What is benign neglect?

Benign neglect is the recognition that not all things need intensive maintenance. Some things do just fine – do best, even – when left mostly to their own devices.

For example, no one is likely to accuse you of neglecting your child if you don’t bottle-feed, burp, and diaper your typically-developing 15-year-old. Teenagers still need help and guidance, but they can do most things for themselves, and they become more self-sufficient year by year – especially if allowed some independence and the opportunity to try things on their own.

A natural yard is like a teenager. With the exception of some highly-domesticated species, plants are wild creatures that are capable of taking care of all their own needs, especially when they are living in naturalistic communities. There is little a gardener can do that really helps a plant – they don’t particularly benefit from fertilizer, they don’t need pesticides when natural pest predators are able to live in the area, and they don’t require supplemental water if they’ve been sited in the right spot. In other words, in the context of a healthy natural yard, doing minimal yard work isn’t lack of maintenance. It’s benign neglect. The garden is doing just fine on its own. In fact, it is doing better than it would be if the gardener constantly interfered with the garden’s natural processes.

Sometimes, a gardener who does minimal yard work is mistaken for being lazy, instead of being recognized as having a yard that is low-maintenance by design. This is akin to accusing someone of not maintaining their car when they have bought a reliable vehicle rather than an old beater (and hence they don’t spend much time bringing it to the repair shop), or insisting that someone is not taking good care of their pet because they don’t regularly walk and play with their goldfish. Some yards just don’t need much maintenance, and having such a yard is usually a mindful choice motivated by reasons other than laziness.

For example, the gardener may have a demanding job that leaves them with little time for yard work, and so they choose to have a yard that can look after itself while its owner is staying late at the office. They may have a disability that makes it hard for them to struggle with a lawnmower every week. They may be planning ahead for when they are elderly and unable to keep up with the maintenance requirements of a lawn. Or, they may have established a natural yard because it filters stormwater, supports wildlife, combats climate change, and creates peace and quiet in the neighborhood – the fact that it is easier to maintain is just a fringe benefit.

All of us are busy and have many priorities. Replacing maintenance-intensive aspects of our lives with things that benefit from benign neglect is not a sign of laziness; it’s a wise choice that allows us to make the best use of our time.

What is benign neglect?

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