The Dirt: A landscaper's nightmare
Full disclosure: I get the benefits of suburban life. I was a city girl in New York for fourteen adult years, and said I’d never leave. Now I fully embrace country living, but that doesn’t mean that I ever wanted to live amid clipped and treated lawns, in sight of uniformly well-groomed neighbors.
The suburban landscape stereotype is often described by landscape architects, garden writers, and designers (including me) as follows: The same five tightly sheared (into cone or meatball shapes) shrubs used ad nauseam; planting beds crammed against the houses; front yards with one lone sapling, which has often replaced an unnecessarily removed full-grown tree; vast expanses of lawns that are often treated excessively with fertilizers, herbicides and other pesticides without regard to diagnosis or timing; and almost nary a flower in view.
How are those for harsh generalization? When true, it’s often not what the landscaper intended. Many evolved and educated landscapers complain that customers ask for that look—what the neighbors have—and resist recommendations of islands, larger landscape beds, and layered plantings with a variety of low-maintenance species. Some landscapers even suggest wider spacing (in spite of the opportunity to sell more plants) with the long view in mind, but the customer wants an instantly full look. So the suburban landscape stereotype multiplies itself, until my unfair generalization is all too true.
We all have our stories, but one landscape consultation epitomized all that is troubling about the suburban landscape paradigm. Here is one job (details adjusted to preserve anonymity) that actually gave me nightmares.
From the diary of a mad landscaper
The setting was a groomed, mature, suburban neighborhood, with fairly predictable landscape styles but many attractive plantings. The assignment was to tame a domestic landscape, that, according to the customer, was “out of control.”
ME: “I see a few problems as I look around, but let’s start with what you’re looking for: What do you see as your problems? What’s your vision for the place?”
CUSTOMER: “Well, I like it really neat, like under control; can’t stand it getting messy.” (Wife nods head vigorously, “He really means it.”)
ME: “Okay, so let’s start with these trees. You have some nice lindens here in the middle of the (back) yard, but they will have some health problems soon.” I point out volcano mulching and weed-whacker damage, and recommended correct mulching.
CUSTOMER: “Yeah. They’re getting too tall anyway; I’m gonna top them.”
ME: “Top them? Well, topping is really not good for a tree [I explain why], and looking up here, I don’t see any reason—why do you want to top them?”
CUSTOMER: “They just look too big.”
Moving on, I suggest an island around one tree, and a large bed in the corner, to soften the yard’s severe lines. I mention flowering shrubs, such as serviceberry and clethra. I mention the fall colors, appeal for butterflies and birds, and pretty flowers, but the customer breaks in: “I don’t want any of ’em if they’ll bring in the bees.”
ME (smiling): “Oh now, you know that we need our honey bees and other pollinators! [Wife nods, but I’m getting no positive signal from him.] Is anyone in the family truly allergic?”
CUSTOMER: “No. But we have kids!”
ME[feeling sorry for kids that are going to be afraid to go outside]: “Well, I hope the kids learn to respect the bees. I’ll bet they’re learning about that in school. Anyway, let’s see what these shrubs are.” Looking around, I spot oakleaf hydrangeas and viburnums that have been sheared into perfectly spherical round balls.
CUSTOMER: “Those are getting too big. Gotta get rid of them.”
ME: “Here’s the thing—if you do want some smaller shrubs here I could recommend a couple of, say, false cypress or birds’ nest spruces that would stay small and you wouldn’t have to prune them back. But these four are all very attractive plants when they grow into their natural shapes. You do have room for them.”
CUSTOMER: “Nah. Hey, never mind that. Do you think I can make the developer cut down that tree in the corner? He shoulda gotten rid of it before we moved in.”
Far back in the deep lot I see an ancient oak, thirty-inch trunk diameter, with a couple of damaged branches. It’s still a great tree.
ME: “Mmm, is it giving you too much shade? Let’s see, that direction is northwest. Why don’t you like the tree?”
CUSTOMER: “It drops branches on my lawn! And we have kids!”
ME[considering the chances of kids playing outside way back there in a wind storm]: “I will give you the name of a couple of professional arborists who might clean up the broken branches for you, and lighten the canopy for the tree’s health. You know, a mature tree like that is actually really good for the property as a windbreak and an excellent habitat tree for birds.”
CUSTOMER: “Forget the birds. I don’t want them pooping around here. We’re gonna put up a patio there.”
The visit wears on. He wants flowers by the deck (but none that attract bees). He wants to replace those boxwoods and junipers (so much trouble to clip every year) and get some “low-maintenance” Canada hemlocks. He wants the row of blue spruces to stay shorter and narrower (already having topped and chopped them this spring). He’s getting rid of mulch because it gets in the lawnmower and asks me where he can get some of that white gravel because it looks so neat. All I can do is listen, make notes with recommendations of suitable plants and best landscape practices to give to him—although he is not listening to me—and leave literature about proper planting, watering, and pruning. Perhaps he will find a landscaper to do what he wants so that he can have a sterile, flowerless, leafless, insect-, and bird-free yard. So very sad.