In the last blog post, I mentioned the term vernacular gardens, which is something that I think demands further exploration. What are vernacular gardens, exactly? To quote Samantha Gibson, who wrote a wonderful essay I found online (she lives somewhere in northern England) called Local Distinctiveness and the Vernacular Garden, vernacular gardens include “not only the older rural gardens, but also the suburban gardens of the middle classes. For a welcome change, the large and gran-national and international influences will take a back seat. It is the turn of the more prosaic garden to come under the spotlight.” Well, that sounds intriguing, doesn’t it? And rather timely, I think. I especially like the phrase “the more prosaic garden.”
Well, isn’t it time we began re-thinking our garden influences anyway? The American lawn, as many of us know, gained popularity in the early twentieth century as primarily a status symbol, a way for regular, middle-class folks to feel as if they were wealthy land barons or something like that. With the help of the U.S. Golf Association, we now have a billion-dollar-a-year industry, the lawn-care industry, which also has proven to be a very large contributor to greenhouse gas emissions (it is estimated that lawn care equipment alone consumes nearly 600 million gallons of gasoline a year). The large, manicured lawns of English estates and royal French palaces (i.e., the Gardens of Versailles, etc.), which had long been sold to the eager public through film and magazine exposure, finally made their way into most of middle-class life by the 1950′s. Suburban housing associations all but required their owners to plant lawns by adopting strict laws on weeds and proper turf height–one of the principle reasons why the grass lawn is so dominant a feature in American landscapes today.
But times are changing. American lawns are under attack and, indeed, have also been recognized as one of the largest usurpers of water resources in the American Southwest where drought conditions are a serious concern for local resources (estimated around 60% of total water usage in summer months). Lawn equipment and lawn maintenance in general also contributes to no small extent towards urban noise, pollution, fertilizer runoff, and poor soil conditions if mowed grass is bagged and carted off the property. It’s time for vernacular gardens to take center stage.
Not only are the English lawns and French tapis vert out of style and place in areas like Texas and the Southwestern U.S., but they are also out of touch with pioneering ideas of modern, sustainable garden design and practices. Plant biodiversity, increased interest in native and well-adapted specimens for the garden’s region and locality, permaculture, food webs and food forests, even conversion of on site resources (food, leaves, rainwater, etc.) into the landscape are all at odds with the garish, man-over-nature, private estate-gardens of the past. We are entering a new age and gardens–largely because of interest in local food production and recycling efforts–are at the frontier of how we will need to live our lives in the coming decades.
If we want to preserve life and resources for future generations, I think it’s high time we question everything we’ve come to take for granted in the American residential landscape and start looking for new sources of inspiration. No more beds and plants plastered up against the house. No more playscapes in every backyard. No more stark, lifeless front yards landscaped for show. Gibson’s article points out that there is a rich, simultaneous history of vernacular gardens, too (it might help to think of Howard Zinn’s The Real History of The Unites States as a comparison here). Her call to document these rural and middle-class gardens before they vanish is, I agree, an important and vital step towards change. And what makes the term vernacular garden so appealing right now is that it preserves a notion of locality and aesthetic in all of the politics of gardening, an element which is not talked about enough. If we want gardens to remain beautiful and character-driven–and I, for one, want them to–they will retain a sense of uniqueness and interest only if they adhere to the particular garden owner’s tastes and eccentricities, no matter their social or economic class. As Mark Twain said, “You can be a little ungrammatical if you come from the right part of the country.”