The absurdity of gardening


Is this lawn just perfect? As of 2005, lawns covered an estimated 63,000 square miles of America, about the size of Texas. (And if Texas is a country, it would be the 39th-largest country in the world).

Beyond the stereotype, lawns are not exclusively an American obsession – it’s everywhere. From the chateau of Versailles in France, the Buckingham Palace in England, Tiananmen Square in China, or countless hotels in Dubai (in all fairness, if they have a ski station in the middle of a desert, a lawn is an effortless business).

Green lawn in Grand Hyatt Dubai despite water scarcity
Grand Hyatt Dubai. Source

Climates might vary, but lawns shall look the same

It all (again) started in Europe. In his book “Homo Deus”, Yuval Noah Harari gives the credit of maintaining a lawn at the entrance of private residences or castles to French and English aristocrats back in the late Middle Ages.

Peasants and servants mowing the lawns in the late Middle Ages
Mow, mow, mow your grass, gently down the roots. Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream. Source

Lawns and the practice of keeping lawns in the US have been attacked quite consistently the past few years as a wasteful act, especially in regions with water scarcity. 

Different climate zones in the US
Climates in the US: lawns don’t require the same treatment and amount of resources in a steppe climate or humid subtropical one. But none of that matters, because lawns must all look the same everywhere. Source

We have learned and relearned about the psychology behind this practice in the US (“a well-manicured lawn is tethered to ideas like success and stability”), the amount of water needed (200 gallons – or 757000 liters of drinking water per day per person to water lawns in the US alone). But it seems like lawns are still here to stay. 

When searching on how much water is wasted per year to water lawns in the US, I came across this article from a synthetic grass provider. Statistics aside, the conclusion is “synthetic grass never needs watering”. 

This alternative has been used very often in both indoor and outdoor stadiums. Yet, after all, it is an alternative where we try to solve a problem by introducing more problems into the story: petroleum use, toxic chemicals from infill, health and safety concerns, and most of all, microplastic & rubber pollution in marine and soil environment. In terms of the latter, artificial turf is “second only to tire and road wear particles (TRWP) that make up a large portion of the fine road debris”. 

A close-up at the synthetic grass that never needs watering
The grass is greener always if it’s fake. Source

Or we can also dye the grass green. The spray is stated to be “non-toxic, biodegradable, and pet-friendly”. It only takes 30 minutes to dye the grass, the color can be kept up to several months and most of all, this keeps your water bill down. Only good things. 

California residents dyeing their lawn with eye-popping green color during a drought
California residents dyeing their lawn with eye-popping green color during a drought. Source

Wherever I go in Europe I see lawns, in both cities or the countryside. Europeans can disagree on many things with US citizens across the Atlantic ocean, but when it comes to mowing the lawn and maintaining a beautiful garden, they can surely give each other a toast. 

Perfect lawn in Sicilia, one of the driest regions in Italy
Perfect lawn in Sicilia. Along with Sardinia, this is one of the driest regions in Italy. Source

In houses in Brittany, France where I live, everyone is maintaining a beautiful garden with a perfectly mowed lawn as well. Except that it rains so often here that you have to mow almost once in three or four days. 

This means that when the weather is nice and you are hoping to enjoy your lunch outside in the garden, all of a sudden everyone in your neighborhood needs to kickstart their petrol lawnmowers…

Perfect green lawn with a man mowing by an electrical law cutter
It rains often in Brittany so the green is always green. But that comes with several costs. Source

High energy-demanding ornaments

But lawns are just a martyr of our times. If we take a closer look, English gardens or French formal gardens are as absurd, and to some extent, public parks and urban green space as well. Those are also green ornaments – non-productive and non-regenerative, with extremely low biodiversity, while requiring high energy-demanding setup and maintenance.

I didn’t truly understand this until I had to myself trim those beautiful, straight and perfectly symmetric green hedges in a French formal garden – at the Chateau de Beaumesnil in Normandy, France. The farm where I was volunteering shares a part of its land and properties with the Chateau, so we had to maintain and keep those properties clean and intact. 

It took us the whole day to trim down 10 meters long of hedge. We didn’t use any petrol-fueled devices, only mechanical pruners and shears. The job could soon become quite meditative when the only movement you had to do was to move the shears to cut down little leaves which just came into existence two months ago. But I remembered thinking to myself – “I’d rather spend this day taking care of the plants on the farm that eventually will give me something to eat”. 

Chateau de Beaumesnil in Normandy, France with a big trimmed plant structure in the style of a classic French garden
Chateau de Beaumesnil. See that big green ball on the right? Imagine having to prune & trim that by hand once every two months. Source

But a garden is not a farmyard, nor an orchard, or a “potager” (a vegetable garden in English). Jacques Boyceau de La Barauderie, head garden designer of King Louis XVIII, wrote in 1638 in his book “Traité du jardinage, selon les raisons de la nature et de l’art” that “the principal reason for the existence of a garden is the aesthetic pleasure which it gives to the spectator.”

Formal gardens were never meant to nurture man. These high-energy and labor-demanding green ornaments were made to “manifest glory and power”, which were only accessible to a handful of the population. Until we decided to clone this practice that was applied to a handful, to the majority and it became standardized everywhere. 

Standardized private gardens

I find it strange to see a big house with a gigantic garden that does not offer its owner a single edible fruit or vegetable. What is the point of owning a 2000m2 garden and still having to go to the market to buy a bouquet garni for your soup, or buying apples packed in plastic in big-box stores and supermarkets? 

I brought this up to people I happened to co-habit, who own a large garden and love gardening and spend their days perfecting their gardens. They admire nature and its generosity, they don’t mind getting their hands dirty. 

But gardening somehow seems to be so different from cultivating. There is a difference between planting tulips and potatoes. One is beautiful to the eyes, other is good to the stomach. And as long as the stomach is secured, the eyes shall also have their feast. 

Standardized urban green space

Urban green spaces are gardens or lawns that are open to the public (e.g lawns in campuses, community parks or gardens, etc.). 

In 1618, Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London was one of the first green spaces in England, created as a “great ornament to the Citie, pleasure and freshness for the health and recreation of the Inhabitants thereabout, and for the sight and delight of Embassadors and Strangers coming to our Court and Cittie, and a memorable worke of our tyme for all posteritie.” 

Again we stick to the idea of “ornament”, of beautiful greeny things that will add up to pleasure and freshness, but not to the stomach. 

Water a Urban green space in a city
Urban green space. These lawns won’t water themselves. Source
Colorful tulips in the Garden of KeukenHof, Lisse, the Netherlands
Garden of KeukenHof, Lisse, the Netherlands. Tulips have always been in the hype. Much care must be taken, only for a bloom of one or two weeks.

Edible gardens

I understand the need of humans to have beautiful things to look at – be it nature or nurtured by man. We all enjoy beautifully crafted paysage, and neatly arranged ranges of flowers. We all enjoy lying on the grass on a beautiful day looking up at the sky, especially in a busy metropolitan. 

Picnic on a campus lawn
And a good picnic too. Source

But it is not impossible to fuse our clean human design with a regenerative, less energy-demanding system. Gardens with edible plants and vegetables can look beautiful and unique. 

A mix of flowers and lettuce in an edible garden
A mix of flowers and lettuce. Source
Edible garden with vertical growing space
Edible garden with vertical growing space. There is, however, no lawn as we optimize the area for cultivation. Source
A shared public edible garden in Paris
A shared, public edible garden in Paris. Source

Edible gardens such as these will still require effort to set up and maintain throughout the years, yet you’ll get the yields directly useful to humans in return (for example, fruits or veggies).

If you are looking for the minimum level of effort for maintenance, forest gardening can be an interesting concept to look at. This practice is a low-maintenance way of food production imitates a forest ecosystem with layers of fruit trees, edible plants, and herbs. It is low-maintenance because a forest does not need any seeds to be sowed each year, nor any watering.

The forest garden of Robert Hart, who coined the term "forest gardening" after adapting the principles and applying them to temperate climates
The forest garden of Robert Hart, who coined the term “forest gardening” after adapting the principles and applying them to temperate climates. Source

If you want to read further on this topic:

Forest garden or edible garden: a quick and practical guide to the concept

To combat food waste: let’s take a look at our fridge

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