Let God Design Your Garden
The Antifragile Way of Landscaping
Do you see gardens like this
and sigh wistfully? A place for everything, and everything in its place! Just imagine how much work the landscape staff puts in to maintain those! And if there’s even one thing out of place, your eye will go right to it.
There’s a whole industry designed to exploit that longing and extract all your money. As this article from HGTV tells you, you have to first decide if you want a:
It’s complicated! How can you, the ordinary homeowner, ever do it? They also say:
If you’re dealing with terracing or grading issues, it’s worth the effort to consult with a garden designer. Their professional training and contacts can help you navigate potential, costly problems with ease. You might also want to visit with a garden designer to review a garden plan you have developed, especially if you have any doubts about your design or your ability to install it. A garden designer can refine your vision and confirm — or allay — your fears.
Above all, don’t rush. If you’re unsure which way to proceed in a certain area, pause. The reward of creating an effective garden design layout is definitely worth any wait.
The article from Homes and Gardens goes through list of issues you have to consider in planning your garden, almost a Ph.D. program. A few of them are:
Start with the plants that'll work best for your yard
To start, observe your yard over the course of a day. Look at the areas you're considering for your garden, and jot down whether or not they are in the sun every three hours, or at 9 am, Noon, 3 pm, and 6 pm. This will help you decipher whether to plant shade, part-shade, or full sun plants in various areas of your yard.
It's also important to understand the hardiness zone where you live. The U.S. encompasses nine hardiness zones, each based on the local climate. The hardiness zone dictates the type of plants that are best suited and ill-suited to the area. Check a hardiness zone map to determine where you live.
Understanding your soil type will also help you determine the types of plants that'll work best for your yard, or how to properly nourish your soil to support the plants you wish to grow. Most plants prefer a slightly acidic soil, with a pH level of about 6-7, though some prefer a more neutral or alkaline soil.
Finally, you'll also want to consider the local wildlife (deer love to eat tulips, for example), and whether you'll be planting a perennial garden that comes back every year, an annual garden to add some color during the summer season, or a mix of both.
Measure the space first, then draw out a scale plan on to which you can mark the desired locations of different functional areas of the garden.
So, how can one person do all this? Better hire a professional! And I’ve hired several in my years at my house, and dutifully tried to follow their plans.
None of their plans are visible in my garden photos below. All of it’s dead now. However, I now have what I’m calling The Antifragile Garden. I had a visitor to my backyard last week, who kept expressing admiration for its wild, forest quality:
Here’s another angle:
The formal, French-style gardens at the top here are what Nessim NicholasTaleb would call “fragile.” Someone spent a lot of time designing them, and the slightest little flaw would ruin them. The landscaping staff devotes, essentially, their entire day to maintaining them.
One of the first thing you probably think when you move into a new house is, “what kind of garden do I want?” So you search Google for “garden planning.” Or you just call a landscape designer, who’s sitting by the phone waiting for someone like you.
Let’s say you think it’ll be fun, so you go through most of this (until you get tired, go down to the garden center and buy some shrubs, and call it Done):
How To Plan Flowerbeds And Borders
Decide On A Palette Of Materials
Plan A Garden That Corrects Awkward Proportions
How To Create Interest In A Garden
How To Plan A Shade Garden
How To Plan A Garden For Privacy
How To Plan A Vegetable Garden
What Plants Should Be Planted Together?
In case you thought all that was too easy, you also have to consider:
What things bloom at what times of the year? Ideally, you don’t want everything in bloom at once.
Will some of the plants spread and propagate themselves?
How big will everything get? How often will it need trimming? Will the scale of things be constantly changing as some plants grow faster than others?
How can you get water to everything that needs it?
Do you want some ground cover plants, to fill in the spaces between the bigger plants?
After 5 years, how is your wonderful plan going to look?
How about bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds? You want those, don’t you? What plants will attract those?
Most of all, how do you know you’ve planned for everything? As Taleb reminds us in The Black Swan, the 2008 financial crisis happened because some events that were not in the mathematical models occurred. Weather, earthquakes, insect infestations… the list goes on forever.
Forest Bathing and Japanese Gardens
If you’ve never heard of this, it’s a real Thing. It means that spending time in the forest, or in the wilds generally, is good for you. Who’d have thought? This explains how it’s especially big in Japan:
Forest bathing as a medicinal practice in Japan goes back to the 1980s. Around this time, the world was coming to realize the negative effects of depression, distraction, and aches and pains. These effects have only gotten worse with time, and are now recognized in cities all over the world. It's difficult to truly relax in cities, with sensory overload caused by heavy traffic, dense populations and long hours spent in offices. High demand for real estate has made many cities "green-poor”, with few trees and parks to give even the illusion of nature.
If you google “forest bathing” you get lots of hits. Like this article in the LA Times about how you can do it all over the world. I don’t doubt that some travel companies are offering Forest Bathing Packages even now, all expenses paid.
The odd thing that’s never mentioned in all this is the most important:
Nobody planned the forest. That’s what you like about it.
If you believe in God, then God planned it. That’s why sometimes cowboys in the West say that going out in the wild is their way of going to church.
Nature just happened on its own.
My friend Lance (whom you’ll remember from here!), said,
people always think of “Nature” as something outside their homes. The forests, national parks, and so on. And they’re very supportive of preserving those places.
But nature is everywhere, including in one’s backyard. When you create a garden, you are enhancing nature, providing food and shelter for a host of creatures. This is just as important as those other places.
You don’t need to travel to some exotic location. You can bring nature home.
That’s what wrong with your landscape “plan.” It won’t look like God or Nature did it. It’ll be fragile.
What Do I Mean By “Antifragile”?
The opposite of fragile is not robust; it’s antifragile. Something that is antifragile not only does not fall apart under randomness — it improves.
Nature is antifragile. Many species have come and gone over the last hundreds of millions of years, but their genetic inheritance either got passed down, or it didn’t. The shocks that came with time all worked to improve things in general, although not for each individual organism.
The restaurant scene in your city is antifragile. Many restaurants open and close, but over time there are more restaurants that people like. The randomness (and cruelty) of events and people’s tastes work to improve the overall set of restaurants available to you, although at the cost of many individual restaurants failing.
The bold conjecture made here is that everything that has life in it is to some extent antifragile (but not the reverse). It looks like the secret of life is antifragility. Typically, the natural—the biological is both antifragile and fragile, depending on the source (and the range) of variation. A human body can benefit from stressors (to get stronger), but only to a point. For instance, your bones will get denser when episodic stress is applied to them, a mechanism formalized under the name Wolff's Law after an 1892 article by a German surgeon. But a dish, a car, an inanimate object will not — these may be robust but cannot be intrinsically antifragile. Inanimate that is, nonliving material, typically, when subjected to stress, either undergoes material fatigue or breaks.
Your landscape plan is inanimate.
Which brings us to the existential aspect of randomness. If you are not a washing machine or a cuckoo clock—in other words, if you are alive something deep in your soul likes a certain measure of randomness and disorder. There is a titillating feeling associated with randomness. We like the moderate (and highly domesticated) world of games, from spectator sports to having our breathing suspended between crap shoots during the next visit to Las Vegas. I myself, while writing these lines, try to avoid the tyranny of a precise and explicit plan, drawing from an opaque source inside me that gives me surprises. Writing is only worth it when it provides us with the tingling effect of adventure, which is why I enjoy the composition of books and dislike the straitjacket of the 750-word op-ed, which, even without the philistinism of the editor, bores me to tears. And, remarkably, what the author is bored writing bores the reader. If I could predict what my day would exactly look like, I would feel a little bit dead.
How Is My Garden Antifragile?
First of all, the Antifragile Way is not an exercise in purity. If you turn an urban space back to nature, you get weeds:
maybe you like that. Most neighbors would report it to the City as a nuisance.
So your 1/4 acre suburban yard is not really going to be “natural.” I had some idea what I wanted (a wild, jungle look), but there is no “plan” that started the garden. Asking how you can replicate it is missing the point. You make some inputs, and then adjust as necessary, as Nature works its will.
There is one big tree that I put in when the old elm died, and I realized that trees are something where expertise IS really necessary. They take years and years to grow, and they can cause immense problems. So I called in an expert on trees (it’s a Chinese Pistachio). It’s done great.
For the rest, when it was all bare, I got two yards of dirt and built two little hills back there. Over time, they’ve eroded away, but I was gratified that my neighbor could still detect one.
In this photo on the left:
you can see some native grasses (with the purple flowers). I planted a whole bunch of these, and I love them. I think they’ve spread, but I’m not sure; like I said, there is no plan.
On the far right there, you see Japanese Anemone. That article doesn’t tell you that they’re invasive, although this one does. Some years ago, I tried ripping it out. No dice; it just comes back. But here is a good example of antifragility; I just lived with it.
The Anemone plant has spread, but it hasn’t outcompeted the rest of the plants. And it flowers in the autumn, when nothing else does. What landscape architect would ever give you this invasive plant?
Lastly, antifragility is not a substitute for maintenance although it probably reduces it. I do have a gardening service that walks through there, picking up debris and so forth. They don’t have a landscape plan to consult, though.
Nature and Happiness
The real balm for your soul in “forest bathing” is, as I said, that no human being arranged it. There was no landscape architect who designed the forest. That’s the goal for how your garden should look, and you won’t find a picture of it you can emulate.
I’ve heard this quote before, and I don’t know if it was really Oscar Wilde, but we’ll go with him:
Happiness is not having what you want. It's wanting what you have.