Years ago, when I lived on Bainbridge Island, an elderly neighbor sold his five acres of forest on an idyllic inlet to a couple from California. They clear cut it.
Although Bainbridge had been logged within decades of the first white settlers’ arrival, that initial logging had been selective. So the five acres included majestic old fir, hemlock and cedar trees, huge big leaf maples, alder, cascara, willow, hazel, and native dogwoods. Beneath the canopy were wild trillium and honeysuckle, sword ferns, elderberries, salmon berries, and oso berries. Lacy deciduous huckleberry bushes crowned the enormous, rotting old growth tree stumps left by early loggers.
Within weeks, it was all utterly destroyed by giant bulldozers.
I was complicit in this destruction, since the firewood from that debacle warmed my little house down the road for several years.
Twenty-five years later, I returned to the Island for its annual garden tour, and that same five acres was one of the showplace gardens. And it was truly a showplace – a McMansion surrounded by paved paths, thriving flower gardens and well-chosen shrubbery, a rock-lined stream, and a large boathouse, suitable for entertaining corporate clients.
I’ve carried the sadness about that garden – and a truth about gardening it revealed to me – for many years now. So last week, when I read a news story about a local garden show, I was mortified but not surprised to read a quote from one of the chosen gardeners who described her place as having been “a blank slate” before she and her husband built a house and started planting flowers.
I know that every neighborhood – from the urban core to outermost exurbia – was once wild, free land, managed by the light hands of First Nations citizens who never felt the need to scrape away native vegetation for the sake of Shasta daisies or daylilies. So it’s silly to disapprove of people wresting gardens out of the wilderness when my own neighborhood has the same history.
But there’s another truth about gardening that’s been troubling me as well: it’s become just another form of consumption. In fact, Americans spent $36.1 billion on their gardens in 2015.
On my morning walk, I pass fields of nursery crops – tidy pyramidal shrubs, rows of tiny trees, and listen to the Spanish language chat of the field workers. The workers plough, spray, pot, and fertilize. On the far side of the fields are enormous greenhouses, and a small fleet of trucks to haul these living products to nurseries. I often wonder what percentage of these crops will survive in the city yards and newly built suburbia for which they are destined. And I wonder how much lettuce, corn, or broccoli rides in another fleet of trucks, from California and beyond, because this land has been turned from agriculture to horticulture.
Heaven knows I’ve bought my share of perennial plants at the nursery, and geraniums at the grocery store. I’ve tossed out those black plastic pots that nurseries refuse to recycle.
And the two semi-dwarf crabapple trees in front of my house must once have grown in a field just like the one I pass. Once again, I am complicit.
But the longer I garden, the more my regret and misgivings grow. I’ve been thinking about what my neighborhood would look like if no one gardened or mowed. What if we just cleared paths from the road to our houses, and left the rest to go wild? It’s a lovely but ludicrous idea that I’m quite sure my neighbors would abhor.
And I do love my flowers and shrubs, and my little vegetable garden. And more than that, I love sinking a shovel in the earth, watching seedlings sprout and grow, and thinking about which combinations of colors, leaf textures and plant personalities should be grouped together in my shady back yard.
So I can’t say I’m gardening any less, but over time, I’ve come to garden differently. I value the plants swapped with friends rather than bought at a nursery. I grow more from seed. I spend less.
But I still grieve the loss of that five acres of native woods, and all the other five acres of native woods that have been sacrificed for the gardens we can’t seem to live without.