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An alternative to the front lawn. Concave, with lots of plants (photo by author).

The “Landscaping” Myth

Beyond the Bushes

Don’t you hate it when people don’t understand you?

I’m a landscape architect and you probably don’t know what that means unless you have one in your family. Usually, we get called “landscapers,” and if you’re interested, I’ll explain why that’s wrong.

Realtors will promise “professional landscaping” which is supposed to increase the value of a property. That usually means there’s a curvy path leading to the front door that nobody uses, and there are a line of bushes protecting your eyes from the ugly foundation.

Landscaping has come to mean adding bushes to soften the ungracious way your future house meets the ground, due to spec house “plopping” by the builder. In our profession, we call this garnishing “shrubbing up,” a cynical term originating from the architects and engineers who restrict our scope to planting.

When we can do so much more.

“Landscape” literally means “view of the land,” like a framed image in a painting. You know, like the landscape art hanging in your doctor’s office. The ingredients are the same: a forest view with a convenient path (or stream) that leads…who knows where?, Or, an open view like a meadow with some scattered trees, maybe a small structure that can protect you if you venture out.

These images have been studied by scholars and viewer (user) preferences are no secret. The landscape paintings created in every culture over the centuries, right up to the Modern era, all promise safe and controlled contact with nature.

Central Park was designed by Olmsted and Vaux following this model: a series of vignettes to be viewed from the carriage, on horseback, or on foot. Plenty of sight lines.

So what do we do today, when nature is not so safe? Weird things are happening due to our lack of proper stewardship and that includes how we view residential landscapes.

In Suburbia, homeowners like broad expanses of lawn, with houses usually set back about 50 feet. That creates a buffer from the rest of the world. We have plenty of time to see who is arriving at the front door we never use.

But if you’re concerned about climate change and you’d like to do something on a small scale to promote social change, maybe you could start with your own property.

Here is a list of things that I promote in my projects:

  • Model the landform so that it captures rainwater (groundwater recharge).
  • Heavily plant steep slopes to stabilize them (erosion control).
  • Create vertically diverse plant communities (habitat creation).
  • Turn ditches into stream beds (improved water quality).
  • Create flowering perennial gardens (reduce energy and chemical input).

There are more actions than these, but they’re good start. And this is a great time of year to be thinking about how you can make your contribution to improving the real safety, not just the perception of safety, in the landscape.

Digging up your lawn has the added advantage of stirring things up in the neighborhood.

If you want more ideas about how to innovate in your own backyard, you can check out my book, Your Rad Garden. Or pop in to my website and join my mailing list. I will be ramping up the free information I provide as the winter wanes and the crocuses start to peek up from your front lawn (which I hope you’ll eliminate this coming season).

Happy landscape-making!



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Mary Adelaide Scipioni

Mary Adelaide Scipioni

Multi-faceted creative person, landscape architect, and currently obscure, passionate writer of novels under the name Mariuccia Milla.