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R&V Reflections: At Home with Nature by John Gidding

Image: Aniston Grace

There’s a battle for the finest lawn in the neighborhood, and the Wells family is in last place.

Or first place, depending on the location of the finish line.

If you’re measuring the success of our lawn based on the number of weeds, the shade of green from season to season, or the heights of its varied blades, we are definitely in last place. But if “success” looks like the least amount of time spent manicuring grass, the least amount of pesticide and fertilizer sprayed, and the least amount of money invested in lawn mowing and gas, then guess what? We are in the lead, much to our neighbors’ dismay (my apologies to Greg and Chuck).

If it were up to me, I’d do away entirely with our front and back lawn. I’d plant a vegetable garden, sit in the shade of more trees, select a variety of native perennials to brighten up the landscape, create cozy spaces with brick pavers and groundcover and benches where we could sit and sip tea while leisurely enjoying an afternoon breeze. I’d prune and pluck and weed instead of water, weed whack, aerate, mow, and reseed.

It turns out that I’m not the only one who’d like to see that very scene all across suburbia.

At Home with Nature by John Gidding

Natural landscape sketch. Image: John Gidding Facebook

John Gidding is a landscape architect and star of several HGTV programs including Curb Appeal Xtreme, Designed to Sell, and Dream Home. He has also starred on Secret Guide to the Fabulous (LOGO Network), Home Free (FOX Network), and Trading Spaces (TLC Network).

After spending years and years planting sod and sculpting the same old landscapes in the suburbs, Gidding began to realize that the landscapes we design for the modern suburban yard are a far cry from the pleasant, peaceful “sylvan scene” John Milton celebrated in his epic poem, Paradise Lost:

“Cedar, and Pine, and branching palm,

a Sylvan scene!

And as the ranks ascend shade above shade,

a woody theatre of stateliest view.”

Gidding set out to write At Home with Nature as a “step-by-step guide by which suburban homeowners can design, with native plants, sustainable, beautiful landscapes for their own property. A key element of this sylvan style of landscaping will be the use of a greater number of trees than are usually found in a suburban yard, leading to a landscape that is aesthetically pleasing, in harmony with and supportive of the local environment.”

Gidding continues, “The future health of our own habitats, and that of many species of wildlife, depends upon our capacity to adopt responsible strategies of landscape design, allowing a mix of spaces for people and wildlife, without taxing limited resources.”

YES! Gidding is my new favorite landscape architect.

Sarah’s Personal History of Landscape Design

We all have a history from which we emerge, and mine is both agricultural and familial. 

I spent years playing hide-and-seek with my cousins on the lawn of my grandmother’s house, hiding inside the welcoming arms of her huge rhododendrons. When we first looked at the home we own now, one of its finest selling points (to me) was the presence of an ancient rhododendron row wedged against the side of the garage. I am highly offended whenever my husband suggests cutting it down to make room for a shed.

Rhododendrons are beautiful evergreen shrubs that are native to Ohio. Native species are so desirable because they’ve spent years and years and years growing and adapting in their habitat. They “have established a self-regulating ecosystem that protects them from disease, and they require no more water than is provided by the region’s normal precipitation,” Gidding writes.

There’s just something about growing up in your native environment, rooted in the rich soil of your past, surrounded by the familiar, steady faces of family. Ever since I was a child, I’ve loved my family’s farm, its forest, the tall oaks and maples that shaded the lane where I picked raspberries as a kid.

I carried my love for the earth, burgeoned by a new boyfriend, to one of my first jobs out of high school—serving as a horticulture tech at Six Flags Worlds of Adventure in Aurora, Ohio. Back when it was open, I worked under the gentle servant leadership of the director, Mark Russell, who held high expectations for his crew of wide-eyed college students and cultivated in us a love of landscaping. 

From there, I took my ODNR certification in horticulture to work as an office manager at a company called Your Backyard, which specialized in landscape architecture and installation. In their backyard, I split and transplanted Black Eyed Susans, another native Ohio species, perennial and so prolific some property owner no longer wanted them.

It’s been years since I’ve worked in any professional way with the land, but clearly my love for landscaping and nature has not diminished. Even though I come from a family of lawn manicurists, the ritual of fertilizing and weeding just to mow and rake and aerate has always seemed like an exercise in futility. Gidding brings the “problem with grass” home in this alarming paragraph:

“The extent of the environmental damage grass has wrought upon the United States is staggering. Grass is our most irrigated crop, uselessly consuming over 30% of America’s precious drinking water. Americans grow three times more inedible turf grass than edible corn. In addition, 70 million pounds of pesticide are spread annually over this gigantic lawn, killing birds and bees, polluting the water, and reducing the life spans of children, pets, and wildlife. Adding insult to this injury are the estimated 40 million lawnmowers that consume some 80 million gallons of gasoline per year, with each single mower polluting about the same as a new car. Then there is the impure waste to dispose of. Mowing the average lawn generates about 1,500 pounds of clippings per year, and given the amount of labor, herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, and water it took to produce such waste, the disposal of these poisoned clippings then clogs landfills, adding insult to injury.”

More than ever, I want to do away with the race for the perfect lawn and win first place—in fresh, diverse, native landscaping that my lawn-loving neighbors will envy and maybe even seek to emulate. 

Reading Gidding’s delightfully lyrical, beautifully photographed and illustrated guide to sylvan landscaping inspires me. 

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