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Dr. Dirt
December 2016

The Landscape Gridiron

—  in which Dr. Dirt summons all the athletic support he can muster for a metaphor stretched to its limits

Landscaping is a lot like football. You have your playing field: The landscape, the client, and all the town/state/federal regs. You have your playbook, or design. You have your referees and field judges (DES, DMV, DOT, OSHA, etc.). You have your goals (increase net by 8%) and your field goals (get the walkway in by Friday, the wedding is Saturday). As landscape contractor, you’re both owner and manager, as well as marketing director and statistician. In smaller clubs you may play quarterback too, calling plays from the 6 am huddle to the 6 pm locker room rehash. And then there’s the whole team aspect, with halfbacks (crew leaders) and fullbacks (shop and office support), guards and tackles to protect the QB or decimate the competition, centers (those key players), linebackers (product people), special teams (irrigation, lighting, etc.), and perhaps a couple of tight ends (headed to rehab soon), and likely a punter or two (in the British usage, that is, total slackers).

But today’s lesson, class, focuses on the opposing line, in particular the opposing guards and tackles. These are the people or situations that can impede, stall or terminate any and all forward progress. Two examples from my own experience: 1) My work to establish a wildflower meadow at a local campus of higher learning ran up against and was terminated by a tiny group of guards who had a deep need for lawns and an aversion to messy meadows. They managed to rally an anti-bee-sting brigade (really!) to quash all incendiary wildflowers. So much for the pollinator workshop. And 2) at a college of lower learning in the upper Midwest, my efforts to increase the shrub layer of vegetation on campus was shouted down by cheerleaders of fear, who equated shrubs with hiding places for criminals. My attempts to prove that most all criminal acts on campus were occurring in dormitories and parking lots fell on deaf ears. I then tried to get actual statistics on crime sites from the local police force, but they would not release the information: “We don’t want to give the criminals any ideas.” My shrubs were blocked and tackled by a safety.

Shrubbery, it turns out, is a multiple threat. One grounds superintendent, a former senior master sergeant playing stalwart guard, once told me, and I quote, “Shrubs are bad, they just catch litter. With no shrubs, the litter blows right off campus to the mall across the street where it’s someone else’s problem.” Well, game over. Now admittedly, litter is a particular bugaboo with grounds and parks managers, and one of those things that can drive you nuts. Picking litter has no long-term gain, it’s just keeping up basic civilized appearances in the face of uncivilized behavior. It has to be done, but it’s a waste of good horticultural energy, and it’s demoralizing. Changing diapers is no fun, but it’s done for someone you love. Picking up litter is like changing diapers for someone you’ve never met.

If and when you succeed in getting a shrubbery planted, beware the hedge-trimmers, players who never quite got done with geometry in high school. Like Monty Python’s Knights Who Say Ni, these blockers have a deep-seated need to shear their shrubs to the nubbins. While it pleased the persnickety Knights, this is a disservice to the customer bordering on fraud (charging for services not needed), and a disservice to the plants, which want to express themselves and their genetic coding freely, which is presumably why they were planted in the first place. Turning an eastern hemlock into a meatball is do-able, but at a high cost to both client and plant.

Then there’s the outlandish landscape cost of automobiles. Our large metal carriages – often carrying one person – can be the ultimate blockers of projects. I’m reminded of Phil Caldwell’s recent spot-on rant against placing garage doors as the primary focal point of houses. This is plainly poor design. Taking a half-step back, the garage (now two- or three-bay) is there to hide cars. I see cars as a major blight in the landscape – litter, in a real sense. A fairly outrageous amount of time and energy is spent in trying (and often failing) to minimize the effects of cars on the landscape. In fact, cars often dictate the landscape: The number of parking spaces per retail square foot, the size and turning radius of an SUV or a semi-tractor delivery truck, the number of cars in a lot on the peak 0.3% of shopping days – all lead to enormous over-building of the paved litter catchments called parking lots. How many times have you heard, “Yes, that looks great, but I want the parking at the front door,” or “Yes, but we need more parking spaces. Let’s drop those planting islands.”

Another battalion of tackles leads the neat-and-tidy brigade. Now, I admit, there’s a place for a neat and tidy landscape, but not everyplace. I’d have thought that leaving lawn clippings – free fertilizer and organic mulch – was a no-brainer, but there are still a lot of brains out there hauling lawn clippings off-site. Ditto leaves, God’s own mulch. Mulching has worked well in the forest for millions of years, and it works in the lawn (mulching mowers), and it works in garden beds. Yet the guards of neat-and-tidy persist in leaf blowing, sucking, and hauling all those free nutrients and natural organics to the dump. From which they are purchased in the spring at prices steeper than good loam to provide mulch for the beds of the landscapes from which they were removed in the fall. Does anyone really think this is a good idea?

Similarly, anyone involved in lawn care has come up against the guards, tackles, and linebackers of the perfect lawn, who try to thwart any advance into modern lawn practice. A truly healthy lawn is not a monoculture of evenly spaced, deep green Kentucky Bluegrass, as promoted by those gargantuan linebackers, the seed and chemical corporations (increasingly, by the way, the same company). Rather, a healthy lawn is a soil creator and builder, a self-seeder, a deep-rooter, and as close to self-sustainable as a lawn can ever be (which is not much). Lawns are inherently high feeders on time, effort, and product. Better to consider alternatives that are much healthier and more diverse.

So in the off-season, gather your team for a reconfiguration of your game-plan. Think through the whole season, and consider the long game. Build a dynasty that will last more than the next season, based in sustainable, long-term practices. And form more cooperative relationships with the other teams, your competitors. We’re all in this game together, and ideally all on the same team on the planet. If and when we achieve this utopian unity, we can all just … play with ourselves! Go team!

— At Foosball, Dr. Dirt destroys John Hart, dba Environments, Durham, NH.

Dr. Dirt, a.k.a. John Hart