As the Garden, so the Earth

– Posted in: Garden Plants



This book came to my notice through a rather impressive little chain. Piet Oudolf recommended it to me, after Rick Darke had recommended it to him. I’d like to use it today to develop a train of thought that first came to me years ago. It’s also very relevant to my last blog posting here about native and exotic plants, and in a way continues the discussion.
Written by a science writer (Emma Marris) – ‘Rambunctious Garden’ tackles the fact that there is virtually no ‘untouched nature’ left on the planet, and that an awful lot of what we call nature is heavily managed by humanity or was trashed by our ancestors, often a very long time ago or is the result of non-native species setting out and creating entirely novel ecosystems. Marris discusses how many of these new ecosystems actually function very well, and not always in competition with natives, and there is much here to counter the more lurid fantasies of the ‘natives only’ lobby, as well as to highlight just how much, and for how long, the human race has been changing life on earth. Well-written, firmly evidence-based, level-headed, open-minded and packed with intriguing examples, the author paints a picture of a rapidly-changing ‘natural’ world which she describes as a ‘rambunctious garden’. She does not take the garden analogy any further, so I will here.

Some time ago I wrote an essay for a book a colleague and I co-edited – Vista: The Culture and Politics of the Garden  in which I ended up suggesting that we care for the earth as we garden. I’d like to suggest that ‘our kind of garden’, the sort of garden that GGW readers probably either have or aim at, is a good model for a human-dominated earth. I am pretty sure that most GGW gardens will contain the following:
– a lawn (but not one that the perfect lawn brigade would own up to!)
– wide borders and associated hedges and shrubs with a wide variety of plant life, possibly not too tidy
– a pond
– a vegetable garden
– a wild patch, out of sight, largely left alone.
I’d propose that these areas might provide us with some good analogies for the earth.

Lawn and border and pond are basically there for our ‘amenity – our use and pleasure, but they can also serve a very wide variety of wildlife as well, depending on the species used. They can be an analogy for gardens, parks, public spaces. Of course most of these spaces in our towns and cities are planted in a very sterile way, but the whole thrust of the ecological landscaping and naturalistic gardening movement is to show alternatives that support biodiversity. We can do it, and very slowly, I believe we are.

The veg patch is clearly an analogy for agriculture. Now this requires a bit more discussion. I can’t remember off-hand how much of the earth’s surface is given over to farming (Marris will tell you) but it is a lot, and much of it is farmed very intensively, which people tend to complain about. There are an awful lot of people on this earth, and many of them have eating habits that swallow a lot of resources (I’m staring very directly now at folks who eat a lot of beef), so don’t go blaming the usual suspects: farmers, agricultural corporations, the food industry. So, what is the alternative to intensive agriculture (i.e. in our analogy a weed-free, pest-free, tidy and highly-productive veg patch)? Not-intensive agriculture, such as traditional farming (very often very inefficient in its use of land) or organic farming (ditto). Imagine that if you actually had to live off your veg patch, instead of just enjoying growing your own and patting yourself on the back that you have made the world a better place. You can either get the same amount of produce by plowing up the rest of the garden (goodbye: lawn, flowery borders, pond, wild bit) or make damn sure that the veg patch produces, well …. lots of veg. I am glad to see that the author of Rambunctious Garden is one of the few people to actually tackle what the organic lobby never face up to – how low yield farming can drive environmental destruction. She does some interesting sums which probably aren’t right but full marks to her for starting the debate. Long may it continue!

The wild patch can be seen as an analogy for nature reserves and national parks. Now, notice how it is very often, unless someone is a really committed wild gardener, the left-over bit? The bit you can’t do anything else with? Just like so many of our rural landscapes – where farmers have taken the best land and wildlife/nature etc gets the bits (mountains, deserts, steep slopes etc) that can’t support food production. So, we don’t get to see much tallgrass prairie, but we do have a lot of semi-desert sagebrush (UK readers can substitute lowland wildflower meadow and moorland here). Again, how much wild space gets left is a political decision, both on the garden scale and the national.

OK. I’ve driven my little analogy as far as I can. Any examples? I’d like to suggest a quick trip to The Netherlands. Intensively managed; if it wasn’t for the Dutch a lot of the country would have gone the way of the rest of the North Sea (dry land during and immediately after the last Ice Age), a lot of it is incredibly intensive agriculture, but the Dutch have been recreating wild habitats for longer and more thoroughly than anyone else, so there is a kind of a balance, which in a densely populated country is inspiring. One of the places that Marris writes about in Rambunctious Garden is Oostvaadersplassen near Amsterdam, a newly-created nature reserve with herds of wild cattle, as near to the original pre-human landscape as it is possible to get in western Europe. She writes about it as a example of ‘re-wilding’, and goes on to discuss similar places which could be developed or are being developed in the US, using African wildlife to replace all the animals the ancestors of the Indians wiped out 20,000 years ago.

Before I sign off I’ll mention one other Dutch place, which got going as long ago as the 1930s, the suburb of Amstelveen, where nature is integrated into the fabric of an urban community, with parks, green tramlines, wild vegetation on roadside etc. Nature is seen as absolutely integral to the city, not just an add-on.
? I really recommend this book – its a very useful start to a constructive debate about how we garden the planet. And I would also suggest that we look at how we manage our own gardens as a metaphor for how we manage our wider world.

Don’t forget to check out my own blog, my latest post is about what’s looking good currently in my own veg patch, and some essays and interviews I’ve got online as e-books.

AND, I’d like to flag up that later this year I’ll be launching a completely new form of garden media. It’ll be fun, unique and totally un-put-downable! Watch this space!


Noel Kingsbury

Noel Kingsbury

Noel Kingsbury is a gardener and writer based in the west of England. Author of over 20 books, including four collaborations with Dutch designer Piet Oudolf, he is passionate about wild-style planting and bringing nature into the garden.

Noel Kingsbury

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Benjamin Vogt January 14, 2012, 11:01 am

Ok ok, I’ll get this book. Folks keep talking it up, and it sounds perfect. As someone maybe on the cusp of selling a home, I’m wary of the large garden I already have spooking off buyers, let alone if I left one part wild or put in veg. Still, the balance is what we’re talking about here–and I think in American suburbia, it’s a thin line, unfortunately. Thanks for this review (and I enjoyed Vista immensely when I read it years ago).

franniesorin January 14, 2012, 12:00 pm

What a treatise! You’ve touched on a subject that is very dear to my heart. How we garden is how we take care of the world. I loved your description of ‘Our Kind of Garden’. It sounds like Rambunctious Garden is a must read.

A meaty post to start the New Year. Fran

Susan in the Pink Hat January 14, 2012, 1:40 pm

An interesting post, some of which I agree with but not all.

One note, about land that can’t support food production, “semi-desert sagebrush” doesn’t necessarily equate into poor fertility. The pioneers of the American west who came to farm used the density of native sage stands as a quick gauge of soil fertility for crop production. The real barrier was and still is aridity.

Noel Kingsbury January 15, 2012, 4:50 am

Yes you are quite right!

JACK HOLLOWAY January 15, 2012, 7:09 am

I am going to search out this book, for its arguments seem very relevant to my situation and thinking. And it is time puritanical greenyism is contextualised!…

Margaret (Peggy) Herrman January 15, 2012, 8:15 am

yep, just wish we had the sun and I had the time to do a veggie patch. Miss my home grown, fresh veggies. 🙂 Best and thanks

Kathy Fitzgerald January 15, 2012, 10:53 am

My hackles rose when you wrote that low-intensity agriculture may be an agent of environmental degradation; then I thought, “How do I know for sure that’s not true? Thanks for the open-mindedness check, and for the book recommendation. Maris is going on my Amazon wish-list this morning.

Noel Kingsbury January 15, 2012, 12:21 pm

Hope you enjoy it! It made me think too. As for the potential horrors of low-intensity ag. it was having a holiday in Rajastan in India which got me thinking about this. The only plants left seemed to be the ones that were too toxic for even the goats.

Kathy Fitzgerald January 15, 2012, 12:42 pm

And I thought alder was the only thing goats won’t eat.
My memories of Rajasthan–many years ago, driving from New Delhi on the way to Udaipur–are of dust, and too many people and too many vehicles. Doesn’t sound like it’s improved. But then, I found all of India overwhelming. I cried the whole week we stayed in Calcutta. No wonder the rajahs built the Lake Palace!

DAY January 15, 2012, 1:06 pm

Of course we must remember that “commercial” agriculture must produce a return on investment; farmers may love the good earth and be organic up to their eyeballs, but they have to pay the bills with what they do!
Purists like us, however, can garden without concern for the costs, because we are independently wealthy. (in some fashion 🙂

A veggie garden feels the body, and the “wild bits” feed the soul.

Noel Kingsbury January 15, 2012, 1:19 pm

I like the last line – very good, you might find me quoting you!

Hoover Boo January 15, 2012, 8:52 pm

Another of your very thoughtful posts.

One thing that horrifies me is how some of the finest and most productive farmland on earth, in southern and central California, is, or has already been, swallowed up by housing instead of being preserved for agriculture. With a human population approaching 10 billion within a few decades, humanity needs to put more thought into wise land-use.

I see one of the book’s points all around me. We live on a hill in a densely populated, fully built-out county, but there are still plenty of native plants in the neighborhood simply because it’s so hilly–most homeowners generally haven’t bothered removing the natives.

Jean/Jean's Garden January 15, 2012, 10:37 pm

This sounds very interesting, and I’m definitely putting this book on my reading list. I’m concerned, however, about how accurate some of the oppositions you’ve set up here are. Is organic farming really less intensive and efficient than large agribusiness monocultures? I don’t have enough knowledge to assess this, but I know that Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, argues the opposite — that intensive polycultures like the organic farm he visited in Virginia actually have higher yields per acre, and with fewer waste products as externalities. I also like Pollan’s argument (in Second Nature and also in The Botany of Desire) that humans and plants have co-evolved.

Noel Kingsbury January 16, 2012, 4:24 am

Intensive polycultures are the most efficient use of land BUT (big but) are very labour intensive, think about applying this to calorie-crops like wheat or corn, and ag, is a notoriously difficult industry for wage/conditions – ask yr local Mexican/Lithuanian migrant worker. Pollan on co-evolution is an interesting take, yes.

Noel Kingsbury January 16, 2012, 4:25 am

Having driven acorss the Centrla Valley a few times, i absolutly agree, in fact i can hardly bear to look at all the shopping malls etc on the drive from SF to Sacramento. It is an abomination.

Nitty Gritty Dirt Man January 16, 2012, 6:52 am

Sounds like an interesting book, and your post had me thinking about changes that I have seen in my area. There are stretches in the NY Metro area that have always been used as landfill — which sounds nicer than dumps. These areas have now been reborn into “natural” environments, with animal life returning to the mounds and reclaiming it. Also, an elevated rail line in Manhattan continues to be converted into a ribbon of green that winds its way through the city — an example of management that’s good for all creatures, great and small.

DAY January 16, 2012, 7:58 am

Many of us live on the densely populated east and west coasts of the United States. That tends to color our views of land use.
A few facts to contemplate.
Population per square kilometer:
World 49
Japan 338
Germany 230
USA 31
Arable Land in USA:
5 X Asia
2X Europe
3X World

An economy is based upon Land+Labor+Capital.

Noel Kingsbury January 19, 2012, 2:49 pm

Thanks for contributing that, Important stuff.

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