AS SHE OFTEN DOES, naturalist and nature writer Nancy Lawson—perhaps known better as the Humane Gardener after the title of her first book—caught my attention the other day.
“My yard isn’t overgrown and neither is yours,” Nancy wrote on Instagram. What she went on to say is that words like overgrown are the kind that are often applied negatively to landscapes that don’t fit the manicured model, the one dominated by the mindset of the Great American Lawn.
But Nancy Lawson takes exception, countering with the thought that most landscapes are in fact undergrown, as in lacking diversity and life.
Naturalist Nancy Lawson is author of “The Humane Gardener,” and then also of the book “Wildscape” (affiliate links). When she and her husband bought their Maryland home almost 25 years ago, it was anything but a wildscape. And she vividly remembers that the 2.23 acres featured, in her words, “almost 2 acres of mowed turf and a little tiny, sickly rose bush.”
What does the language we are using about our landscapes say—and are we really using the best words?
Plus: Enter to win a copy of her latest book, “Wildscape,” by commenting in the box near the bottom of the page.
Read along as you listen to the Jan. 29, 2024 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
the language of the landscape, with nancy lawson
Margaret Roach: Hi, Nancy. How is it down there in the wildscape in Maryland? Good?
Nancy Lawson: Hi, yes, it’s excellent. The birds are all in their heated bird baths outside.
Margaret: [Laughter.] Yeah, lots of birds this year. We’ve had just had a cold snap and boy, some days just mourning doves alone, there’d be 40 or 45 mourning doves besides everybody else, there’d be over 100 birds at a time visiting to drink—I keep water available as well—and to feed.
Nancy: That’s wonderful.
Margaret: Yeah, it’s fun. Makes it all make sense a little bit or something.
Nancy: Yeah. I love to watch them lining up, taking their turns at the bird bath [laughter].
Margaret: And the literal pecking order; some species are bossier than others [laughter].
Nancy: Yes. That’s true.
Margaret: Who’s in charge? Yeah. So as I said in the introduction, your recent post on Instagram is where I had originally seen it, but it’s on your website in more depth. It really caught my ear. And I want to first set the scene for those who may not have read it. And you start with: “My yard isn’t overgrown and neither is yours. In fact, if you’re like most Americans, I’d venture to say that it’s more likely undergrown.”
So how did this topic come up right now, and tell us a little more about what you wrote about in brief.
Nancy: Yeah. Well, I’ve been thinking about these kinds of words for a long time. And I think I reached my breaking point with the word overgrown when my sister was going through her HOA case, where they were coming after her for her pollinator garden [above], which she eventually managed to save and help get a state law passed.
Margaret: And so this was her homeowner’s association; other people complained, and this was a case in Maryland that became a test case, a really important case. Yes?
Nancy: Yeah. Yeah. Our state delegates in our county took it on, and drafted some legislation to prevent this from happening to other people living in HOAs, and it passed. So yeah, so it was a great way of making lemonade from lemons. But I think during that time, certainly a lot of the citations my sister had been getting called her garden “overgrown.” And whenever people contact us about citations they get either from their HOA or from weight inspection agencies, that’s typically one of these fighting words, I call them, that are used [laughter].
And so I just started to think about what is an alternative to that, in terms of how we can reframe this discussion, because it’s almost like people use it as a default. And as I noted in my article on my website, when “The New York Times” did their daily email digest that week that they wrote about Janet’s case about a year ago, the person writing the email described her that she won the fight to keep her overgrown garden or something like that. And he’d never seen it. He’d just probably given the article a cursory read. And it just struck me that it was a way that he had chosen to write his little teaser. And it’s not even the way that the reporter, Cara Buckley, who wrote the article, described her garden. But it’s just so embedded in our minds that a lawn is a “tidy and normal and pretty,” and that anything else is overgrown. So, yeah.
Margaret: Right. So it got me thinking, your post, both the Instagram and the longer one on the Humane Gardener website. It got me thinking really of how tricky the subject and the language around gardening has become. And you and I have talked about this offline a little bit, but I want to talk about it out loud a little bit, too. Especially in the last decade.
I’ve been gardening for probably 40ish years or something, and I’ve been writing about it for 30-something of those years, I guess. And the tension between our one-time image of a “garden”—which used to be taken or derived from the English pretty picture books. It was a place where control was a virtue, and it was all about a pretty picture-perfect place or scene that was created.
And then now fast-forward, we’ve learned so much more about the ecosystems and about creating habitat and the other things that we can do as gardeners besides make pretty pictures [laughter]. And not to say that we shouldn’t make pretty pictures. I am not saying it should be either/or. And that’s the thing.
And so now as you and I have talked about, if I write a story about something native in “The New York Times” garden column, or even on the blog, some of the people get mad because they want to know… They think it looks—the word they usually use is “messy” [laughter] and they don’t want something messy. And then if I write about non-native things that are what we used to call ornamental, then everybody gets mad who says, “But that’s not native. Why are you writing about it?” [Laughter.]
Nancy: Right, right.
Margaret: Sorry, that was long-winded. But you know what I mean, it’s this tension. And you’re right, the language, there’s a lot of triggering—to use a contemporary word—triggering language, too. [Below, a path in Nancy’s garden.]
Nancy: Yeah. Yeah. And when I posted that post last week on Facebook, there was a lot of response from people who were excited about maybe having a new way to talk about things with that word “undergrown.” One of the negative comments that I got was from a guy who was really upset that I didn’t provide substitute words.
And the whole point is that we don’t have to see everything always… We don’t have to label everything. We don’t have to see everything always in such black and white terms. And so for me, a substitute term is missing that whole point. It got me thinking about the fact that there are a lot of renaming campaigns now, like with renaming the Audubon Society, and renaming bird names.
Margaret: Yes, yes.
Nancy: And those, you do need a substitute. You do need another word for if you’re going to change the name of a bird who’s named after somebody from the 18th century, and you want to make it a more human-friendly and bird-friendly species name now.
But these other words, a lot of them that I was talking about in that post, are conceptual words. So you don’t need a substitute for an opossum, you don’t need to call that… If you’re calling that opossum a pest, well, he already has a name. He’s an opossum [laughter]. If you’re calling a violet a weed, well, the violet already has a name. The violet is a violet. And so it’s more about looking at how we categorically lump things together as either good or bad, and just trying to see if people can take a step back from that.
Margaret: Right. As I said, one of the other words that I’m often assaulted with is that looks “messy.” And I was thinking about, well, what do they mean messy? Do they mean kid of wildish or do they mean loose? Do they mean looser than formal? Do they mean naturalistic? Do they mean full, bountiful? Do you know what I mean? Could we free-associate a little bit [laughter], stop just slandering one another and yelling at each other?
Nancy: Yeah, exactly.
Margaret: That’s all. And I agree with you that we shouldn’t necessarily have to, because a violet is a violet, and opossum is an opossum. But the overall scene, as opposed to holding onto a picture that only one picture—a formal, rigid, well-mown and manicured to the Nth degree picture—is the only picture that’s O.K. Could we instead think about words like looser and naturalistic and full and bountiful? Could we think about those words as opposed to overgrown, messy [laughter]?
Nancy: Yeah. Yeah, for sure. Well, people who are using the word messy, they don’t even have the naturalistic vocabulary in their head though, do they?
Margaret: No, no, you’re right.
Nancy: They’re thinking straight lines, flat mode. So yeah, it’s like there’s the absence of it, and then there’s the abundant presence of it. And when people are thinking in those two extremes, those are the words they fall back on.
Margaret: Yeah. In your blog post, you made an interesting point, which is that you say, “If you have a turfgrass lawn on most of your property, your yard isn’t in fact, pristine. It’s undergrown.” And then you say, “If you or your lawn service company apply herbicides, insecticides, synthetic fertilizers, your yard is not immaculate. It’s contaminated.”
Margaret: Right? Either set of language, we can look at in a different way, and it’s not immaculate. There’s another story behind it, which is that we’ve killed off a lot of the life to make it behave that way. Yeah. We’ve subdued it. We’ve subdued thing…into submission, I mean. By that I mean into submission.
Nancy: Right. And it partly has to do with some of these things that if we’re only looking at what’s right in front of us and not considering the more hidden effects, then what people do see is something appealing, although I don’t know why that’s appealing to them, just a big expansive green grass [laughter], but it’s just what people are used to, I think. So there’s the sight problem, where they’re not thinking about things that could be out of their view, the consequences, but then there’s also thinking from the perspective of the other organisms, the other living beings who have to share that land and how they might see it or sense it in different ways.
Margaret: Which is so much what your second book, “Wildscape” is about, is listening and smelling and touching and tasting and so forth in behalf of all the creatures, really letting our doors of perceptions open up in their behalf.
So you say something else interesting in this blog post, which is that, over the years as you’ve explored these false dichotomies that have been set up language-wise, and you’ve asked scientists even, “Why do we say this? Why do we say that?” And one was “pest” versus “beneficial insect.” Tell us about that one. How did we end up doing that, setting them up as if there’s two sets of insects?
Nancy: Yeah. I was struck by that when I did my first Master Gardner training in 2005, and I had already been working at the Humane Society for a few years and was very aware of the damage that the words “pest” and “nuisance” can cause in relation to mammals in terms of people’s perceptions of them. And then I took this class and there’s whole sections of the manual on pest insects and beneficial insects, and the first question is, well, beneficial to whom, and pests to whom? Because there were a lot of insects in there that we know are actually beneficial to birds and other animals that were being labeled as pests.
And so I asked a couple of different entomologists when I did my first book, where that came from, and they were just like, “Well, it’s basically a marketing term, and it’s to try to get people to like some insects, but at least like some insects, and leave them alone.”
So there was a positive intent behind trying to come up with that word, beneficial. But I think it often makes people say, anytime they meet a new insect in their garden, “Oh my gosh, is this good or bad?” And it sets up that binary thinking right away [laughter]. And if they go look online, they might learn that it’s bad when it’s really not.
Margaret: Right. Well, where’s the line of… Yeah, where’s the line of demarcation, so to speak, if you have a black to white, a negative to positive, a continuum, where do you put the… Where’s the spot where you go over the edge?
With the “beneficial,” I get why they say it was a marketing thing, and it’s worked in the sense that otherwise, all the images I have of people are like that scene in the “Annie Hall” movie or whatever, where there’s a spider in the bathroom and she sends Woody Allen in to get it or whatever. But everyone is terrified of arthropods, insects and other arthropods… Well of most animals, frankly.
And so I guess I’m glad that they put a spin on some of them, but it has maybe backfired by this point, yes, yes, as well.
Nancy: And as we’re talking about it, I hadn’t really thought about this in this way before, but, so take it, for example, a caterpillar. There’s Golden… What are they called? Golden Guides that were printed?
Margaret: Yes. Sure, sure. Yes.
Nancy: Yeah. So when I was little, I would buy them at the grocery store [laughter]. I still have one called pests, and it has caterpillars in it, like butterfly caterpillars, and they’re in the pest book. And it’s not that people call them now beneficial either, but they don’t call them pests anymore because they know that they feed birds and they’ve-
Margaret: Yes, just because they bite holes in some of your plants doesn’t mean that they’re pests. The ones that destroy an entire native species of trees, for example, I think those deserve to remain in the pest category. Do you know what I mean? I think the hemlock woolly adelgid is a pest insect; it’s a little bit different kind of animal, but yeah.
Nancy: Yeah. Although the used to the word, though, I know what you’re saying, but I just think about the fact that, O.K., so where that animal is from, they’re not probably a pest [laughter].
Margaret: No, absolutely not. And that’s why I think when we speak about invasive or alien or whatever you want to call it, imported, however we want to speak about it, it’s important to understand that when it’s not in its natural habitat, it gets out of control. It’s not that it’s innately out of control, it’s that humans have transported into a place where it’s… Speaking of that pecking order that we’ve started about the birds [laughter], the order is not here, and they’re strangers in a strange land, and it’s gone to hell.
So you also talk about another really loaded and confusing word, which is “weed,” which is, yeah. I have clearweed and jewelweed, which clearweed, Pilea and jewelweed an Impatiens species, plants that I love, and lots of creatures here do, insects as well as in the case of the jewelweed, the hummingbirds. But their names, their common names have “weed” in them.
Nancy: And I can’t remember if we talked about this before, but when I first started gardening here, I ripped out jewelweed and pokeweed because of their names, and because I would see them listed as weeds, and I didn’t know any better. So it’s definitely harmful for sure to have them in their common names. And then over the years, it’s made me… I try not to use that word. I try to avoid it no matter what, because I think it’s so confusing to people. And so if I’m talking about something like a ground ivy or creeping Charlie, I’ll say a non-native that can push out natives and take over wildlife habitat. Now that’s a long thing to say, but at least it’s more precise.
Margaret: Yeah. I’m still back on the “non-native thug.” [Laughter.] My short version is “non-native thug” for some of those groundcovers that erroneously, we introduced. Again, a lot of them were introduced either accidentally or because we thought they were going to be good garden plants, and they’ve gotten out of control. So I think of them as non-native thugs. But same intention to what you said.
Nancy: Right. Right.
Margaret: So I assume that the reason that you wrote about it is that you want to talk about this out loud, right? This is an important conversation for us all to have rather than just condemn “overgrown yards” and think that’s going to get us anywhere. Yeah?
Nancy: Yeah. And I started doing talks on this vocabulary framework around 2013 or so, and before I wrote my first book, and then I used that framing as some of what I wrote about in there. But I realized I had never really put it all in one place. And so it’s been bothering me that I don’t have it written down like that somewhere. And also since then, I’ve added more words to my pet-peeve words [laughter]
And yeah, I do think we spent a lot of time in my sister’s HOA case dismantling some of those words, both at the hearings and in the newsletters to the community and stuff.
And I do think that when people start to think about it, some people get upset, but I didn’t hear from as many of those this time as I have on some of the other things I’ve posted. For the most part, even people who have a lot of lawn are saying, “Yeah, you really made me think about this,” or, “I’ve been wondering how to frame this.” So, I would like to be able to just see these words loosen up a little, if not totally go away, because that’s probably not realistic. Just at least try to have people talking in a more expansive way about the plants and animals around them.
Margaret: Yeah. So I feel like, again, I want to go outside—when the snow and ice melt [laughter]—and I want to free-associate about what I’m seeing. I want to think of the new… the different adjectives?
Nancy: Yeah. Yeah.
Margaret: Yeah. I feel like this is an exercise we could all do. With the giveaway for your book, what we’ll do is that the question that people have to answer in the comments to enter to win will be to free-associate about one of these words with us. So I’ll think about that, but-
Nancy: That’s a great idea.
Margaret: Yeah. So let’s get some help with this. Right? [Laughter.]
Margaret: So in the last minute or two, so what else is on your mind right now? It’s this, you wanted to get this down, and what else is top of mind right now?
Nancy: Yeah. Well, I have something in the works on color, and how our culture is so geared toward the neutrals [laughter], and the historical reasons for that. Because I’ve been reading some things about that, and I just think it’s really interesting how it might apply to our conventional landscape choices.
Margaret: Oh, not a subject I know anything about. Interesting. I have a lot of screaming gold stuff, so I’m maybe in the other end of the-
Nancy: [Laughter.] Yeah, I think you are.
Margaret: My house is dark green with reddish-orange trim, so I might be on the other end of the crazy…[laughter].
Nancy: Yeah, I love it.
Margaret: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I’m always glad to speak to you, and like I said, I was really glad to read this just because things have changed and sometimes, I’m not sure if I have my footing. I see the comments, like the ones you get sometimes, too, that you were speaking about. And I don’t know, am I missing something? And I want to open up and think more widely, and do a little of this free-associating and so it was provocative to me what you wrote, and I thank you for it.
Nancy: Thank you. Thank you so much for your interest. I love talking with you, Margaret.
(All photos from Nancy Lawson at The Humane Gardener.)
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What words instead of “overgrown” or “messy” would you suggest to describe a looser, native-heavy front yard, where mown lawn isn’t the main design element? Help us free-associate for some better words!
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 14th year in March 2023. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Jan. 29, 2024 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify (and browse my archive of podcasts here).