Where do modern landscaping practices come from?

I grew up in a suburban neighborhood. There were no leafblowers, no ride-on mowers. Few people chemically-treated their lawns and those neighbors were generally seen as uptight, they were people who didn’t have kids or pets and their behaviors were generally frowned-upon. The neighborhood looked rather overgrown. There was a fairly dense canopy of trees, such that Wood Thrush nested in the neighborhood, and there were no Northern Mockingbirds or Song Sparrows or other birds that prefer more open habitats.

Nowadays there are fewer trees. There is no Wood Thrush nest. There are Northern Mockingbirds and Song Sparrows. Many people hire teams of landscapers that use gas-powered leafblowers. Some people have taken out all their gardens and replaced them with lawn. Some people use ride-on mowers to mow their lawns. And then there’s the mulch. I hate it. People heap huge piles of mulch on everything. No one used to use all this mulch. The use of mulch is so excessive, I regularly see it kill trees…people heap it on deep at the base of trees, the “mulch volcano”, and it kills them. I’ve seen dead plum, dogwood trees, dead oaks, from overmulching. And the black mulch, which is really common, it heats up intensely in the summer sun, so the combination of killing and removing trees and covering everything with bare black mulch makes the outdoor environment so hot during the summer.

Because there is less shade and vegetation, and thus less transpiration, and more of this heat from the black mulch everywhere, it is more unpleasant to walk places, and to be around in the hot summer months now than it was when I was a kid. These factors make it more expensive to cool my home in the summer too, and unfortunately I can’t convince my landlord to plant more trees, for some reason that completely eludes me.

Where the freaking heck did these culture and practices of landscaping come from?

Like, over the course of my life, I was learning about the value of importance of trees, of wild areas, and as I got older, of the importance of growing locally native plants, of how many landscaping plants became invasive, etc. I was moving more and more towards ecologically-sound gardening and landscaping practices. As was everyone around me, my parents, my friends.

But the society around me was moving in the opposite direction. College campuses, not just one, but many different ones, a big state university, a small private college, they were cutting down trees and not replacing them. They were switching to more open expanses of lawn, less shrubbery, less groundcovers. They were slow to get onboard with the native plant movement. Even the University of Delaware which houses the famous Doug Tallamy, one of the world’s foremost, if not the foremost public advocate of native plants, was still planting non-native, marginally-invasive plants in landscaping only several years back, and has done almost nothing to remove invasive plants in their landscaping. Like I can literally see two huge Norway Maples out my window, and they are on UD property.

And the landscapers…ugh. It just gets worse and worse, it’s been getting worse and worse for years. Louder and louder, gas-powered equipment. It’s an escalation. No one used to use equipment so loud that I couldn’t even hear my music when I was inside my apartment with the windows closed. No one used to use equipment so loud it would hurt my ears if I did not cover them as I walked down the sidewalk. No one would kick up huge clouds of dust with blowers. No one used to use leafblowers outside of autumn and even then they were rare and they were never as loud as the ones nowadays. And the duration escalates. I heard a team of people with 3 different guys with those incredibly loud blowers, blow for 2 hours straight one day, and in spring, they weren’t even blowing autumn leaves in the season when they mostly fall, it wasn’t even clear what they were blowing. People often will blow the soil until the topsoil is totally stripped, and then put down mulch. It’s completely puzzling behavior that seems entirely irrational to me, like people are just escalating for the sake of escalation? Why is it growing, why is it escalating? How and why is this culture becoming so extreme?

Where does this culture come from? I hate it so much. I want to fight it with every core of my being.

But it’s hard to fight an enemy you don’t understand. Like I said, literally everyone I talk to about this stuff agrees with me. They think the sterile monoculture landscaping is ugly. They hate the noise. They hate the dust. They hate the overmulching that kills trees. But like…this culture has continued growing, surging around me.

It clearly has its roots, its origin, and its power in a place that I am totally unfamiliar with. It’s like an alien invasion and I don’t see where the aliens come from until they’re in my face destroying my home and killing my friends and family.

I don’t understand the origins fo modern landscaping practices.

So people please help me out. Where in the heck does this horrid, destructive culture come from? This enemy, this foe? How can I understand it so I can defeat it? Why is it surging and thriving when I see no evidence of surging roots in the social circles I travel in? I want to fight it and win. I want to vanquish it, to rid our society of this scourge that hurts my ears all through the growing season, that destroys the environment all around me. But I can’t fight an enemy that I can’t understand. I want to see its roots and I want to pull it out by the roots. And I can’t find them.


As our society evolves and advances towards its collapse people are less and less in touch with nature, there is no more need or space to grow our food, collect our firewood or traverse forested areas because all these resources have been centralized and devoured by economy and population growth.
People who have been severed from the natural world see its elements as foreign, scary and dangerous, so they do what they can to keep them at bay.
All the natural elements that are being cut off from human-inhabited landscapes are considered dangerous in some form; ponds carry mosquitos and diseases, trees damage infrastructure, wildlife is aggressive and unsanitary, weeds are unsightly, and so on.
While this phenomenon is incredibly widespread today it’s not something new, it has been increasing for many generations in tandem with habitat destruction.
It’s to be expected that in the era where global human-made mass exceeds all living biomass nature seems more alien than ever.

I don’t think this is a battle we can win, I think it’s one that we can try to survive.
Cultivating native vegetation in my garden, volunteering for nature, learning and spreading the word is my little resistance.


I share your frustration. 885 insect species and counting in my re-wilded garden where I no longer use any chemical forms of insecticide or herbicide. I have one electric pole chainsaw for pruning and everything else are hand tools. I do not blow or rake leaves. I turn off lights at night after I photograph moths. I’m doing my best to share these principles on Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, and my blog at pollinatorweb.com and as a volunteer with the ABQ Backyard Refuge Program and Xerces Society. Maybe it’s hopeless on a large scale. Maybe we’ve waited too long to take action on biodiversity and climate change. I do know that we need passionate people like you to have any chance of moving in the right direction.


“I don’t think this is a battle we can win, I think it’s one that we can try to survive.
Cultivating native vegetation in my garden, volunteering for nature, learning and spreading the word is my little resistance”

Indeed. I believe this is a battle we can battle, though.
Teach your children well.
I’ve seen more “outdoor preschool” programs. I’ve seen more charter and private schools that focus on environmental education. More summer camp programs with outdoor education.
Our children are our future.
(And yes, one daughter is a park ranger and outdoor educator)


The modern gardening practices you loathe come from a long tradition of formal gardens. Formal gardens date back to at least 6th century BCE in ancient Persia. Although many claim formal gardens were about representing paradise they were also about demonstrating power. The power to control nature and people. Nature was kept constrained in orderly geometric shapes by small armies of largely unseen gardeners.

Modern ‘instant suburbs’ and malls reflect that tradition and desire. Instant suburbs are geometric and orderly. Nature is usually limited to a single tree per house and lawns neatly mowed into a checkered pattern. Malls are even more controlled. Plants are contained in geometric planters inside a geometric and climate-controlled mall.

The only thing that has changed is that machines are replacing more and more of the invisible gardeners.


It’s the homeless. Our collective hatred of people so misfortunate as to have lost their homes is so extreme that we’ve spent the last two decades retooling our entire civic infrastructure around that one agenda. Used to be, if your bladder was full and there was no restroom, you would be told to “go behind a bush”; but now that is considered something that people who’ve lost their homes do, so better make sure that there are no bushes bushy enough to go behind. (And just for good measure, make sure every storefront puts up a “no public restroom” sign, too.) Parks and greenways are closed at sundown to create a pretext to arrest anyone who sleeps in them at night. We want people who’ve lost their homes out of sight and out of mind, so we make sure that there is no place for them to be out of sight anywhere in the neighborhood.


These answers make some sense in a broad societal / historical context, but I don’t think they explain the short-term links.

For example, an overwhelming majority of the neighborhoods and campuses where I see these changes happening, are not ones that ever had homeless people wandering through them or camping out in yards, before these changes started happening.

And with respect to formal garden aesthetics, I’m aware that this culture has been part of Western society for a long time, but what I don’t understand is in the short-term, why people were comfortable with a more lush, overgrown aesthetic in the 80’s and 90’s when I was growing up, and a lot of new homeowners in the past 10 years are ripping these things out.

Something is changing and I don’t think it is explained fully by homelessness or by the history of formal gardens and their aesthetics.

What I am lacking is: what specific media or chains of cultural transmission are giving people the ideas to do these things? I am surrounded by media and messaging and encouragement from others, telling me to do the opposite, so clearly, I must be cut off from the channels that are encouraging the move in the other direction.

Is it marketing and products? Chains like Home Depot that sell the lawn equipment? Lawn care companies and landscaping companies selling their services? Are there media sources telling people to cut down trees and cut out flowerbeds and replace them with lawn? And what is with the excessive use of heavy equipment? Like what the heck gets into people’s heads?

Like I’m literally looking out the window now and watching a guy leaf-blow nothing. There is nothing to blow and he is still blowing. I want to grab the man and shake him and yell at him and ask him what is wrong with him and tell him that he is disturbing the peace and to be mindful of his use of the blower because it disturbs people who are at home trying to work, but I don’t want to get into a fight or get arrested.


I wonder if it has to do with the same push towards wanting more, wanting to be beautiful, wanting bigger and better of everything. More communication, particularly of photos, over the last century or so has allowed more and more people to see what the Rich and Powerful have, and now we all want that. At least in the US, houses are now much larger than they used to be and people own more square footage of living space per person than in the past. Aside from people who are truly poor or live in dense cities with public transportation, everyone with a driving license has a car. Everyone has a tv (well, I don’t, but I’m weird), a washing machine and dryer, air-conditioning (technically, I own one, but I don’t use it), at least one computer, a smart phone, more clothes than we know what to do with, and so on. I suspect that the same principles extend to landscaping.


A local nature club in my area actually did a survey about this. The two main reasons were that properties with lawns and well-maintained gardens have higher property values, and that homeowners believed that more wild lots would attract rodents and insects.


Even in Cape Town I know him, and follow ‘his’ ideas in my own garden. Disappointed to hear that he has not been able to influence his own university. Similar to the botanist at the University of Cape Town - who wished he had sawed down the invasive alien trees for UCT. Before the fire that destroyed the library and archives.

properties with lawns and well-maintained gardens have higher property values - and here that tips even further. Nature is messy, gardens are work. Rip it all out and have gravel, tar, concrete. Grim! Meanwhile my garden is so green I have almost achieved see nothing that is not nature … must drive the ‘skoon en netjies’ ( = clean and tidy) mindset insane!!


For campuses, I wouldn’t be too surprised if the big lawns turned out to be a side-effect of the obsession with “student experience” scores in rankings and surveys. That encourages all sorts of large-scale outdoor events, which are easier to plan and clean up with a bare, sterile lawn.

I remember freshers’ week and the end of summer term wreaking absolute havoc, I’m not sure anything beyond the saddest lawn would survive.


I would say “Follow the money”, simply. This new standard is probably cheaper. All the rest does not matter.

I use a decibel measuring app when I believe the noise level is too high. (Farms and tourists on loud toy machines)
In the suburbs, in older neighborhoods the lush bushes and trees have aged out. Trees get cut when they endanger roofs (either by over shading and leaf drop, or breaking branch damage) and when the roots cause structural damage and pipe entanglements. Trees have a limited life span when the roots are limited by cement,too. Seldom to be replaced.
Beautiful landscaping can take plenty of time and plenty of money.
Today people don’t have time to do it themselves, and the children are all at after school activities.
It’s easier to hire the work out and easier for the crews to arrive en masse with their machines. And doing this makes the HOAs happy.
HOAs confuse me, as so many HO don’t like the Os rules.
As for campuses and public areas? Easier maintenance, yes. But honestly? Safety. Students need to be safe, day and night. Hedges, bushes, large tree trunks are hiding places. We should not have to think of these, but we do.
There seems to be many reasons for “well groomed lawns”.

Not to sound harsh, but the fact everyone you talk with agrees with you may just mean you’re living in a bubble. After 15 years of doing profession landscape design I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of residential clients who wanted something that needed more than a weekly mowing and an annual shearing. I think most people either don’t have any interest in environmental issues or an inkling that how landscapes are installed and maintained is an environmental issue. Granted, anyone who does have the knowledge and ambition to maintain a eco-friendly landscape is less likely to contract with a professional company, but we had no shortage of clients.

Also, very few “landscapers,” and especially the ones doing maintenance, have competent training or any clue what they’re doing, at least around here.


The nice, neat, or even lush tree of the 80’s is the overgrown tree of the 2020’s. As other people above have pointed out they are often perceived as dangers in their own right or as hiding places for people that might wish you harm. Nice, neat, and controlled is ‘safe’. Nasty, untidy, and uncontrolled is perceived as ‘dangerous’.

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That presupposes a set of unspoken assumptions. Why does a higher property value matter? It assumes that one owns a home mainly as an investment to resell, not as a secure place to stay – because we only care how much something costs if we are buying it or selling it. This in turn says something about our relationship with money.

And ever since 9/11, people are much more fearful in general, and much more willing to go to extremes for the perception of “safety.”


It’s a little bit weird to know that it happens in many parts of the world since most of the literature on public satisfaction about urban green spaces tells a different story. That is people seem to like more green spaces that are, apparently or actually, more biodiverse (with both wild and cultivated species) instead of boring monocultures.
I tend to think that there would be a silent majority that would prefer differently managed green spaces, but a minority of fanatics of order and precision is ruling at present. So, also here, meadows are overmown so that plants cannot produce enough seeds to cover the soil, only a handful of tree species are planted and often in line and the vegetation on stream beds is seen as a danger and not as something to protect.


I agree with you because I’d rather take a risk of financial loss than do environmental harm but a lot of people see their ability to sell their properties at a high value as part of insurance against something catastrophic happening, necessitating quick funds. They also see it as what gets sold to pay for elder care and end of life expenses, or as what their kids/grandkids will be able to sell and inherit. Even if they intend to stay in the house for the rest of their lives it is also seen as an investment because, frankly, in our society it is one. It shouldn’t be, but they aren’t wrong that it is and that to choose to behave otherwise = taking a probable financial loss. Or at least a risk if they just don’t see other people being as successful selling properties without lawns.

Can’t underestimate the impact of advertising and sales pitches. Some people’s whole jobs is to sell the stuff and there’s a lot of built up investment in it. It’s what gets seen in shows and next door and at workplaces and official buildings. Like another commenter above said it’s very much the dominant opinion to want a plain lawn and mulch around trees maybe a flower bed or two. But it’s mostly just not thought through and the second people see other options demonstrated more frequently they may well go for them. Whoever makes the calls for the landscaping around schools, libraries, government buildings is worth leaning on to push ecological interests. What gets seen as successful spreads.

Many people also feel “inconsiderate” of their neighbors if they do something they think will lower neighbors’ property values as well. Now we might see that and say it is not worth the loss of biodiversity, but it’s interesting how much of these rationales do have some roots in positive impulses (attempt at neighborly conscientiousness, wanting to look after the security of their kids) … that sadly ends up being preemptive conformity without enough forethought to realize it’s going to ring very hollow someday. Property values of course will tank following wildfires… droughts… floods… and more that can be mitigated at least some little bit if everyone restores more healthy environments. In each positive impulse currently tying someone to keeping the conventional lawn there is the seed of what would convince them to switch to native plants.

Another rationale I have heard from people is fear of ticks and tick borne illnesses. As much as it feels ridiculous, especially when these same people let their dogs run into tall grasses and take them home and get ticks that way but have to draw the line at tall grass/plants near the house/apartment… I was once totally unable to have a productive discussion about it without first just saying yes tick-borne illnesses are very scary and it is reasonable to be concerned. Then got into how the lawn being more native meadow was unlikely to substantively raise the family’s tick-borne illness risk anymore than their current habits did, and which methods are effective at preventing ticks from getting on you whether at home or out at a park. It is true it is the actual CDC advice to mow tall grasses at home and chipping around paths and things to prevent getting ticks. (see: https://www.cdc.gov/lyme/prev/in_the_yard.html) I think that’s silly in the grander scheme of how people behave, but clearly some more credentialed people than me somewhere disagree. This influences people.

Sometimes I have had to shift people’s consumerism habits that just aren’t going to go away to help them want to make the switch. For people really into lawn maintenance, get them hooked on native plant sales, consulting with an environmentally focused landscape designer, getting nice rocks and things to add. There was a time I tried to get everyone into free seed collecting and simple 100% DIY but honestly some people really want to go to a place a buy a thing from a sale. If it gets beneficial plants in the ground ok. And to be fair I buy native plants sometimes too… certain things I just never got to come up from seed. And it’s true you wait a long time before it looks like anything going that route. Being flexible helps. It may be they’re more right than I am and it’s more being practical and getting it done with more assurance it’ll work out than what I assumed was “consumerism”.

Few other points that have been important in talking to people about this:

  • native planted landscaping can look all sorts of different ways, “Overgrown” and lovably messy is just one option. There are ways to keep some ‘lawn’ that can be mowed in part and kept for whatever lawn games/sports someone wants to keep doing and still make a big change toward native plants. Collect pictures to show people the range of options including ones set up to be good for kids and dogs.

  • Some mulching is a productive part of soil improvement/protective cover …especially as new plants grow in. It really depends what kind and how it’s used.

  • collect resources that actually show the step by step process. It is truly difficult to get over the barrier of something unfamiliar that feels like it might fail. Multiple times I hear from people they won’t change because it might be they take out this lawn that they have invested so much in already or that is already struggling but doing “OK enough” and then the new plants fail and all they have is a lot of cracked mud with the topsoil blowing away. Having failed a DIY attempt like that myself in an area with terrible in-fill soil, it’s a fair concern. I learned I had to improve that soil a lot or wait years with cracked dusty mud everywhere and struggling plants.

  • so resources like this: https://extension.umd.edu/resource/converting-lawns-diverse-landscapes-case-studies & https://www.nrdc.org/stories/more-sustainable-and-beautiful-alternatives-grass-lawn & https://www.nature.org/en-us/about-us/where-we-work/priority-landscapes/great-lakes/stories-in-the-great-lakes/plant-a-pollinator-paradise/ & research to the specific local landscape in question … and local laws

  • and with those case studies showing the lawn to natural landscape conversion process, and the legal changes that sometimes need to get advocated for and passed too, the more we respect the work that goes in and offer to help each other the better


The garden blogs I read - in my filter bubble - are mostly lawn gone and USA

Prairie https://www.monarchgard.com/thedeepmiddle
Texas Pam has written a book Lawn Gone
California times 2
And Wildflower Wednesday in Tennessee

You can forgive me for thinking wildflowers, biodiversity, and ripped out the lawn first - is - the American Dream. Not the 2 inch high monoculture lawn.


i grew up in an awful grinding suburban area in a filled wetland that then got surrounded by toxic waste dumping industry on a large scale. This is in southern California. In terms of landscape ‘wildness’, it’s very close to zero, but it’s actually a tiny bit better now there than when i was a child. More animals have learned to adapt and there are more squirrels, lizards, etc than a few decades ago, and now even coyotes. Much of the lawn has been replaced due to cyclical drought made worse by climate change, etc. On the other hand it is true large trees have been replaced by smaller plants which perform less urban ecosystem function. There are a few more rain gardens, bioswales, etc. I’d actually say in that area there is some slow progress, though not nearly fast enough. I agree the fake mulch is awful, it stinks and is hot and looks jarring. It’s commonly used even here in Vermont where sugar maples dump a constant stream of nutrient rich insect friendly mulch that is often raked and thrown away or composted. There is a push here in my progressive city to do ‘no mow may’ which i have mixed feelings about because it then becomes very hard to mow in June unless you have a bulky resource intensive lawnmower. I prefer just getting rid of any lawn not being directly used by kids, dogs, snow pile storage, etc (and kids don’t need huge lawns, they love nature! you just gotta monitor for ticks). So yeah.

I don’t think the battle against ecosystem collapse is one we win or use. Like ecosystems it is complex, and varies from palce to place. The bad news is it is true no one can stop large scale ecosystem collapse that is already occurring and has bene ongoing for a long time. The good news is on a local scale we all can make a significant difference to small scale ecosystems. If humans make it, we make it in a more resilient and rich world. If humans die off or society totally collapses, at least there is more there to regrow that way.