Does having a natural yard make you a bad American?

Not at all.

Some people think that natural yards look messy, unattractive, and unmaintained. They take pride in mowing their lawns and pruning their shrubs, thinking that by doing so they are showing that they care for their property, and that this in turn makes them a good neighbor, a good citizen, and a good American.

But a recent book argues that America’s Founding Fathers were themselves devoted gardeners, and that the way they gardened – the way they thought about plants – bore little resemblance to the beliefs and habits of many Americans today.

Here is one particularly striking paragraph from Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation, written by Andrea Wulf, and published in 2012:

“By the time Jefferson became president, many trees had been lost [in Washington DC, which at the time was still more of a wilderness than a city]. Most shocking of all, those on the grounds of the White House had been felled by Federalists* after the accession of the Republicans, one observer noted, ‘out of spite to them who cherished it.’ Enraged by Jefferson’s election, so the rumor went, his rivals had ordered the ancient trees to be cut down as a parting gesture, knowing how such vandalism would wound the new president, who regarded tree-felling as ‘a crime little short of murder.’ Jefferson was so furious at this unscrupulous destruction that shortly after he moved into the White House, the author of the Declaration of Independence was overheard making the rather surprising comment, ‘I wish I was a despot that I might save the noble, the beautiful trees that are daily falling.'” (page 148)

(*Jefferson was a member of the Republican Party, as it existed in his day. The opposing political party – of which departing President John Adams was a member – was called the Federalists.)

And here are some other fascinating facts from the book:

Many of the most important figures in the founding of America had strong feelings about the importance of gardening. The first four presidents of the United States – George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison – all couldn’t wait to retire from politics and go back to working on their farms, vegetable plots, and ornamental gardens.

The “Founding Gardeners” understood the importance of nature. The fourth President, James Madison – the person after whom Madison, Wisconsin is named – was the first major figure to publicly call for an end to deforestation in America.

In the opinion of the “Founding Gardeners”, conventional yards are un-American. Jefferson and Adams, while serving as ambassadors in Europe, observed that many people there were turning away from a formal style of gardening, seeing straight paths, pruned trees, and geometrical hedges as too dictatorial. These landowners thought that a free people should embrace a more natural look in their gardens. In other words, Americans who value independence and democracy should show it by letting garden plants follow their natural life courses.

The “Founding Gardeners” believed that native plants make America great. At his estate at Mount Vernon, Washington planted trees and shrubs from all over the thirteen states, but he did not allow any plants from Europe in his gardens. And, while some Europeans disparaged America by saying that the wildlife there was inferior, Jefferson sent samples demonstrating that the New World had bigger animals and more beautiful plants.

Being a good American means having a yard that reflects the natural plant communities of America. Being a good American means letting plants have their own life, liberty, and pursuit of vegetative happiness, rather than constantly imposing our own will on them.

America invented the idea of national parks. Having nature in our yards shows that we share the longstanding American values of respecting and conserving our natural environment.

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Does having a natural yard make you a bad American?

What is a food forest?

When people think about growing food, they normally think about annual crops: fruits, vegetables, and grains that are planted in the spring, harvested in the fall, and planted again the next year. While this is the dominant model in both industrial agriculture and backyard gardening, it’s actually a very inefficient way of producing food.

A much more efficient way, in terms of land area and maintenance effort required, is to plant what’s known as a food forest. A food forest is an intermingling of perennial crops – like fruit trees, berry bushes, and vines – that produce food year after year without needing to be replanted.

The downside of food forests is that they take a long time to become established, and may produce little or nothing in the first few years. After that, though, they provide a lifetime of fresh food with minimal work.

Paradise Lot tells the story of two permaculture practitioners who produced an amazing amount of food in a tiny yard in Massachusetts by using food forest techniques. Find it on Amazon here.

What is a food forest?

What is deep ecology?

Deep ecology is a philosophy that states one may only harm others in order to serve vital needs.

A deep ecologist would say it’s acceptable to kill a plant or animal in order to eat it. It would also be okay to kill a bear that’s trying to eat you. Killing a bear for a hunting trophy, however, would not be seen as ethical.

This philosophy has existed for thousands of years in cultures around the world, and is part of how those cultures were able to live sustainably. It was reformulated in the 1970’s and became known as deep ecology.

Deep ecology points out that functioning natural areas are valuable because they provide ecosystem services. However, it cautions against using this as the basis for protecting nature: if feasible artificial substitutes for ecosystem services became available, we would be free to take as many resources from nature as we wished. Instead, deep ecology advocates seeing nature as inherently valuable, or as having the inherent right to its own existence. To respect these rights, people should take from nature only what is necessary for their own survival.

A book about deep ecology can be found in the Madison library system or on Amazon.

What is deep ecology?

Who else is writing about natural yards?

Madison’s Isthmus newspaper ran an article in 2012 that declared the age of the turf grass lawn to be over.

The New Yorker published a similar article in 2008.

The New York Times Magazine printed an article questioning lawns as early as 1989.

Bringing Nature Home comprehensively describes why natural yards are critical to the preservation of ecosystem services.

Silent Spring, a landmark book in the environmental movement, discusses how maintaining lawns through applications of chemicals is harmful to homeowners as well as to wildlife.

(Outside the Madison library system? Find the books on Amazon here and here.)

Who else is writing about natural yards?