Most discussions of low-maintenance or native-plant landscaping come with plenty of caveats. Around structures like homes and offices, many authors contend, we have to do at least a bit of work. For instance, landscapers must remove large trees around foundations, mow at least once per year, remove weeds in pathways, and remove excess plant debris. But how many of these processes are truly necessary, and how many simply satisfy our desire for familiar aesthetics and culture?
Pruning overhanging tree branches is a clear example of necessary landscape maintenance. Large tree branches falling on structures are destructive and potentially deadly. But the long-term effects of leaving a dandelion growing in a sidewalk crack are much less apparent. In many ecosystems, if lawn mowing isn’t done, tree saplings will take hold. This will of course lead to a situation in which large tree branches need to be pruned over structures. But which is lower maintenance, mowing several times per year to prevent tree growth, or pruning large trees once a decade to prevent building damage? This is an important question in low maintenance landscaping. Cheaper interventions like mowing are more accessible to people of different incomes, more socially accepted, and less time consuming on an individual basis. More expensive, time consuming interventions like pruning or burning require greater expertise and risk, but result in a landscape that is more dynamic and productive.
This is not to say that all sustainable landscaping strategies are more expensive however. In a longer term perspective, pruning is less resource intensive than mowing, but there are many low-maintenance landscape strategies that are the cheapest and most ecologically productive option. Many areas that are currently mowed or under some other intensive landscaping scheme are not close enough to buildings for overhanging limbs to pose a threat. These areas require no human intervention to grow, change, and decompose. Despite this, we waste considerable resources on shaping them to our cultural standards. Sometimes this is done because of a misconception that can easily be cleared up. Many people think that tree roots near their homes are a risk to the integrity of the foundation, a fact which Gary Watson of the Morton Arboretum disputes. Watson writes, “Trees are sometimes blamed for subsidence of foundations. While trees can occasionally contribute to foundation subsidence by extracting water from the soil beneath them, very specific ‘conditions’ are required (These conditions are not often encountered in the Midwest.)”1
A concern over rodents and other pests is another often cited reason for undertaking destructive landscaping projects. Regardless of the expense or inconvenience of having a chipmunk climb into your dryer vent (something that happened to me), does it justify widespread habitat destruction that wipes out animal populations on a large scale? Instead of addressing problems as they arise, for instance with mouse traps or occasional insecticide, why have Americans as a culture decided to practice habitat destruction that not only reduces pests in our homes, but plants, animals, and insects around our homes?
The answers to these questions are wide ranging and complex, but I believe they spring up from two important sources. The first is capitalism – a system which drives toward the ownership of capital as a means to create profit. The free processes of growth, herbivory, and decay have been replaced with expensive processes dependent on capital investment in equipment and land. The second reason is a set of cultural values which prizes both purity and physical effort. Lawns are expensive in both money and physical effort, and embody the ideal of purity in their lack of species diversity and biomass. Both of these sources are clearly apparent in the marketing surrounding mole extermination. Web searches for mole damage return sites with ties to extermination companies with descriptions of the aesthetic problems with mole hills in lawns. Many websites talk about some connection to home foundation damage without providing evidence. This marketing strategy relies on creating a problem with a solution that costs money, and appealing to aesthetic considerations of impurity (often with talk of “invasion”).
If our landscaping standards are based on the aesthetics of purity instead of practical necessity, how can we assess which practices are beneficial and which are unnecessary and even harmful? Practicing close observation of the landscape is important. Instead of following traditional practices unquestioningly, observe what happens when plants and animals around your home are allowed to express their natural patterns. If a vine is growing on the side of a building, does it appear to be pulling away pieces of brick or siding? According to the University of Illinois extension, “Generally, vines have not shown to cause damage to good, sound masonry, brick or stone.”2 Are shrubs blocking access to a utility meter? If there are specific issues, can these problems be solved by directed interventions instead of widespread ecological disruption?
What is the least we can do to maintain our safety and the structural soundness of buildings? The answer is that the least we can do is to observe the landscape around us and think critically about the interventions we want to make. Many, if not most, of the landscaping practices popular in the 21st century United States are not necessary for the safety of people or buildings. Not relying on expensive equipment and chemicals saves money and time, and divests from a destructive capitalist system. Abundant landscapes full of self-sown plants and a high amount of biodiversity and biomass will become ever more crucial as climate change worsens. So perhaps in the long run, safety will actually be found in abundant landscapes rather than more controlled ones.