News blog

Let’s go crazy…in the garden


Sometimes we don’t give our neighbors enough credit. There’s a common trope in eco-nerd circles, the story of the exuberant, wild, ecologically vibrant garden attacked by neighbors for failing to conform conventional aesthetic standards. These unenlightened lawn worshipers complain to the city, dismiss the native plants as weeds and fret about vermin.


But the research doesn’t necessarily support this familiar story. Today, at the Ecological Society of America meeting in Austin, Texas, conference-goers heard another story. Petra Lindemann-Matthies of the University of Education Karlsruhe, in Karlsruhe, Germany presented 250 people with photographs of a subset of 36 Swiss gardens, some diverse, some dull and dominated by lawns, and asked them to rate them on their beauty. Her colleague Thomas Marty of the University of Zürich had counted native Swiss species in each garden, giving himself 75 minutes per garden. The least diverse had only 20 species, the most, 105. It turns out that the Swiss public thinks the most diverse gardens are the most beautiful (r = 0.47). So maintaining a perfect lawn to impress the neighbors may be a losing strategy. Far better, this research suggests, to put in a meadow of native grasses and flowers and then just let it go crazy.

Interestingly, when given adjectives to describe the gardens, the 250 subjects tended to pick words like “natural” and “diverse” to gardens they thought beautiful. But some ecologically managed gardens were also described as “wild” and “chaotic,” and these were ranked as ugly, hinting that there are complex connotations to these eco-gardens.

When added to the work of landscape ecologists like Joan Iverson Nassauer, who has surveyed people in the US Midwest with photoshopped gardens in various states of tidiness and ecological diversity, the work is more evidence that the “critical neighbor” is, in Lindemann-Matthies’ words, “a figment of the imagination.”

If you are interested in going crazy in the garden, there are a number of resources to help you get started. The consensus seems to be that it takes a bit of work initially (ripping out a lawn is tough, for starters) but then takes little or no ongoing maintenece. Here are some resources:

The Wild Ones

-The National Wildlife Federation program to certify wildlife habitat gardens

The Wildlife Trust and Royal Horticultrual Society’s Wild About Gardens page.

There are also many local resources tailored to particular ecosystems, like Adelaide’s Backyards for Wildlife.

Pictures courtesy Lindemann-Matthies


  1. Report this comment

    Matt Chew said:

    The term “native Swiss species” as employed here suggests that we should accept the political borders of Switzerland as representative of a discrete and commonly understood ecological unit. But the report does not reveal whether the people who viewed and rated the garden photographs were Swiss or German, or whether they had the taxonomic or biogeographical knowledge to differentiate between “Swiss” plants and other plants. It is likewise silent regarding whether the"native Swiss plants" predominate numerically or visually in the photos viewed. Nor is there any explanation forthcoming of how the photos were rendered comparable in terms of scale, light level, and framing to eliminate possible sources of aesthetic bias. Finally, there is no particular reason given that the population who viewed the photographs represent any larger population. So while there is perhaps something to be learned here, the conclusions seem to overreach the data, at least the data as summarized in the newsblog. And it is not clear that those conclusions are ecological other than in the very broadest, weakest reading of the concept.

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    Jean SmilingCoyote said:

    As a resident of Chicago, I can tell my fellow readers that the “critical neighbor” here in the US Midwest is often the local government regulation, steadfastly trying to maintain a landscape of front lawns of manicured Old World grasses. These regulations are hardly imaginary, and neither are the stuffed shirts who enforce them.

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    Mary said:

    I, too, have had run-ins with the “hypothetical” critical neighbor. On the other hand, having had the police called, when I explained to the very embarrassed officer that my yard was biodiverse and full of native prairie plants, he warned the critical neighbor about harassment and suggested that they might learn something from us.

    Eventually other neighbors started asking us for seeds and putting native plants into their beds and yards. It didn’t rid the neighborhood of obsessively-manicured lawns, but did lend a certain charm to the area.

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