Now I understand how we got here

John Brookes spoke at the Toronto Botanical Gardens tonight. I’m glad I went.

Mr. Brookes is a distinguished garden designer with awards under his belt that include gold medals from the Chelsea Garden Show and a nod from the Queen in the form of an MBE. His services are in demand all over the world and he runs garden design schools in more than one country. He is described first and foremost as influential: One of THE most influential garden designers and teachers of the late twentieth century.


Mr. Brookes began his talk by telling us that his work is inspired by patterns in modernist paintings. By the end I sadly concluded that the materials on his pallette are unhealthy – as unsustainable as the lead paints used by artists before anyone knew better. And I finally understand how the lawn became the default ornamental feature in yards all over the English-speaking world.

I mean no disrespect to Mr. Brookes, but as he talked through slide after slide and the audience sighed, I grew quite uncomfortable. There was little in the way of “garden” in the designs, but he had warned us about that. Mr. Brookes stated up front that his gardens are for people, not plants; in fact, plants are quite far down on his list of important things in a garden.

But there were plants, miles and miles of plants – small city gardens, large estate gardens and everything in between – all one type of plant that formed the main design element in the midst of hardscaping: Mowed lawn.

There were also some ponds; artificial ponds, with hard edges and little to no vegetation, with grass borders mown short up to the edges. There was even a substantial lake covering a bed of what he suggested was rubber.

As each slide slipped by I wished there were a second speaker on the stage, an alter ego commenting on each slide with an eye to ecology. Pointing out that lawns are virtual deserts – devoid of habitat for pollinators and other creatures, outcompeting trees for water and nutrients, and demanding the chemical nurturing of fertilizers, pesticides, and gas-guzzling equipment. An alter ego who pointed out that creatures in need of wetland habitat need plants to hide in and feed, shallow sides and mud bottoms. Who wondered how many decades will it take for the rubber under that lake to break down and leach into the groundwater? Who viewed, with a critical eye, the large expanses of hardscaping impermeable to England’s ever-pouring rain.

When his talk ended I put up my hand and asked if he consciously uses lawns as a major design element and what could he imagine as an alternative. He said it was an English thing; he said grass is low maintenance (it’s not), and that it’s practical for kids and dogs. He thought maybe gravel might work, but maybe not – the expanses it would have to cover are too large; or perhaps (in all seriousness) artificial turf. I covered my face with my hands in dismay and he assured me that there are some nice ones available now.

I honestly believe he had never really thought about it before. It seems that for even the best garden designers, original thought on the subject ended in the 18th century with Capability Brown.

With all due respect to Mr. Brookes, surely garden designers of his stature – influential, shaping the next generation of designers, in a position to dictate the paradigms for good taste in landscape design across the world – surely they can do better. Gardens are not just for people. They are for people who live in a world in which 75% of its food relies on disappearing pollinators; in a world sustained by complex and interconnected ecosystems on a precarious edge; in a world in which the climate is rapidly changing due to human activity. In short, gardens are for people who want someone else to solve problems that start, but can end… in our own backyards.

Botanical brawl over native plants

I spotted an irresistable tweet this afternoon; it was by @ThomasRainerDC and it read:

The native plant debate can get pretty ugly. Check out the comments on Garden Rant

Naturally, I checked it out. I love a good botanical brawl as much as the next person, and have fond memories of the hair-pulling slap-happy fights that used to go on in the orchid forums. This one, however, ranks as more of a girl fight. Quite civilized actually.

Still, it's worth a read if only to get acquainted with the ideological arguments that go on in the garden world over the use of native plants. The hard-liners that I have met are generally new to gardening, convinced that the way to save the planet is to banish ornamentals and grow "native plants" instead.  It's not so different, I suppose, from the high-minded ideals that draw beginners into vegetable gardening, motivated by fears for food security and the conviction that every inch of neglected space in a fat first-world city should be devoted to growing food.

Whatever it takes to draw new gardeners in, be it ecological passion or passing 100-mile diet fad, I say: Welcome. At least you're not boring.

I'm going to give the last word to Kermit, a rational voice in that "ugly" thread:

In the … ideological conflicts I’ve seen in my life, it seems that often the enemy camp isn’t attacked so enthusiastically as allies who fail to toe the most severe party line… In the 21st century gardening subculture we usually ignore folks who build and move into suburban developments – other than a passing comment on the boring lawn monoculture – but attack gardeners who aren’t “doing it right”.

Read More: