humans.

You see, the planet laughs at us because whatever we can throw at nature, it has been through much, much more devastating periods. And life always persists. Nature seems to always be negotiating with itself. There are plague-like population explosions of a species that will interrupt this peace (we are the current one), but always nature adjusts, and organisms find their niche, the out-of-bounds organism falls prey to predator big or small, and once again the ecosystem settles into a cacophonic but organized and richly beautiful symphony.

 goldfinch eating seeds of Oenothera hookeri

goldfinch eating seeds of Oenothera hookeri

I think of this when I garden. More and more I have been trying to give my own yard over to nature. Sure, I have garden beds for edible plants, and I have some potted plants I have installed because I like the way they look. But more and more I am planting species for the sake of providing a larval food for a caterpillar, fruit or seed for birds to consume, shelter for reptiles. I want the microbiology to return to the soil, and the rare and strange insects to have nectar. When a plant dies, I no longer feel the loss of losing something I think I owned. I now just observe the drama of nature in my yard. And I am trying to make my space a safe haven for wild things in a world where humans seek to control everything, make everything predictable and safe.

When people ask me about whether or not a plant is safe for their children, I laugh. Not because I am callous to the needs of children. But because children should learn to respect nature. Getting a cholla bud stuck on your ankle is a lesson I would not rob a child of. Plant dangerous plants that poke and sting. And don’t avoid a plant because it is poisonous--for heaven’s sake many things in life are poisonous to consume, you don’t avoid having these things in your life, you just DON’T EAT THEM. And you teach your children not to eat them--though really, is a kid really going to try to gnaw on a stem of Euphorbia?

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You don’t own your land, you don’t own the plants I sell you. When you take a plant home from a nursery, you have become a steward, and your job is to transition the plant from life in a container, to life in the ground--one more step toward being in an almost natural situation (though the source of water is artificial, and the human influence will never be unnoticed). If you change your attitude about plants, you may become a better horticulturist. The arrogance of saying “I bought this plant, it better be a good one” is mind-boggling when you consider you just took charge of a living thing. Plants are not furniture, they have needs. If you want this plant to survive and do well, it is upon you to find out what it needs, and try to meet them. In this day and age, it is an easy task--the information is at our fingertips with the internet.

You may do everything right and the plant may not make it for reasons unknown (nature is not always predictable). Unknown elements in the soil beneath that are difficult to observe might be to blame. Sometimes the genetics of an individual plant may not be right for this world--the sometimes cruel truth about living organisms is that some are born with genes that are not organized for success, and they fail--just like people. Some people are born with a terrible congenital disease. All organisms are subject to the laws of natural selection.

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This is an elaborate way of telling you that you don’t have total control over your landscape. The more we humans have tried to control the landscape, the more problems we have created. So we suggest you try another approach--mimic nature. Plant native plants in conditions that, as closely as possible, simulate the conditions that plant evolved in. Many plants will have ugly phases that we don’t easily accept as appropriate for the landscape. Plants go dormant. They sometimes present dry seed pods poking above that we don’t associate with as beautiful. But they evolved with these behaviors in response to surviving in their environment, attracting pollinators or methods of seed dispersal. They have developed methods of surviving dry or cold periods. Sometimes they have attracted insects that pollinate them, but also consume their foliage as larvae. And many (if not most) of these developments do not serve humans, directly.

This isn’t to suggest I am entirely selfless in my horticultural pursuits. I love watching the drama of nature unfold in my backyard. I love becoming aware of the tiny native bees that I didn’t notice before, even if I cannot figure out what name scientists have assigned the species. Once you have started to pay attention, you may find, like I have, that this sort of intellectual entertainment is a great reward for taking the time and trouble to meet the needs of plants installed into the landscape.

Once you have let go of control and ownership, you may, as I have, become comfortable in the idea that owning land is inferior to letting the land just be. And you might just adjust your concept of what is beautiful in a landscape to something more realistic and natural, instead of something more contrive, and frankly...stupid.

When I see plants shaped into boxes, planted into rows, I see the arrogance of people, ignoring the needs of the organism they have put into the ground for the sake of a strange kind of vanity. I suggest we relinquish some spaces in our lives to the wild--for organisms to carry on dramas that have nothing to do with us. And I suggest you pay attention to these dramas: they are fascinating. Nature creates compositions much more complex and intricate than any human has ever penned.

Katherine Gierlach