A New Garden Ethic and Aesthetic

(Excerpted from Ecoscaping Back to the Future…Restoring Chesapeake Landscapes, by Zora Lathan and Thistle A. Cone.)

Gardening is the Number One recreational activity in the U.S., with over 50 percent of Americans gardening in one form or another. The rewards of gardening are rich and varied. It provides an opportunity to create with nature, to grow plants for their beauty, smell, and practical benefits. The outdoor experience allows us to commune with nature, getting our hands dirty while planting, nurturing, growing, observing wildlife, and harvesting and beholding the fruits of our labor. It puts us in close contact with the on-going change, unfolding, and wonder of it all. Gardening is great exercise and gives us the opportunity to obtain essential sunlight (both of which people living in many urban environments lack in sufficient quantities). It is an activity that is accessible to just about everyone whether via your own plot of land, containers, raised beds, or community gardening. Gardening affords many wonderful hands-on lessons about nature’s cycles, climatic and soil conditions, designing and working with nature, and, of course, flora and fauna. Aesthetic qualities are some of the greatest attributes of gardening and landscaping. But how often do we consider the environmental impacts and ethics of our gardening and landscaping practices?

The gardener in nature is that most artificial of creatures, a civilized human being: in control of his appetites, solicitous of nature, self-conscious and responsible, mindful of the past and the future, and at ease with the fundamental ambiguity of his predicament—which is that though he lives in nature, he is no longer strictly of nature. –Michael Pollan

Land Ethics

In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.
 –from the Great Law of the Iroquois Confederacy

Traditional gardening, landscaping, and landscape maintenance practices are often driven by outdated aesthetic fashion and short-sighted economic interests, with little ethical consideration. As a result, our traditional practices are often quite harmful to our health and the environment in general. A summary of today’s current situation is provided by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency:

The clearing of vast tracts of native woodlands, farmland and other habitats for urban development and the subsequent planting of extensive lawns and exotic ornamental plants that rely heavily on pesticides and mechanical equipment have been negatively impacting the environment and our health. Runoff from fertilizers and pesticides pollute our waters; mechanical lawn mowers and other garden equipment contribute to air and noise pollution; yard wastes overtax our landfills; and the loss of native habitat, use of pesticides, and introduction of invasive exotic plants cause alarming decline in the numbers of many animal and plant species.

To bring about a change in consciousness, we need to begin to consider the ethical implications of our actions which are harmful and non-sustainable. 
In the gardens of our minds and backyards, we can cultivate new standards which support our enlightened awareness. One garden, one yard, or one campus may seem a small area, but if many individuals and groups work toward home, community, and regional greening projects using natural systems as models, our whole country will benefit. By making conscious choices that sustain the quality of our region’s landscape, we can all help steer our culture towards identifying more closely with the land and its native plants and wildlife and set an example for other regions to follow.

Our values can motivate us to restore the landscape closer to its origins and create a sustainable future, or not. If we recognize our relationship to the world around us and our responsibility to future generations, we can meet our present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own. If we embrace an ethic in our country which helps us see humanity as part of a larger community, a community of all living things and systems on the earth, we will feel more obliged to protect the many parts of the ecosystem.

One American writer of the land conservation movement, Aldo Leopold, described this ethic back in the 1940s in his book A Sand County Almanac. He wrote that, “The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.” Leopold believed that the most effective way to change people’s behavior is to change what they care strongly about. He felt that it was necessary for people not only to use the land, but for them to have love, respect, and admiration for the land. This type of fundamental change in environmental ethics can be achieved through education and example.

One of the most successful ways to help develop love, respect, and admiration for the land is to provide hands-on experiences which nurture those feelings. Participation in planting activities, for example, is as important as experiencing the results. At the CEC we have invited students and faculty to take part in planting the native gardens, and we strive to educate participants on why these activities are so important. Other groups from the community and elsewhere have also benefited from direct experience in planting and maintaining the gardens; and increasing numbers of visitors are learning what native plants and environmentally friendly landscaping is all about from our demonstration gardens and educational materials. More than new concepts, conservation landscaping principles are an illumination of nature’s ways and means and a rediscovery of what naturally took place before we degraded the landscape. But how did we get to where we are today in our understanding of best landscaping management practices?

Preservation and Regionally-Based Restoration

A conservation landscaping ethic has evolved out of the 20th century wilderness preservation ethic, a uniquely American concept. According to Michael Pollan, a well-known author and professor, wilderness is easier to grasp in a country as large and geographically varied as ours; and national trends have tended to favor large, abstract landscape ideas—lawns, mono- cultures, wildernesses—which can be applied across the board. Such ideas have the power to simplify and unite. However, an ethic based on the garden would give local answers. Unlike the wilderness idea, it would propose different solutions in different places. Because it is location-specific, a garden ethic will never speak as clearly or univocally as the wilderness ethic, but local solutions are essential. The health of a place suffers when we impose practices that are better suited to another place.

The wilderness ethic, according to Pollan, embodies an “all or nothing,” an “either/or” thinking, and, in fact, we’ve ended up with a landscape in America that conforms to that model remarkably well. In his book Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education, Pollan tells us:

Americans have done an admirable job of drawing lines around certain sacred areas (we did invent the wilderness area) and a terrible job of managing the rest of our land. The reason is not hard to find: the only environmental ethic we have has nothing useful to say about those areas outside the line. Once a landscape is no longer “virgin” it is typically written off as fallen, lost to nature, irredeemable. We hand it over to the jurisdiction of that other sacrosanct American ethic: laissez-faire economics. ‘You might as well put up condos.’ And so we do.


Essentially, we have divided our country in two, between the kingdom of wilderness, which rules about 8 percent of America’s land, and the kingdom of the market, which rules the rest. But what do those of us who care about nature do when we’re on the market side, which is most of the time? How do we behave? What are our goals?

We indeed have choices beyond wilderness versus development with largely impervious surfaces including chemically laden lawns. Today’s efforts range from protecting pristine places to restoring home landscapes. “Consult the genius of the place,” is Alexander Pope’s famous advice to landscape designers. Aldo Leopold believed that it is not always enough to conserve the land—that sometimes it is desirable, possible, and necessary for humans to intervene to restore nature. Leopold believed that scientists can learn to restore damaged ecosystems including polluted rivers, dead lakes, vanished prairies, and clear-cut forests. Ecological restoration—and not simply preservation—became the basis for a new land ethic. Taken a step further, regionally appropriate ecological restoration, using native plants, has significantly increased in recent years.