By Michael Pollan
The New York Times Magazine, May 15, 1994
THE STRAIGHT LINE IS IN BAD ODOR IN AMERICAN horticulture these days, along with just about anything else that smacks of Old World influence or the hand of man. This was first impressed on me rather violently a couple of years ago, after I published in these pages an account of a disastrous attempt at making a “natural garden” in my yard. As the local underbrush set upon my sorry little wildflower meadow, threatening to turn it into something more nearly resembling a vacant lot than a garden, I decided I’d better replant the bed in rows to make it easier to weed. Though the neat rows of flowers began as an expedient, I came to like them, and I spoke in the article about the satisfactions of making a straight line in nature. A benign-enough sentiment, you would think, yet it very nearly got my head bitten off.
By planting in rows, in a rectangle, I was behaving “irresponsibly,” a landscape designer from Massachusetts charged in one of the more temperate letters I received. By promoting even this small degree of horticultural formalism, this fellow argued, I was contributing to the degradation of the environment, because “existing esthetic conventions” cannot be realized in the garden without petrochemicals and technology. We are to believe that only a “natural garden”—i.e., one designed to look undesigned—can qualify as ecologically correct.
Since then, the “natural garden” movement has all but seized control of official garden taste in this country. A vocal army of designers and taste makers has decreed that the “new American garden” is henceforth a place that:
1. Outlaws any human artifice in its design;
2. Grants citizenship exclusively to native plants (any immigrant to be treated as “flora non grata,” with “invasive aliens” subject to deportation);
3. Resembles as closely as possible the “presettlement” American landscape of its particular region; and
4. Guarantees the right of self-determination to all its flora and (nonhuman) fauna, and bans the “brutal” practice of pruning.
It doesn’t sound much like a garden, and to judge by the pictures that illustrate the manifestoes, a flurry of which have recently been published, it doesn’t look much like one either. Depending on its site, a natural garden could be a wetland fringed with bulrushes, a dappled grove of birch trees rising from a trillium carpet, a meadow of tall grasses studded with the blooms of gayfeather and goldenrod. Such plantings can be quite beautiful, if a bit subtle. “Visitors will wonder when you plan to start gardening,” warns the new “Taylor’s Guide to Natural Gardening.” Peter Harper counsels in “The Natural Garden Book” that “you may have to adjust your tastes” in order to appreciate a natural garden—or, even, it often seems, to spot one. Indeed, the photographs included in coffee-table-book celebrations of the movement, like Ken Druse’s “The Natural Habitat Garden,” look for all the world as if they were snapped in the wild, which is precisely the point.
Druse is a key figure in the natural-gardening movement. His sumptuous, seductive photography, on display in this new volume as well as in its immensely successful predecessor, “The Natural Garden,” has been instrumental in promoting the new style. But “style” is probably the wrong word here, for much more than esthetics is at stake. As Druse makes clear in “The Natural Habitat Garden,” the aim of the new American garden is not to please people (“it’s no longer good enough to simply make it pretty”) but to “serve the planet” by “simulating natural habitats” that might provide refuge for threatened American flora and fauna. The gardener’s burden is a moral one, Sara Stein announces in “Noah’s Garden: Restoring the Ecology of Our Own Back Yards.” “We cannot in fairness rail against those who destroy the rain forest . . . when we have made our own yards uninhabitable.”
Environmental pretensions aside, the esthetic of the natural garden would appear to represent an extreme version of the 18th-century picturesque-gardening style, which was the first to maintain that gardens should closely resemble “natural landscapes.” It turned out, though, that the natural landscape the picturesque designers strove to emulate was one they found not in nature but in the 17th-century landscape paintings of Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin. Although today’s neopicturesque garden designers claim to be emulating actual natural habitats, they too seem to rely on an artistic model. Instead of landscape painting, however, these gardens aspire to the condition of a contemporary nature photograph, an Eliot Porter, say, or an Ansel Adams. Whenever I visit a natural garden I can’t help thinking I’ve walked into the pages of a Sierra Club calendar.
This is an esthetic based on the ideal of wilderness, which might at first seem like a radical departure for American gardening—whose biggest contribution to world garden history, after all, remains the front lawn. But I’m not sure the philosophy behind the natural garden represents as great an advance as its promoters suggest. The worship of wilderness has coexisted in this country with the worship of lawn for more than a century—ever since the decade following the Civil War, when America managed simultaneously to invent both the front lawn and the wilderness park. How could one culture have produced two such seemingly opposite institutions? Easily, if its thinking about nature is as schizophrenic as ours has been. As a nation, we’ve never been sure whether to dominate nature, in the name of civilization, or worship it untouched, as an escape from civilization. It’s always been all or nothing with us: parking lot or wilderness preserve; crew-cut lawn or untended meadow; culture or nature. Neither extreme suggests a particularly useful model for our relations with nature. And neither should ever be confused with a “garden,” a word that used to be reserved for places that mediate between nature and culture, rather than force us to make an impossible choice.
IT’S HARD TO AVOID THE CONCLUSION THAT THE NATURAL gardening movement is antihumanist, particularly in the way it seeks to erase people and history from the land. Yet this can’t be more than a conceit, since even a natural garden needs people to create and cultivate it. At this late date, after the flora of this continent have been transformed irrevocably by the introduction of Eurasian species, a garden of native plants won’t long remain one without ceaseless and sedulous weeding. This fact ties the natural garden up in some uncomfortable environmental knots. Many of its advocates (Druse and Stein among them) find themselves condoning, albeit mumblingly, the use of herbicides as a way to create the clean horticultural slate required to establish a native-plant meadow. Surely a penchant for straight lines is less likely to lead the gardener into a chemical dependence than an obsession with native-plant purity.
Even so, intolerance toward foreign species seems to be rising in the natural-gardening movement, if the progress of Druse’s own thinking is any indication. His first book allowed that “naturalized aliens” (he mentions daisies) “are welcome in the natural garden.” Five years later, he wants to close the border, because “even a short visit by a nonnative can upset the balance of the community enough to cause extirpation or even extinction of a native plant.” He offers no scientific proof for this contention, leaving the reader to wonder if the darkening specter of alien species in the garden might have less to do with ecology than ideology. (Sara Stein is more reasonable, willing to grant citizenship in her garden to well-behaved immigrants.)
I had always assumed that the apotheosis of the native plant was a new phenomenon, a byproduct of our deepening environmental awareness. But it turns out that there have been outbreaks of native-plant mania before, most notably in Germany early in this century. According to a recent series of journal articles by German garden historians Joachim Wolschke-Bulmahn and Gert Groening, pre-World War II Germany saw the rise of a natural-gardening movement “founded on nationalistic and racist ideas” that were often cloaked in scientific jargon. Inspired by the study of “plant sociology,” a group of landscape designers set out—as one of their number put it in 1939—”to give the German people its characteristic garden and to help guard it from unwholesome alien influences,” including foreign plants and landscape formality, which they condemned as both anthropocentric and apt to weaken the “Nordic races.” This “blood-and-soil-rooted” garden, as it was sometimes called, was comprised of native species and designed to look like untended German landscapes.
Wolschke-Bulmahn and Groening have documented how, under National Socialism, the mania for natural gardening and native plants became government policy. A team working under Heinrich Himmler set forth “Rules of the Design of the Landscape,” which stipulated a “close-to-nature” style and the exclusive use of native plants. Specific alien species were marked for elimination. In 1942, a team of Saxon botanists working for the Central Office of Vegetative Mapping embarked on “a war of extermination” against Impatiens parviflora, a small woodland flower regarded as an alien.
Am I implying that natural gardening in America is a crypto-Fascist movement? I hope not. I mention the historical precedent partly to suggest that the “new American garden” is neither as new nor as American as its proponents would have us think. (Nor was the German blood-and-soil garden new in its time: It owed a large debt to the “wild garden” promoted by William Robinson, the 19th-century Irish garden designer. Little in gardening is ever truly new.) The German example also suggests we would do well to beware of ideology in the garden masquerading as science. It’s hard to believe that there is nothing more than scientific concern about invasive species behind the current fashion for natural gardening and native plants in America—not when our national politics are rife with anxieties about immigration and isolationist sentiment. The garden isn’t the only corner of American culture where nativism is in flower just now.
The current attack on alien species usually proceeds by citing a few notorious examples of imported plants that have indeed behaved badly on our shores, kudzu being the all-time favorite, closely followed by Japanese honeysuckle, multiflora rose and purple loosestrife. Branded as “huns,” “invaders” or “monsters,” these demon species are then used to tar the entire class of alien plants with guilt by association.
But just how representative are kudzu and its noxious cronies? In fact, the great majority of introduced species can’t even survive beyond the garden wall, much less thrive. And many of the species that have been successfully naturalized we now regard as unobjectionable, even welcome, figures in the landscape. It’s hard to imagine a New England roadside without its tawny day lilies and Queen Anne’s lace, yet both these species are aliens marked for elimination by some of the more zealous natural gardeners. Could it be these plants have actually improved the New England landscape, adding to its diversity and beauty? Shouldn’t there be a statute of limitations on their alien status?
I have no idea what impact the day lily and wild carrot have had on the ecosystem in which they now play a part. But what does it mean to say that the New England landscape is more “natural” in their absence? To believe this is to believe that the actions of Native Americans—whose fires and travels and agriculture also remade the New England landscape, and who once were immigrants themselves—are natural in a way that the actions of other human races are not. Evolution will draw no distinction between the migration of species by wind and birds and ice floes and the migration of species by 747.
There’s no question that these migrations are sometimes destructive of the ecological status quo, if indeed such a thing even exists. But migrations of species by whatever means is an abiding part of natural history; in any event, they’re almost always irreversible. Turning back the ecological clock to 1492 is a fool’s errand, futile and pointless to boot. It seems to me we gardeners would do better to try to work with the mongrel ecology we’ve inherited—to start out from here.
We seem to feel these days that we need something we can call the new American garden. But if we must have a national garden style, there’s no reason it has to be xenophobic, or founded on illusions of a lost American Eden. Wouldn’t a more cosmopolitan garden, one that borrowed freely from all the world’s styles and floras, that made something of history rather than trying to escape it—wouldn’t such a garden be more in keeping with the American experience?
In 1938, a German-Jewish landscape designer named Rudolf Borchardt, protesting the blood-and-soil garden movement then taking hold in his country, made a plea for an international garden culture. He wrote: “If this kind of garden-owning barbarian became the rule, then neither a gilliflower nor a rosemary, neither a peach tree nor a myrtle sapling nor a tea rose would ever have crossed the Alps. Gardens connect people, time and latitudes. If these barbarians ruled. . . today we would horticulturally still subsist on acorns. The garden of humanity is a huge democracy. . . . It is not the only democracy which such clumsy advocates threaten to dehumanize.”
Here’s to multihorticulturalism.