People love to garden for a multitude of reasons. Sure it gives an excuse to visit the hardware store and the local nurseries, and pinch bits of plants from neighbours’ gardens. But also it gives us a reason to be outside; we love to feel the sun on our backs and the warm soil between our fingers, we love to plant and watch things grow into beautiful flowers, delicious vegetables, or majestic trees that shade and feed us. An often repeated reason some people give is that they like being in touch with nature. This seems to be based on a philosophical outlook that puts humans at the centre of everything, which seems a very parochial and old-fashioned view of the world. While gardening gets people close to nature, it’s probably not in the way they think. Gardening is generally a prevention of natural processes, rather than a harmonious embrace.
Despite some popular interpretations, nature is nothing like a garden, and there’s nothing natural about gardening in the true sense of the word. Most of what a gardener does is prevent or delay natural processes to maximise returns. The return might be fruit and vegies, or it might be flowers, or just aesthetic value – and that’s okay. There’s nothing “wrong” with gardening being un-natural. Humans do a lot of things that manipulate our environment in ways that are unprecedented in nature. For example, cooking is not natural – only humans do it in all the animal kingdom. But the benefits to us have been enormous, by making food more digestible, and by killing potentially harmful pathogens in our food so we get sick less often.
In the same way, growing the plants we want all in one place has freed up time for other pursuits, like art, philosophy, and inventing plumbing, and hot running water and microwave burritos. And microwaves. And everything else that makes our lives more comfortable. This one “un-natural” activity in effect led to the birth of civilisation, and it could be argued that agriculture and horticulture are the most influential technology that humans have ever deployed. The prevention of natural processes in favour of plants and animals we choose to cultivate.
The acceptance that gardening is not in any way natural means reconsidering what it means to garden, and how best to use the available space we have for gardening. Gardening exists outside the natural world, but is inspired and influenced by it. Gardening in turn influences and changes the natural world by introducing plants to places they could never have got on their own, and gives them a head start in surviving in those new environments. Gardening is completely different to nature, and I will explain some of the reasons why.
So how is gardening different to natural ecosystems? In the increasingly small area of the world not under the influence of human beings, what we may call the “natural world”, plants mostly land as seeds and germinate (or not), then must find everything they need in their immediate environment or die. All the water and nutrients they require must be available to their roots, and all the light they require for energy must be available to their leaves or equivalent green parts. The ability of an individual plant or species to survive in a particular environment is referred to in biological terms as it’s fitness in a particular ecological niche.
Each plant species has its own niche in an ecosystem, and according to some authorities ecological niche defines a species as much as any other characteristic. So plants are subject to environmental and evolutionary pressures, and exist as part of a complex network of relationships between all the other organisms in the immediate neighborhood: Animals, other plants, fungi, and other microbial life forms. The survival of a plant in the natural environment depends on its innate abilities to cope with the soil type and pH, the annual water supply from rainfall or snowmelt, competition for resources by other plants, attacks from grazing animals, insects, and infections from bacteria and fungi.
The adaptations plants have produced in response to these pressures are what gives us the wild diversity of species we see in the world today, from ephemeral plants in the desert that germinate, bloom and set seed in a matter of days, to ancient woody giants of the forests that live for thousands of years and produce seeds for centuries. Every plant in an undisturbed ecosystem is adapted precisely for the location in which it lives. Or it would not survive. A seed lands on the ground, and if it’s suited to the environment, it grows and reproduces, if not, it gets outcompeted by plants that are suited.
Now look at the garden. Almost every natural process is approached as a challenge to be overcome by the curator of the garden. The plants themselves are selected by the gardener, and put into soil which has been altered in every conceivable way. The nutrient profile, drainage and water supply have likely been altered. The amount of organic matter is likely to be changed, and even the chemical properties like pH are altered to suit the desired plant species. The plants rarely have any relationship to other plants in the garden, beyond their selection by the gardener, and rarely any real history in the local environment. Most people just don’t plant local native gardens.
The plants themselves are usually “garden varieties” – selected clones or breeding lines that have known characteristics, and have been grown by nurseries for particular features like flower colour, or fruit size or flavour. Some of these are hundreds of years old, others are recently developed, but most are not known in the wild as populations. Many are propagated by vegetative means, either through cuttings, or grafting, to preserve the desired characteristics. Others are grown from seed of known parents, so the seedlings are more predictable in their growth.
When more competitive plants inevitably arrive to take advantage of the luxurious conditions provided in the garden, they are attacked with chemicals or machinery, or pulled out by their roots (ironically bringing more weeds seeds to the surface and creating a bigger problem). In annual type gardens, natural succession is prevented, and the garden beds returned to a state of emptiness, no woody plants allowed to establish and create longer term, stable vegetation as would naturally happen if they were left alone.
Insect and animal feeding is discouraged by one means or another. In the case of insects and mites, the usual route is to kill the bugs with some kind of poison, whether sourced from a plant or a chemistry lab. Larger animals are discouraged by physical means or by any number of deterrents from smelly chemicals to fake predators. Even putting back the original vegetation on a site is not natural, the plants are planted by hand, usually at an advanced stage, rather than germinating where they will grow. The soils often have to be amended, as farming or other human activity alter the physical and chemical properties, and weed management is an ongoing issue for revegetation projects.
Plant diseases and disorders are diagnosed and treated, whether that is by replacing deficient nutrients, or combating fungi and bacteria with still more chemical solutions. Even when plants are healthy, they are pruned and trained, hedged and trimmed to suit the space available or the style of garden, or to encourage new growth and more flowers and fruit. Growing plants in straight lines, and pruning them to induce more fruiting stems, and preventing other animals getting a share of the produce, and adjusting soil chemistry and nutrient levels: none of this is natural, by any definition of the word. It’s an artificial environment we construct for our own benefit, to the exclusion of other organisms.
People and natural ecosystems don’t get along well, the best protection they have is for us to stay away as much as possible. So on land that has been permanently cleared of natural vegetation, it’s up to us to surround ourselves with the most useful and productive plants we can, and make artificial, stable systems that support humans directly, so we can leave the natural systems to evolve on their own. The history of introduced plants becoming weeds in Australia shows that we don’t necessarily know with any degree of prediction what species may become threatening to native ecosystems. The best way to protect them is to expand isolated remnants and help stabilise and restore damaged ecosystems so they are better able to resist invaders without our help, while concentrating our gardening immediately around where we live and work.
Cities and other human settlements are never likely to return to anything approaching a natural state. Even if we stopped gardening, the plants that would colonise once-settled areas would not be the original idigenous plants, but the beginnings of whole new ecosystems that could take thousands of years to stabilise. With that in mind, to best preserve the remaining natural world, we have to use the space we have in the most efficient and productive way possible. Gardening must be a conscious process of design and interaction. It’s a lot more than just sticking a few pants in the ground and waiting for them to grow. Gardeners need to consider their impact on the broader environment, and the context of the landscape in which they exist. Gardening has the potential to be a positive or a negative environmental factor, and gardeners themselves get to choose which way to grow.