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Garden Design

Designing for entropy

Mary Gray

Mary Gray

November 2, 2013

“Just as the constant increase in entropy is the basic law of the universe, so it is the basic law of life to be ever more highly structured and to struggle against entropy. “ – Vaclav Havel. I think this photo of my side yard illustrates Havel’s point pretty well:

My side yard and my neighbor's

After I smothered the turf from my side yard (on the right) and began planting a slightly messy mix of shrubs, perennials and groundcovers, my neighbor promptly planted a soldier-straight row of crape myrtles and Japanese holly, butted right up against my plantings. Between the hollies there is a layer of mulch about ten inches thick, which he refreshes and fluffs regularly.

Clearly, my neighbor is trying to impose a bit of order where he perceives chaos. In my opinion, he is merely uptight and unimaginative, but Havel might claim that he is only being human in his “struggle against entropy.”

I guess this is what living in the suburbs is all about, right?

After all, the suburbs are populated with people engaged in an epic struggle to create and maintain order in their lives and landscapes. We fled the dirt, crime, and general mayhem of the cities, and now here we are out in the idyllic ‘burbs, with our very own green space! But alas, the earth – even when it’s carved into plots, fenced, and gated — has its own agenda. Left to their own devices, the weeds seed, the saplings establish, the vines crawl.

So for years we have mown and clipped our way back to a sense of order and well-being.
Except maybe not so much anymore.

Not everyone.

I think there is a small but growing minority whose preferred landscape aesthetic has shifted a little away from “order” and nudged toward “chaos.”

I think some people have realized that inviting a little chaos into their yards is not only good for the critters, but pleasing to the eye and nourishing for the soul. Perhaps, now that we are a couple of generations removed from those ancestors who struggled against nature to survive, we now feel an emptiness where that struggle once existed. And now, from a place of safety, we yearn to invite some of the wildness back in.

The question is, how much wildness to invite in, and how to manage it? We are only human after all; we will not thrive if we have kudzu clogging up our dryer vents. But surely we can we can embrace a bit more looseness, a bit more variety, and yes, even entropy out here in Suburbia without everyone freaking out all over the place.

“Designing for Entropy” may sound a bit paradoxical but I am hoping that is the wave of the future for landscape designers. How to design a landscape that allows for a little neglect without looking like the Clampetts?

We are still in the early phases of this transformation, but I do believe that more and more people are realizing how beautiful a little “chaos” can look.

I am sure that everyone who passes these two houses is struck by the difference:

two adjoining houses I see on my walk

I took a walk past these two houses yesterday.  The neighbor on the left was outside with his leafblower.  I could see the neighbor on the right through her big bay window.  She was eating a sandwich and looking outside, probably admiring the seedheads of her Miscanthus glowing in the afternoon sun.

miscanthus glowing in the afternoon sun

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