Ever wonder why our landscapes look pretty much alike no matter which part of the country you visit? It certainly isn’t because we all have the same climate and soil conditions. It isn’t because green is the favorite color of most people and it definitely isn’t because there is only one style of landscaping that is acceptable or interesting to look at. As a person who sells plants and does landscape design I have given this plenty of thought. There is absolutely no reason why a commercial landscape in Texas should look the same as one in North Dakota or Georgia.
One of the reasons why this is true is that the nursery and landscaping industry has always sought out one-size-fits-all plants which tends to lead to a homogenized landscape. In addition this has lead to a certain set of values such as the redundant use of evergreen shrubs and ground covers bordered by a large expanse of lawn with a few trees (most often planted in uniform rows). This style of landscaping may be considered comforting in its predictability and most certainly is acceptable if not mandatory among many landscape professionals Yet when was the last time you heard someone exclaim how beautiful the tightly clipped hollies look today, or how magnificent the lawn where we spend so much time and money? Not very often………..perhaps not ever.
Up until recently, plants had to meet certain criteria before they were considered for the nursery trade. First and foremost, plants had to be easily reproduced and adaptable to greenhouse conditions or pot culture. Secondly these plants had to have good visual appeal at the point of sale and third, it would be best if these same plants could tolerate a wide range of climate and soil conditions. Other considerations might be fast growth, long bloom period, green during winter and so forth. However if the plant did not reproduce easily and adapt to pot culture very well it simply got passed over. So for the past 100 years or so the nursery industry has sought out the standard fare by selecting plants from all over the world that would meet these goals.
Now you would think a system like this would be hard to beat until you consider the fact that the bulk of these domesticated beauties are bred for areas that receive more than 30” of annual rainfall. If you look at the wholesale industry you will note that most of the companies that mass produce nursery plants are located in the higher rainfall areas of the country. This automatically caused the industry to favor plants that thrived in higher rainfall/humidity. Naturally this has always meant that those of us who live in lower rainfall areas would have to rely on irrigation to make up for the lack of rainfall. It also has always meant that even with the extra irrigation these mostly exotic plant species would be stressed due to lack of humidity and/or extreme temperatures. This stress opens the door to insect and disease attacks making it necessary to rely on products to cure them. Hence sales at the retail nursery are further enhanced by the need for fertilizers and pest controls.
Another problem we find with the current system is good old human nature. This goes back to the very beginning when the first Europeans discovered and settled the New World. During that same period in history, the sailing ships of Europe were traveling far and wide bringing botanical wonders from the four corners of the Earth. It was very much in vogue to have specimens in the garden to show to fellow gardeners. So it came to be that as the new settlers came to America, they brought their favorite plants with them. Our fledgling nursery industry grew from the popularity of these exotic species. Ever wonder why so many of the plants common to the landscape industry actually are native to the Asian continent? Could it be that the Asians got all the good stuff when God was passing out the plant material? Not so. It is just part of our nature to seek out the rare and unusual while overlooking what nature commonly provides.
So here we find ourselves saddled with a bunch of inbred, hybrid, water guzzling, chemically dependant, albeit pretty to look at plants at a time when water is getting expensive and harder to justify waste. In addition to this we find much of our water supply polluted from the overuse of fertilizers, pesticides, and other chemicals that are commonly used in our home landscapes. Many of these same chemicals are derived from oil which is also a finite resource. Yet in spite of the fact that the general public is aware of these issues and beginning to seek alternatives, we are in many cases hindered because the industry continues to sell the same old stuff dressed in a different package and given a new name.
Enter the new leaders in the landscape industry. These guys are typically small local nurseries and landscape contractors that deliver what the public is demanding and our dwindling resources require. These people know their local soils and climate well. They will refuse to sell or install plants that are not well suited to their particular conditions. These are the people that are motivated by more than short term profit. They understand that the future of this industry and their own livelihood depends upon reducing water needs and chemical input.
As more and more people offer these low maintenance landscapes the door has opened for wholesalers to supply the retail business. Today we find companies who are setting up shop in low rainfall areas to grow dry country plants. Many of the new xeric plants simply will not grow in the higher rainfall and humidity typical of the old standard wholesale industry. Now there is a thriving business in central and western Texas where none existed just a decade or so ago plus there is room for more as public education and demand for native or well adapted plants continues to grow.
Finally we are seeing the agriculture based universities, arboretums, and professional plant breeders beginning to experiment with local natives and searching out heirloom varieties to plug back into the system. Our grandparents didn’t have automatic irrigation or chemical fertilizers, yet they still had golf courses, parks, and home landscapes. Those good old plant species still exist. All we need is to find them. These are truly exciting times to be in the plant business. We have discovered or rediscovered much in the past 20 years.
It does take time to start up new nurseries and tree farms. However, the number has grown from a mere handful of cutting edge nurseries that were present in the 1980’s to literally hundreds. At this stage there most likely is a cutting edge nursery or landscaping service within reach no matter what part of the state you call home. If not then please encourage your local retailers to get with the program. We have just begun a new century. The time is right for looking toward a sustainable future. The time is right to put away once and for all the wasteful routines of the past. Change is inevitable and necessary. Together we can make it happen by simply purchasing the plants and products that are right for the times. Where ever you shop simply ask if the plant you want to buy can exist (once established) on normal rainfall, then watch the look on the sales person’s face to see if you are in the right kind of nursery.