Isn’t it odd that our society is quick to latch on to change regarding certain things such as new electronic gadgets or automobiles but extremely obstinate in other areas? Such is the case with traditional landscaping. History shows that ornamental landscaping was enjoyed by the hierarchy of Europe, Asia, and the Mediterranean dating back about as far as written history allows. My friend Andy Wasowski made this amusing observation during one of his seminars; “Our love affair with the lawn may actually date back to prehistoric times when our ancestors on the plains of Africa discovered that the chances of survival against predators were much improved when you traveled in the short grass areas. Short grass…………..goooood, tall grass………….bad!!”
Here in the U. S., our traditional landscape values are credited to a guy named Frank J. Scott. Mr. Scott wrote a book in 1870 entitled The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds. Apparently many of our traditional values including using lawn grass as the main focal point in home landscaping were first described in detail in this book. After over 100 years the basic beliefs set forth by Mr. Scott haven’t changed much. The average landscape still consists of uniform rows of tightly clipped hedge bordered by annual flowering plants or an evergreen groundcover. A broad expanse of grass will cover most of the yard with a few trees (either centered or planted in rows). The homeowner will (of course) attempt to grow grass right up to the trunk of these trees. While this type of landscape has been the status quo for several generations, there a few things that have changed and other things just beginning to evolve as we move into this new century. The most obvious change has to do with our fast pace of life. It seems few if any of us really have the time it takes to keep up with everything. The traditional landscape is really about control, and that means maintenance. The lawn must be cut, the hedges pruned, and the trees as well. Remember we have to allow enough sunlight to grow that all-important grass underneath our trees. Add to this the other chores of weeding, watering, fertilizing, and controlling disease/insects to demand even more of our limited time.
Enter the lawn maintenance company. Prior to the 1970’s there were very few independent lawn maintenance contractors. Now these guys are everywhere. The lawn maintenance industry has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry in the past thirty years mainly because those of us who can afford to will hire contractors to do the mowing, fertilizing, pruning, etc., so we can have more leisure time for ourselves. Wouldn’t it be a great thing to lower maintenance costs or the time it takes to do it yourself? Sure it would……..some folks are catching on.
Another thing that has proven to be inherently wrong with traditional landscaping are the plants themselves. Those of you with even a passing interest in horticulture soon learn that the bulk of the plants we are using and indeed most of what’s for sale at the local nursery are not plants that are native to our local environment. Most in fact are natives to Asia, Europe, or some other foreign country. Because these man made hybrids or exotic plants are not fine tuned to our local environment they are more easily stressed by drought, extreme heat, extreme cold, or soils not conducive to that particular plant. Stress then opens the door to insects and disease so the cards are really stacked against us when things get serious. Sure you will hear about or read stuff like well adapted, drought tolerant, or cold hardy in the description of these well known and over utilized plants, but how do they really perform when the chips are down? With few exceptions, only your local native plants can be described as perfectly adapted. Again………..some folks are starting to see the light.
Finally we come to the issue of water which will undoubtedly be the real common denominator for landscaping in the 21st century. Traditional landscaping assumes that irrigation is necessary and available. In fact, most new homes built within the past twenty years or so usually come with an irrigation system already in place. What will happen to your landscaping investment if continued drought forces us to stop watering? That scenario has already taken place in some areas. Let’s face it, even a standard issue favorite like crepe myrtle has little chance of survival west of I35 without some supplemental irrigation. It is quite sobering that when we visit any West Texas city like Midland or El Paso we still see the same type of landscape plants and lawn grasses that are popular throughout the state although these folks must water religiously to keep that crepe myrtle, lawn, what have you, alive. We do this out of tradition or what we feel is acceptable. Perhaps it is comforting to be able to control Nature even in the desert, but can we afford to keep doing so? The answer is ……….we can for now, but not forever.
Through the years we have become enslaved by an unwritten law or unspoken agreement that to violate traditional landscaping will somehow lower property values and make us the eyesore of the neighborhood. Builders of tract housing have affirmed this misconception with their cookie cutter landscapes in front of each home. The hapless owners are then obliged to maintain these properties or replace what has been done at their own expense. Oddly enough, some home owners are doing just that. Apparently there are those who prefer lower maintenance costs and/or individuality or both. The only real rules regarding landscape design are actually that there are no rules other than those agreed upon in covenants set down by the community itself or “weed laws” that are ordained by city governments.
Take a survey of any group of homeowners today and they will almost unanimously agree that they would prefer a low maintenance landscape. Yet if you follow any one of them home, it is very likely you will find they have the same type landscape as their neighbor who has the same landscape that their parents have, who have pretty much the same landscape as their parents, and so forth. Part of this is due to a lack of information. Most people are simply not aware of the choices available so they doggedly follow tradition and tighten their belts to afford the cost. The other failing sadly is that of the industry itself. Too many people are making too much money keeping things the way they are. As long as the industry promises the perfect lawn/beautiful landscape when you buy their particular product/service then we really can’t expect common sense to enter the picture. Call it by any other name, or dress it up cleverly in a different package and traditional landscaping is still exactly what today’s homeowner says he doesn’t want. That’s right folks………..verdant green lawns during drought, tightly clipped hedges, trees trimmed for the sake of grass, pop-up spray irrigation, attempting to keep exotic plants healthy, sophisticated power equipment,……….it all comes with a price.
Of course the answer is to break away from the traditional values set down by Frank J. Scott and a handful of horticultural enthusiasts from a century ago. Perhaps those guys simply had more time or at the very least better work ethic than we do. There are many alternatives and innovative folks in the industry today. So many in fact that I cannot begin to do justice in one short article. However, I do feel compelled to share at least one idea and save the rest for future articles.
Even if you are one who feels that the only landscape you can envision for yourself would be traditional but the idea of lowering maintenance costs has equal appeal, then consider this:
1. Use buffalograss instead of faster growing imported grasses.
2. Use as many local native trees, shrubs, and flowering plants as possible in your design.
3. Failing this use the best tried and true exotic species. Make certain that these plants can thrive on your average rainfall. Look at abandoned homes, old cemeteries, and vacant lots to discover what works in your particular area.
4. Use compost to improve soils. Stick with organic solutions if problems arise.
5. Retrofit automatic spray systems to drip. Use irrigation as a backup during droughts only.
You can achieve any style from a Japanese garden, to the English cottage garden, to the pure traditional American suburban landscape by simply tossing out the exotic plants and using native counterparts. Remember that a “formal” look is produced by the person in charge of mowing and pruning rather than the plant material itself. Any tree or shrub can be pruned into a formal shape if that is what appeals to you. A garden will not look “weedy” unless it is in fact weedy. In closing let me encourage you to continue to read and research. Don’t take my word or anyone else’s for that matter. Form your own opinion based upon your own findings, just be wary that your opinion is based on facts and not on secondhand info or sales pitches. I don’t want your landscape to look like mine. We are individuals and our outdoor environment should reflect that. I can assure you mine already does. Does yours? Or do you look pretty much like everyone else in the neighborhood? Next month my article will deal with what to do with your present landscape or the one you inherited when you bought your home. Stay tuned……………….Paul Dowlearn