Breaking Ground; Seed. Reseed. Secede.
By Michael Pollan
The New York Times, June 4, 1998
WHERE do you go to shoot a movie about a perfectly ordinary American whose whole life, unbeknownst to him, is a scripted show for television? Ideally, you’d find a place that looked so stereotypically small-town America, so thoroughly front-porched and picket-fenced, that it could pass for a movie set. This is what the producers of “The Truman Show,” which opens tomorrow, were looking for—and what they found in Seaside, Fla., the famous neotraditional town on the Gulf Coast. But there was one thing missing from the real Seaside that the producers felt their hero absolutely had to have: a lawn.
That’s right, there are no private lawns in Seaside. The town’s strict design guidelines prohibit them. So the set designers for “The Truman Show” had to rip out the garden of native plants surrounding Truman Burbank’s perfect little house on Natchez Street in order to roll out the carpet of Kentucky bluegrass his cliched existence demanded. For how was this perfectly ordinary American going to spend his Saturday mornings if he had no lawn to mow?
In the last few years a million or so words have been written pointing up the environmental and philosophical folly of the Great American lawn. Lawns consume unconscionable amounts of energy and chemicals, while producing little more than landscape conformity and social anxiety. People complain—but people continue to mow, as if it were their solemn civic duty.
Except, that is, in Seaside.
By permitting only native species in front yards, and by outlawing sod, Seaside has seceded from the great green river of lawn that joins Americans, yard by unfenced yard, from Maine to California. In March, I spent a couple of days at Seaside, and though it would be foolish to proclaim I’ve seen the future, I had a vision of what post-lawn America might look like.
Much about Seaside was revolutionary when it was founded 17 years ago, but perhaps nothing about it remains as radical as its landscape: the exuberant thickets of native plants (live oak, Southern magnolia, beach rosemary and a host of others) that threaten to burst their tidy picket enclosures. By now the town’s neotraditional houses look downright familiar, for the simple reason that Seaside helped bring back such traditional elements as the front porch.
At the same time the town-planning concepts that Robert Davis, Seaside’s developer, and Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, its designers, pioneered here—houses on tiny lots pulled up close to walkable streets leading to public spaces—have gone on to inspire a national movement.
But if the reach of Seaside’s influence has blunted the novelty of its architecture and layout, the town’s gardens—just now coming into their own—have lost none of their power to astonish. Seaside’s landscaping may well be the most revolutionary thing about the place. It’s one thing to challenge the architecture and planning of the American subdivision, but it’s quite another to abolish something as fundamental as the American front lawn.
When I asked Mr. Davis why a real estate developer hoping to sell houses to Americans would challenge their inalienable right to mow, he smiled. “I suppose I didn’t know enough to know how crazy it was,” he said.
Besides being a developer, Mr. Davis was a child of the 60′s, an ardent environmentalist who happened to inherit 80 acres of scrubby Gulf Coast beachfront and decided to experiment with them. When Douglas Duany, Seaside’s landscape architect (and Andres Duany’s younger brother), first met with Mr. Davis to discuss the town’s landscape style, Mr. Davis simply pointed out the window at the low, windswept scrub clinging to the sugary white sand and said, “I sort of like what’s out there now.”
This was 1982, years before nurseries in the area began carrying the sand live oak, woody goldenrod and wild lupins that make up the local scrub forest. Yet, growing turf on a barrier island would have been, in Mr. Davis’s words, “dumber than dirt.” For one thing, there was no dirt, only sand.
So Douglas Duany drew up a list of the plants Seaside would allow, and turf grass was not among them. To preserve as much of the existing vegetation as possible, builders were told they could disturb no more than a four-foot zone surrounding the house. “One contractor almost took my head off when I told him he couldn’t simply scrape the lot with a bulldozer and fix it later with grass and shrubs,” Mr. Duany told me.
Initially, Seaside’s sales force encountered some resistance, too, though they soon learned the “grass question” was a good way to identify serious buyers. “Prospects who gagged on the ‘no lawn’ rule usually had trouble with the rest of the concept, too,” one broker explained. Which makes sense: Seaside posed a challenge to the whole suburban regime of private castles surrounded by vast moats of lawn; those home buyers who welcomed the idea of shrinking their private realms were the ones least wedded to their Toros.
The fact that only a tenth of Seaside’s 300-plus families live here year round also helped, since the landscape rules promised homeowners almost complete freedom from yard chores.
AT first, I didn’t get it when Mr. Davis described Seaside’s garden style as “Gertrude Jekyll gone native.” Walking down one of Seaside’s older streets for the first time, I wasn’t sure these yards even qualified as gardens—many of them looked untended and disorganized, as if the “gardener” had merely thrown a fence around a patch of the scrub forest to keep it from escaping. Yet, the more I walked, the more these yards came into focus as exquisitely subtle gardens.
Actually, it wasn’t until I went for a jog through the scrub forest just beyond Seaside’s town line that I understood the Seaside yard wasn’t simply a restoration of the native plant community but a carefully edited representation of it. It was, like all gardens, a metaphor of nature.
Where the real scrub formed a low, impenetrable thicket, Seaside’s trees, protected from the salt spray by the architecture, have by now risen well above head height, creating an agreeably shady canopy that shelters walkers. The contorted branches of the live oaks throw webs of spooky shadows against the freshly painted houses. Since much of Seaside’s architecture tends to err on the side of sweetness and light, this unexpectedly Gothic inflection renders the houses more interesting, less wholesome.
The typical Seaside garden is layered vertically. Beneath the canopy of oak and magnolia leaves is a relatively open space at eye level that affords a welcome sense of prospect; then, around waist level, the density resumes, with informal plantings of beach rosemary, woody goldenrod, lupins, gopher apple and bluestem grass. A few small areas have been carved out for barbecues, benches or paths, but for the most part, human life is meant to take place on porches and decks—realms of Culture set within patches of seemingly unreconstructed Nature.
“Gardening by subtraction” is how Randy Harelson explained the method. A garden designer by training, Mr. Harelson moved from New England to Seaside six years ago. Nowadays he consults with the Town Council on horticultural issues, designs private gardens for homeowners and runs the Gourd Garden, a native-plant nursery two miles east of Seaside.
“The landscape here gets very little credit for putting Seaside on the map,” he told me. “But if you try looking at the architecture by itself, mentally removing the scrub and replacing it with lawn and foundation plantings, it gets boring very quickly.”
The point is proven by Truman Burbank’s intentionally trite yard, as well as by most of the new houses rising on the west side, where trees have yet to subdue the noisy parliament of Architectural Expression.
It’s the rub between the neat white picket fences and the luxuriant, heedless plantings that gives Seaside’s best gardens their power. Remove the tidy enclosures and the plantings would immediately look slovenly or go slack—the fate of all too many wild or native gardens.
Gertrude Jekyll understood it wasn’t enough to bring England’s native plants into the garden; they needed the frame of architecture if they hoped to make the leap from meadow to garden. The tight, controlling picket fences set off Seaside’s raucous planting much the same way that Sir Edwin Lutyens’s formal walls and paths set off Gertrude Jekyll’s relaxed perennial borders. At Seaside the juxtapositions reach an almost violent pitch that I suspect would have popped Miss Jekyll’s spectacles. But the underlying principle is the same.
MR. HARELSON says Seaside residents have taken the town’s landscape to heart, especially now that the tree canopy has matured. “The challenge was getting people to prune from below to create an understory, rather than from above, which is what most of us are accustomed to,” he said.
Definitive proof that Seaside’s landscape has set deep roots in the community came a few years back when the town planners decided that the scrub crowding the median strip of Seaside Avenue, a main axis, should be replaced with grass. Residents on the avenue rebelled, defending their corridor of wilderness in a battle that some say marked the moment when Seaside—residents and plants alike—slipped from the control of developers and designers.
Mr. Davis, for one, regards this as healthy, part of the town’s inevitable passing from idea into history. He described a recent conference at which a visiting English architect criticized Seaside’s landscaping. “He told us it was time to cut everything back—hard—since the foliage was now obscuring the architecture,” Mr. Davis said. “We had to explain that that’s exactly what people like about it. There are so many tourists passing by that our porches would be fishbowls if not for the trees.”
Thanks to the town’s celebrity, sure to increase with the release of “The Truman Show,” a porch wreathed in a tangle of oak and magnolia is a blessing. The sheer wildness of Seaside’s gardens is thus an inadvertent byproduct of the town’s success.
As I walked Seaside’s streets, I wondered why Seaside’s many imitators have so far failed to imitate it. Other New Urbanist communities have managed to shrink the front lawn and fence it in, but I don’t know of another town in America that has dared to do away with it entirely. In fact, at Disney’s town of Celebration—where Truman Burbank would have fit in without changing a thing—the rules actually require homeowners to maintain a minimum amount of lawn.
Seaside’s landscape is a special case, one that may not lend itself to imitation. It has taken everything from the abundance of gawkers to the paucity of humus to the conviction of its slightly naive developer to make lawns untenable here. It is also true that landscape styles, rooted as they are in the particularities of place, never traveled as easily as architectural styles. Even so, Seaside points a way, one way, and if we Americans ever do declare our independence from the tyranny of lawns, we will look back at Seaside as our exuberantly overgrown…