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Natural beauty may be an acquired taste.
Learning to Admire Natural Landscapes
September 25, 2001 by Evelyn J. Hadden

	natural roadside vegetation
Natural roadside vegetation along Highway 61 includes stands of white birch trees.

Driving north on Highway 61 near the shore of Lake Superior, I am struck by the contrast between the natural roadside vegetation on the right side and the lawns on the left.

On the right: graceful white birches, native cedars heavy with cones, mounds of wispy willows, and in bloom, goldenrod and purple and white asters, with occasional Joe-Pye weed, yarrow, and fireweed. Sumacs layered along a hillside. Sturdy blue-green spruces of all sizes.

On the left: shorn lawn. Sometimes an entire yard has been turned over to lawn. Other yards display a few trees, usually not the same trees you find on the right. I saw one willow, its natural shape clipped away so that just a few branches remained.

What is beautiful to different people differs tremendously.

I'm a city-dweller who takes holidays here because I admire this particular natural landscape, and I've spent years trying to create a garden that will offer the same pleasure and stimulation that I find when exploring the Lake Superior region. Yet many people who live in my ideal landscape apparently prefer to be surrounded by low, tidy lawns and the same popular trees you'd find in backyards throughout much of the country.

Perhaps it's not that simple. I've heard many people say they think their native landscape is beautiful, but they wouldn't want their yard to look like that. My grandparents are classic examples. They live in the high desert of southern Idaho, and they both admire the subtle colors of the sparse desert vegetation and particularly the abundant rocky outcrops. Yet their yard consists of an extensive lawn and banks of evergreen shrubs, as if they need a green shield to counter all that brown and gray.

Maybe the desert makes a person crave an oasis.

So I've been wondering, is natural landscaping an "acquired taste"? Do our minds, by default, contain two separate categories that must be kept distinct: garden and wilderness? If so, how does a person learn to see the beauty of a natural landscape?

It might be helpful to understand the differences between natural and artificial (human-created) landscapes. I've noticed three of them.

  1. Natural landscapes have patterns, but they aren't simple. There are no straight rows or evenly spaced plants. No uniform sizes and shapes. Patterns in form, color, texture, and light vary according to nature's complex geometry.

    In contrast, people often create more obviously ordered landscapes. Stripes of hosta line both sides of a walk. Grids of trees create a windbreak. Hedge plants snipped into identical mounds enclose an area. These ordered plantings could not be mistaken for natural landscapes, and indeed some gardeners feel that's the point of a garden.

  2. Natural landscapes are communities. Though many plants spread to form colonies, they usually share space with multiple other species of plants and numerous animals. Plants evolve to fill niches in both space and time, efficiently claiming all available resources throughout the growing season.

    People often favor monocultures—stands of a single species such as lawn grass; groups of impatiens, petunias, or other bedding annuals; masses of groundcovers like ivy or vinca; and hedges of a single shrub species. Animals are often unwelcome because they eat the plants, make a mess, or otherwise bother people.

  3. Natural landscapes are, by definition, adapted to their environments, to the climate, nutrient and moisture levels, and drought and flood patterns.

    Many human-created landscapes require our help to survive. They might need more water than the local weather supplies, fertilizer to supplement the available nutrients, or amendments to acidify or calcify the soil to their taste.

People may come to value natural landscaping because they enjoy observing wildlife and realize it's the best way to attract animals to the garden. Others see it as a low-maintenance option, a more enduring plant cover that discourages opportunistic weeds. Some are drawn to how a natural landscape looks during a certain season (spring in the deciduous woodlands, autumn on the prairie) or how it changes over the seasons.

There may also be people like me who feel that modern life tends too much toward order and predictability, and it restores our perspective to introduce a little chaos.

Other LessLawn viewpoints.

Read about characteristics of healthy natural landscapes that our traditional garden practices work against.
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