Shortly after WW II we saw a major boom in suburban living. With that growth we also witnessed the invention of what many in the industry would call “cookie cutter” landscaping. These look-alike, one-size-fits-all housing additions would soon become common around all cities across the United States. Having won two major victories crucial to the free world at that time, the mindset of most Americans was one of extreme optimism. Our victorious servicemen and women brought their military training and attitudes home with them. The popularity of these concepts would soon affect every aspect of our lifestyles from clothing and hairstyles to the forty hour work week. Of course this would include our concepts regarding the home landscape.
The military ethic is one of uniformity, regimentation, and regularity. This served our society well as we moved from a rural agriculture existence to big cities and industrial economies. However when it came to landscaping suburbia, this same attitude translated into an intensely maintained and manicured landscape. The landscape architects and design professionals of that time decided we would enjoy rows of tightly clipped evergreen hedges, evenly spaced trees, and seasonal color provided by the profuse blooms of annual plants. The thinking was to provide a controlled landscape that would be predominantly evergreen and look tidy in all seasons. I call this the “all green landscape.” This became the status quo among those who lived in and around our cities. Steady employment and the forty hour work week assured our parents and grandparents the time and money it took to maintain their lawn and landscape.
Forty years passed and the children of these early suburbanites became the new property owners. Things began to change again. Life became more hectic as the cities became more crowded. Typically the new suburban family now owned two or three automobiles, both husbands and wives worked, even school children had busy schedules. Many businesses and restaurants were now open 24 hours, seven days a week. Being “too busy” became the cliché expression of the times. We were still living the American dream but few of us had the time required to maintain the all green landscape. As a result, the lawn maintenance industry was born and has grown exponentially despite the various recessions and economic downturns of the past thirty years or so.
Ask any of these new suburbanites what they really want regarding their home landscapes and the majority say lower maintenance. Most would like to conserve water. Most would prefer non toxic fertilizers and pest control. Most would prefer to have flowering plants that don’t require being replaced two or three times a year. Most city dwellers are now concerned about urban sprawl and are aware of the value of green spaces within the city limits. All will agree that it would be nice not to have to pay a monthly bill to some lawn service or have to find time to do the work themselves. Problem is that today’s homeowner wants all this but they continue to buy into the concept of the all green landscape. Is it possible to switch to better plant material and irrigation technologies without having to compromise our traditional values?
The answer to this is yes but not exactly. For instance you can plant a buffalo grass lawn and maintain it with quite a bit less water, mowing, and the fertilization needed to maintain Bermuda grass. However, if you insist that this grass must be uniform in height with crisp edges along your sidewalks plus be free of weeds then you will definitely have to work on it. On the other hand, if you’re OK with the normal wavy texture of buffalo grass and a few weeds are not bothersome then you may realize a lawn requiring water only during severe drought, little or no fertilizer, ever, plus only two or three mowings a year to keep it healthy.
As far as shrubs are concerned, one of the premier problems associated with the all green landscape is keeping all those evergreen shrubs trimmed to the desired height. If you were to take a course in landscape design today, the instructor would likely tell you that if you need a three foot shrub for a particular location then purchase one that only gets about three foot tall at maturity. Don’t buy a six-footer and attempt to keep it cut back to three. You can do it, but that’s called maintenance. While we’re at it, understand that there are no shrubs that are perfectly round, square, or rectangular, much less spiraled or having various round balls growing amid otherwise bare appendages. All of that is done with the hedge shears. Certainly native shrubs can be sheared into geometric shapes if that is your thing.
If you can relax a little on insisting that all of your shrubs stay green in the winter then you can gain some really striking seasonal color by mixing in a few deciduous shrubs. With few exceptions, shrubs that have a truly spectacular bloom period are not your standard waxy leaved evergreens. Some of our showiest Texas natives are what I call semi-evergreens. Texas sage (leucophyllum frutescens) and Gregg’s salvia (salvia greggii) are two examples of native shrubs that do hold on to a few leaves in the coldest part of winter (let’s face it, they can get downright ugly) but are absolute show stoppers during the warm season. This is a fair trade if you ask me; especially when you throw in drought tolerant, heat loving, and few if any problems with insects or disease.
Speaking of color, what about all those cute little darlings we call annual bedding plants? Are you willing to downsize those a bit to enjoy the strength and longevity of perennials? True, most perennials will not bloom all the time. The trick is to arrange different types of perennials together so that as one fades another will begin blooming. When you look at the plant kingdom as a whole you will find that most flowering plants are those that live beyond one year. Some last a lifetime or more, some are green during winter, and some are so spectacular plus easy to care for that it seems ridiculous not to have a few. You can generally expect the home of any enthusiastic gardener to be surrounded with lots of different flowering perennials. Less lawn, less work, more color.
If you are one of those people who don’t mind the work involved with the all green landscape that’s fine, you know who you are. Some folks need orderly, well manicured landscapes and would not be happy otherwise. Some need the therapy. Others just don’t have the imagination required to “think outside the box” (literally).Even so, these folks can still benefit from switching their lawn and landscape to include native and drought tolerant plants. You can achieve the all green landscape using natives. Truth be known, the neatness or formality of any garden has more to do with the diligence of the gardener rather than the particular plants selected. We all need to be conscious of our environmental impacts and conservative when it comes to water regardless of our preference in landscaping styles.
On the other hand, if you are one of the new suburbanites who are truly serious about saving time and money while still enjoying a functional and attractive landscape, then take heart. The trend among landscape professionals is steadily moving in your direction. At present you may still have to shop around a bit to find a good organic nursery that offers a decent selection of local natives. It may also take time to locate a landscape architect or design professional who is truly experienced in using native plant material. Likewise the first two or three irrigation guys you talk with may not be experienced with cutting edge drip technology. Rest assured though the right people are out there. They are typically extremely busy since the services they provide are now in increasing demand but the wait should be worth it since their clientele are saving big money in the long run.
Times change, styles change, but the one-size-fits-all nursery and landscape business has been dragging its heels for too long. Patronize those who have demonstrated they are listening to the wants and needs of today’s homeowner. A new landscaping style is emerging that is right for the times, necessary for water conservation and the environment, plus offers true savings in time and money. Slowly but surely, the all green landscape will become history. Better sooner than later.